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Savannah ghost stars in new opera

"Alice Ryley" is first locally based, written, produced Savannah opera


October 27, 2015

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    To celebrate National Opera Week, which runs from Oct. 23–Nov. 2, the Savannah Voice Festival has teamed up with several area nonprofits, musical ensembles and businesses to commemorate the occasion with some unforgettable performances.
 
    Undoubtedly, the most sensational addition to the event line-up is the staging of a contemporary opera, specially commissioned by the Savannah Voice Festival and VOICExperience, which will see the return to the stage of world-renowned baritone and SVF co-founder Sherrill Milnes as “ghost tour guide” in his celebratory 80th birthday year and 50th anniversary of his debut at the Metropolitan Opera.
 
    Alice Ryley will debut during Halloween weekend, which is fitting given the opera’s deliverance of a woeful ghost story peppered with murder, passion and history. The show, which will premiere at Savannah’s historic Charles H. Morris Center, centers on the tragic story of Alice Ryley, an Irish indentured servant in the 1700s who, along with her lover, is accused of killing her master. 
 
    The production begins with a tongue-in-cheek introduction by Milnes, playing the part of tour guide and inviting the audience to climb aboard the touring trolley, which then travels back in time to Savannah's early days General Oglethorpe founded Georgia as a colony to protect the interests of the British against Spanish Catholics in Florida. 
 
    Setting an ominous and foreboding tone, the opera intertwines beautiful moments with haunting melodies to take form as a musical journey through the history of Savannah while telling the story of one of its most famous ghosts — who is believed by many to haunt Wright Square still, searching for the child she birthed while waiting her execution.
 
    The opera was penned by American composer and librettist Michael Ching and was inspired by the book Historic Haunts of Savannah, by Savannah-based authors Michael Harris and Linda Sickler. 
 
    In addition to Milnes, the show features several well-known and celebrated VOICE Festival Artists, including Jessica Best, Ashley Dannewitz, Ann Louise Glasser, James Wright and Cody Austin. Ching will conduct a chamber orchestra featuring members of Velvet Caravan, and the ensemble will feature members of the Savannah Philharmonic Chorus. 
 
    Savannah VOICE Festival co-founder Maria Zouves, Milnes’ wife and operatic soprano, will direct the production along with Joachim Schamberger, who was also an operatic tenor. 
 
    Ching commented, “Like Savannah, Alice Ryley has many layers: It is an accessible and enjoyable 55-minute performance that is very emotional. The tragedy of this young Irish woman, her lover and her baby is extremely moving. It also captures the political and socio-economic pressures of the early years of Savannah’s history, and the time I have spent in Savannah and the insights I have been privileged to share with the authors of Historic Haunts of Savannah and the VOICE Festival founders and faculty has been invaluable. Savannah deserves to have this great vocal tradition — which gives a platform to emerging talents in the singers — and we are committed to keep writing and performing opera to honor this unique historical city. We hope that our Alice Ryley opera becomes an enduring part of Savannah culture.”
 
    Adding to the production’s explosion of talent, the chorus will be comprised of a half-dozen members of the Savannah Philharmonic Chorus.
 
    “Few cities are able to lay claim to a world-renowned operatic talent, but as a result of the trails blazed by the Savannah VOICE Festival, our community can proudly demonstrate its ties to Sherrill Milnes and his VOICExperience organization. His willingness to direct and participate in area productions and events throughout the year — in addition to his own festival every August which is now in its fourth year — is an incredible honor for the Savannah arts community and a big draw for opera supporters and music lovers from the world over.” Visit Savannah President Joe Marinelli said. 
 
    The world premier will offer two shows on Friday, Oct. 30: one at 4 and one at 6 p.m., followed by a talkback after each performance with the cast, at The Charles H. Morris Center at Trustees Garden, 10 E. Broad St. in Savannah. Refreshments will be available for purchase at the door. General admission tickets are $53 each.
 
    For more information on Historic Haunts of Savannah, the book that serves as the basis and inspiration for Alice Ryley, visit www.facebook.com/historichauntsofsavannah.

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