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SUITE SOUNDS: Harlem Opera Theater + Faison Firehouse Theater

Alicia Hall Moran | 5/25/2011, 9:23 a.m.

Warren George Rock Wilson, one of the most accomplished musicians in our classical music community, passed away on May 9, 2011, at the age of 76. A pianist, conductor and collaborator of the highest order, Wilson was also a beloved family member, friend and confidante to many.

Wilson coached me through every major classical recital I've ever given. Sometimes he accompanied, sometimes he only guided from the wings. Next week's column will focus on his superlative role as a mentor.

This week, I continue the legacy of Raoul Abdul, the long-time classical music columnist whose "Reading the Score" printed, rain or shine.

Let's talk Harlem Opera Theater, directed by conductor-pianist Gregory Hopkins, and Faison Firehouse Theater, led by theater icon George Faison! Happily, these two institutions are joining forces to bring us a new Opera Series at the Firehouse (6 Hancock Place, near West 124th Street). The first program was Saturday, May 14.

Soprano Jeryl Cunningham-Fleming, a native New Yorker, lit up the stage. In a spectacular "Der Holle Rache," Cunningham-Fleming showed fit and fearless coloratura technique and a lean soprano upon which she poured a fuller romantic sauce when needed for the Luisa Miller trio "Padre...riveci...l'estremo...addio." Her voice flowered at her command and fell effortlessly in line for advanced vocal moments like one drop-dead messa di voce, also in the trio.

There was a Mozart duet with Barry L. Robinson, a handsome baritone with the sort of intellectual precision to his characterizations one needs in that repertoire. Robinson's round, beautiful singing wasn't undermined at all by the endless grimacing required for "Esci omai garzon malnato" in "Le nozze di Figaro." And his accuracy gave Cunningham-Fleming the appropriate support for her own whinnying and supplication. As was explained to the audience, this aria plays upon that trope of the suspicious husband with the woman gaming her way out of a sticky situation. The audience was buying.

The always-strong playing of pianist Robert Wilson added enormously. Wilson's playing always evokes the classical era proper. His fingers' relationship to the keys suggests a sensitivity on the skin level that I find most gratifying in pianists. At his command he has many different colors and strokes for the keys. As a fan of Hopkins' playing, I noted his choice to use Wilson. Hopefully, as the Opera Series develops, there will be more funds dedicated to the (lackluster) instrument itself. The player was superb.

The third singer, La Fredrick Coaxner, a tenor, was enthusiastically applauded for "E lucevan le stelle" of Puccini's "Tosca." Coaxner excelled in one of the particular strengths of Harlem Opera Theater: knowing what you are singing about and delivering the vision. Indeed, from beginning to end of the brief program, each singer spoke with knowledge and candor about their intentions within their arias (when it's generally easier to just speak with reverence and awe about the composers).

An unexpected treat was an interlude by the Flute Choir of the Harlem School of the Arts, directed by Bernard Phillips with formality, strength and care. The ensemble launched into the "Flower Duet," a hit from the opera "Lakme." The arrangement was sensational and the students ebbed and flowed melodiously on piccolo (Madeline King), flute (Cai Johnson, Salena Lawrence, Kimani Emanuel, Christine Dookie), alto flute (Maguette Ndiaye, Sasha Ruiz) and bass flute (Toberu Jaiyesimi).

Bach sonatas performed with focus and gravity by Cai Johnson and Salena Lawrence, with Robert Wilson accompanying, showed well the depth of the students' commitment.

Future offerings include a screening of "When I Rise," the riveting documentary on the historical career of the grand mezzo-soprano Barbara Conrad. A concert of music hosted by Conrad will immediately follow!

Friday, September 16 is the premiere of "Truth," a new opera by Paula M. Kimper and Talaya Delaney about Sojourner Truth. Evelyn Harris, formerly of Sweet Honey In The Rock, stars.