Charlotte's three largest performing-arts groups, hoping to produce something special as they recover from the recession, will join forces for their first time next March in a festival celebrating Russian composer Tchaikovsky.
The Charlotte Symphony, N.C. Dance Theatre and Opera Carolina hope "to make Charlotte absolutely hum with artistic activity," says Christopher Warren-Green, the orchestra's music director.
The monthlong festival's headline events will include "Sleeping Beauty," NCDT's first presentation of the fairy-tale ballet; Opera Carolina's first staging of a Russian opera, Tchaikovsky's drama "Eugene Onegin"; and two programs by the symphony. One symphony program, part of the Knight Sounds series aimed at new concertgoers, will interweave Tchaikovsky's music and life.
The recession, rather than hindering a joint effort, augured in favor of one, says James Meena, Opera Carolina's general director.
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"It may have been because of the recession and hardships," Meena says. "We recognized that we're stronger working together."
The groups were all hit during the downturn. Ticket sales and contributions slumped. So the groups had to cut payrolls and activities.
The financial outlook is improving, Meena says, especially at the box office. Opera Carolina has room in its budget to hire six NCDT dancers for the ballroom scenes in Tchaikovsky's opera. Leaders think this will be the first time the two companies have collaborated since the 1990s, when NCDT supplied two dancers for Verdi's "La Traviata."
All three groups hope the joint effort will enable them to draw in one another's audiences and bring in new people because of the magnitude of the festival. The collaboration could also appeal to donors, who have said they're "yearning for the arts organizations to do something like this - partner up and deliver something that's greater than the sum of its parts," says Jonathan Martin, the orchestra's executive director. Warren-Green says he wants festivals such as this to become annual affairs.
Along with the Tchaikovsky festival's main events, Meena says, the groups expect to offer concerts of Russian vocal and instrumental music. They envision a family day with folk dancing, food and other samples of Russian culture.
The impetus for the festival came from Opera Carolina's decision to stage "Eugene Onegin" in March 2012. With the company's finances starting to bounce back, its leaders decided to program something new. They picked "Onegin" - pronounced own-YEH-ghin, roughly - the story of a young man who comes to regret giving the cold shoulder to a woman who loves him.
"Because we've never done it," Meena says. "Because it's Tchaikovsky. Because the music is so beautiful."
Another factor: "Onegin" - and the Tchaikovsky festival - could appeal to the Charlotte area's growing community of Russian speakers, Meena says.
Their number has been estimated at 50,000 people in the metropolitan area, says James Kemper, chair of the committee that oversees Charlotte's sister-city relationship with Voronezh, Russia. Residents come not only from Russia, but from such republics as Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Reaching out to them is "a good opportunity for us to do some audience building," Meena says.
For the whole city
After Opera Carolina picked its Tchaikovsky opera, Meena went to the other groups with the idea of expanding it into a festival. They bought in.
N.C. Dance Theatre performs Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" every Christmastime. But "Sleeping Beauty" should have an appeal of its own, says NCDT artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux.
"It's the grand dame of ballet," Bonnefoux says, so it should attract classical-ballet lovers more than "Nutcracker." Because it's based on a beloved fairy tale, it should also appeal to children.
Even before Meena brought up Tchaikovsky, the symphony's Warren-Green had been pushing for collaborations since his hiring in 2009.
"My dream would be... to involve the entire city," Warren-Green says.
The groups plan to create study guides for literature or history classes, Meena says. Meena hopes the smaller-scale concerts can be offered free.
Fulfilling those ideas will take fundraising. The groups hope to raise about $100,000, Meena says, to pay for the educational programs, family day and smaller events.
With a year to go, Meena says, "We've got plenty of time to do this and do it right."