Opera MODO, the Princeton-based company that aims to create opportunities for young and emerging artists, brings Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi,” (“The Capulets and the Montagues”) to Princeton for performances on Friday, February 28, and Saturday, March 1, at All Saints Episcopal Church.
Executive director and founder of the company, Danielle Wright, 35, provides a snapshot of the organization in a telephone interview and by E-mail. A music teacher at Princeton Day School, Wright is a mezzo-soprano with a master’s degree from Westminster Choir College of Rider University. She made her main stage debut in 2010 with Des Moines Metro Opera and produced seven fully staged operas before christening Opera MODO in 2011.
“The things that a singer has to go through between finishing school and becoming professional!” Wright exclaims. “You need to get experience outside of academia. You want to get paid to sing. It’s not easy because people who pay singers want singers with experience. You start out by paying the people for whom you sing. You hope that people will notice you and pay you to perform.”
“Some of our singers right out of school can’t get auditions. Meanwhile, you don’t want your resume to suffer, and you want to grow as an artist. You want to do shows. After performing, it’s easier to get auditions. After auditions, you can proceed with pursuing a career.”
“I just auditioned for Virginia Opera Company, where there were 8 to 12 openings and 4,000 applicants. I got great feedback, personal contacts, and callbacks. But sopranos have the hardest time getting roles. There are so many of them.”
“I’m a young, dramatic mezzo; it’s a specific voice type. There are not too many roles. For financial reasons, an opera company needs to be able to use singers in many roles because of the bottom line. You must be able to play not only the role you auditioned for, but be useful to the company in other roles. Being on the opposite side with Opera MODO, I know the problem from both sides.”
“I did my first event in Houston, Texas, where I sang in the opera chorus. My roommate, a soprano, also wanted to perform. We did Menotti’s ‘The Medium.’ I like to do things out of the box. We did it in a place called Artspace in Houston. There were 150 people crammed into the space. We performers were elevated a little. It was very intimate, like sitting in the medium’s living room for seances.”
Wright moved from Houston to Princeton in 2007 to earn a master’s degree at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. Looking back on her three years at Westminster, she says, “There were too many people for the opportunities provided. Everybody at Westminster was talented, but they could not all be cast. The third year there I rekindled the graduate student association; it had been dormant for several years. I did what I normally do and put together a team of directors, mainly me. We heard more than 75 auditions over the weekend and cast 50 kids in 22 operatic scenes; 45 of them had never been in a Westminster production before. We put on a ‘Scenes’ program and the kids got some stage time.”
“By the time I started Opera MODO [in 2011] I had mounted 11 productions. I knew we had the talent in the area with Westminster alone. The first year and half we used mainly Westminster people — about 80 percent. Then we started using YAP Tracker.” YAP stands for Young Artist Program.
“I’m sure that hundreds of thousands of people use YAP Tracker. It’s a hosting site. Companies post auditions in this one location. When we used it for ‘Elisir d’Amore’ we got responses from Philadelphia, Manhattan, and central Jersey. YAP Tracker widened our net; we went from word of mouth to friend-of-a-friend.” The company name, she says, comes from an Italian phrase that denotes opportunity.
Three others join her in the company’s musical leadership. First is conductor Derrick Goff, a Westminster graduate and director of music at St. Thomas’ Church in Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania. Wright characterizes him as “a rising bel canto specialist as coach and conductor.”
Next is director Tom Colao, another Westminster graduate and director of music and organist at Princeton’s All Saints’ Church. “Colao,” says Wright, “knows how to get the best singing out of singers. He’s a singers’ conductor. I know them both from Westminster.”
Jared Judge, an alumnus of Penn State University and a music specialist in the South Brunswick School District, is head of the company’s orchestra. “Judge found us,” Wright says. “It was his idea to have high schoolers play with professionals in Orchestra MODO.”
“None of the three is getting paid,” Wright says. “They’re building resumes.” All three share the dilemma that faces emerging professional singers.
Until the spring of 2013 Wright footed the bill for all of Opera MODO’s expenses. However, she is no longer the sole backer of the company. West Windsor resident Sam Greco, who fell in love with the arts, especially music, when he grew up in Brooklyn, has become a patron. “I found Sam Greco through Princeton Friends of Opera,” Wright says. “He was enchanted with what I was doing. He came to see Opera MODO shows and thought, ‘This is amazing, doing such a great job of storytelling and singing, with no money.’”
George Goeke, friend of Greco, and, like him, an enthusiastic member of Princeton Friends of Opera, has been a model volunteer at Opera MODO. When Wright had to be out of town during this season’s “Faust,” Goeke ran ticket sales and set up refreshments in her stead.
Wright, an only child, was born in Houston, Texas. Her mother was a church musician. “My mom realized early that I could sing. By four I was singing at church with her. We would put on concerts together.” In middle school Wright played flute in the school band and sang in the school chorus.
Because of her father’s job as a project controls engineer for a company that worked by contract in various locations, the family moved frequently. “I grew up all over the south,” Wright says, “and went to 13 schools between kindergarten and eighth grade. When we got to Louisville I was in eighth grade and got into the Performing Arts High School.”
“Mom put her foot down,” Wright says. “She thought we didn’t need to travel as a family any more. She called all the artistic shots. I stayed in Louisville till the end of high school.”
“At the Performing Arts High School I was a musical theater kid. My voice had just started opening up. I had a good head voice. My teacher recommended investigating opera, listening and checking it out. My chief interest was telling stories. I decided that opera was the same as musical theater. I still do some musical theater roles. I still love musical theater, and I’ll sing it in a heartbeat.”
As an undergraduate, Wright attended the University of Kentucky in Lexington. After graduating she followed her voice teacher, Stephen King, to Houston, where he won an appointment at Rice University and became the voice teacher for the Houston Grand Opera Voice program.
“After several years in Houston, I felt that I needed more knowledge and training,” Wright says. “I thought I could get both at Westminster.” She studied with Laura Brooks Rice during her three years at the Choir College.
Wright continued adding to her performing resume while she earned her master’s degree from Westminster. While at the college, she made her international debut in Rome as Marcellina in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.”
Her repertoire ranges from Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” (1689) to Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” (1957). She has performed with orchestras in such oratorios as George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” and Mozart’s “Requiem.”
Wright lives in Hightstown with her cat. She is a sci-fi fan and loves robots and zombies. “My friends know about this. That’s how come I have a robot eyeglass holder.”
“Friends are really important to me. Between moving around so much and being an only child friends are like family to me. I work on relationships. They mean so much to me.”
Enterprising and energetic, Wright says, “I barely have enough time to manage my life.” No wonder: Opera MODO is a big project, still taking shape as an entity. “We want everybody to experience us,” she says. “We don’t aim at particular audiences. We aim at people who want to see a show to escape, or who want to be entertained with wonderful music and wonderful stories.” One of Wright’s main tasks at the moment is assembling a board.
Asked where she thinks Opera MODO will be in five or ten years, she replies, “I don’t know. As long as we’re still helping artists grow, that’s my hope for it.”
I Capuleti e I Montecchi, Opera MODO, All Saints Episcopal Church of Princeton, 16 All Saints Road, Princeton. Derrick Goff conducts. Kristin Gornstein sings the trouser (male) role of Romeo. Jessica Mary Murphy sings Giulietta. Proceeds will benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Friday, February 28, and Saturday, March 1, 7:30 p.m. $15 to $25.
Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), Friday and Saturday, May 9 and 10, 7:30 p.m. www.operamodo.com.