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Datebook: Prairie Fire Theatre Invites Community To Give Opera A Try

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Prairie Fire Theatre
Artistic Director Bob Mangialardi, left of center, and the cast of Prairie Fire Theatre's 2019 production of "HMS Pinafore."

Musical theater fans are no doubt eager for the return of live performances.

In the meantime, Prairie Fire Theatre Artistic Director Bob Mangialardi suggests Bloomington-Normal residents give opera a try.

The nonprofit theater company will be live and in-person for "Opera Under the Stars" at 7:30 p.m. June 29 and 30 at the Connie Link Amphitheatre in Normal.

The performers of Prairie Fire Theatre are well versed in both music theater and opera, but Mangialardi knows that for general audiences, especially in Bloomington-Normal, opera is a harder sell.

“Our community seems to like opera, but not like it likes music theater,” he said.

So, for the group’s first live performance in nearly two years, Mangialardi has assembled a widely-palatable lineup of pieces from Mozart to Bernstein.

“We don’t have a lot of real esoteric pieces or super, super heavy pieces or obscure pieces; we wanted things that probably (the audience would) know,” Mangialardi said. “And we have a few pieces that we want the audience to sing along with us.”

Soprano Grace Henderson will be performing selections from Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II. She said the piece “Adele’s Laughing Song” is a good example of the lighter side of opera.

“(Adele) is actually a housemaid, and she is at a party pretending to be an actress with a bunch of people who are also portraying people they are not,” said Henderson. Rather than fret, Adele laughs her way through the scene. “Which I love, because I spend most of my days laughing, so it’s appropriate for me to sing, I think,” said Henderson.

And, while Mozart may seem highbrow, Henderson insists the pieces Mangialardi has selected have all the fun and energy of a Broadway show.

“They’re entertaining; just like musical theater is upbeat and has a lot of movement to it, these pieces have that as well, but just in a different style,” she said.

For Henderson, you really can’t appreciate one without appreciating the other.

“Really the history of musical theater is opera,” she said. “I love exploring these composers like Strauss and Mozart, composers whose music has stood the test of time all over the world, and also these more contemporary composers like Bernstein, and they came out of the music of opera. Those are their roots, that’s their inspiration, and so I think it’s really important to dive into that.”

That’s all well and good for music buffs like Henderson. But what about younger audiences?

Henderson’s own performing arts career proves it’s never too early to get acquainted with the classics.

“My very first show I was ever in, I was 3 years old, and it was 'Babes in Toyland,'” she said. “It was kind of my first exposure to professional theater as I grew up.”

After studying vocal performance at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Henderson now teacher vocal performance in Bloomington-Normal.

In fact, she said, she’ll be telling all of her students —ranging in age from 6 to 14 years of age — to attend the show.

“I think it is wonderful for children to be exposed at a young age to the arts,” Henderson said. “The more exposure they get to that at a young age, the more familiar they are with it, the more they’ll like it and enjoy it.”

Mangialardi said the new venue makes it a little easier to bring the kids along, too.

“Bring a blanket, bring something to drink and eat — it’s like a mini Ravinia,” he said.

The choice to make the theater's post-lockdown debut at the Connie Link Ampitheatre was one of necessity, but could lead to other opportunities, Mangialardi said.

"We didn’t know exactly when we were planning this where we’d be in terms of (COVID-19) cases, so we just thought a safe way to do this would be to do it outside," he said. "But if it’s successful, if people seem to like it and the performers like it, I think the Town of Normal might have us come back and do it again."

Both performances of Prairie Fire Theatre's "Opera Under The Stars" are free, though donations are welcome to support the theater.

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