Arts & Culture

Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre teams up with native star to launch virtual series

Janara Kellerman to sing aria from 'Carmen' for Iowa audience, from New York City

Janara Kellerman, a mezzo-soprano opera singer, is a Cedar Rapids native who now lives in the New York City area. She wi
Janara Kellerman, a mezzo-soprano opera singer, is a Cedar Rapids native who now lives in the New York City area. She will launch the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s new digital 2nd Thursday Series this week, opening with “Habanera” from Bizet’s “Carmen.” (Submitted photo)
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Singing from an apartment window to people gathering down below isn’t Janara Kellerman’s usual venue.

But in old-school European style, she had a grand time doing just that for part of her “Italian Arias” virtual performance airing this week, to launch Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s 2nd Thursday Series.

The concert will stream free of charge at 7 p.m. Thursday on the opera theater’s YouTube channel and subsequently on its website, Cropera.org/

The monthly series will continue the same time and channels through May, offering a variety of programming. Oct. 8 features “Songs of Isolation and Connection,” starring the opera theater’s Young Artists Christina Adams, Ashley Armstrong, Eric Smedsrud, Max Zander and Karina Glasinovic. Nov. 12 takes a different twist, with a live interactive event, “Opera Trivia Live.”

Daniel Kleinknecht, the opera theater’s founder and artistic director, credits executive director Lori Lane and volunteer graphic designer Lori Rathje with dreaming up the series.

Kleinknecht, of Coralville, turned to Kellerman, a Cedar Rapids native, to launch it all from New York City, where he also has an apartment.

“She has the voice and she has the power of delivery,” said Kleinknecht, who is accompanying Kellerman on the piano. “And for this particular performance, it required her to sing from my window, out to 88th Street.”

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(She also sang at another location, but Kleinknecht wants to save that surprise for the video viewing.)

Since the two would be inside together, rehearsing and performing, both were tested for COVID-19, and came up negative. Kleinknecht invited a few people from the neighborhood, then opened the window to this new style of presentation for the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre.

Daniel Chamberlin, a Minnesota native now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., handled the camera work. Recommended by an opera theater board member, Kleinknecht said “he ended up being remarkable.”

“His eye is exceptional. What he is able to capture with the cameras just makes what we’ve done much more charming. He interweaves with the audience and with the background — both inside the apartment and outside in the street. It’s quite a skill, and he really brings really brings something special to this,” Kleinknecht said.

He’s singing Kellerman’s praise, as well.

“She just has this way to communicate,” he said. “She pulled it off like I knew she would.”

Most recently seen as Mamma Lucia in “Cavalleria rusticana” in 2017, Kellerman starred in the title role in “Carmen” in 2014, realizing her long-held dream of performing on the Paramount Theatre stage.

Now 45 and living in Edgewater, N.J., just across the river from Manhattan, Kellerman has performed on stages around the world, but coming home always is special, she said. The bonus is getting to visit her mother, Jeanette Kellerman.

And even though “Carmen” was penned by French composer Georges Bizet and is sung in French, Kellerman and Kleinknecht agreed the signature aria “Habanera” was the way to start the concert. It ends with another well-known aria, “Una voce poco fa,” from “The Barber of Seville,” and tucked in-between are a selection of Italian arias.

When Kleinknecht floated the project to her in early May, Kellerman was “thrilled.”

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“For opera singers, this has been just the most treacherous time, because performing is our lifeblood. That’s what motivates us — performing for people and an audience, and collaboration — that’s all we know. So when we weren’t able to do that for a while, news kept coming in of canceled contracts and postponed contracts. It was very dark,” she said. “And when Daniel said I’d have this opportunity to put a concert on in the city, I was ecstatic. Just to be able to get up and sing for people again — it was amazing.”

Kleinknecht will return to New York in October to record another program with Quasqueton native Chris Carr, a tenor most recently seen as Beppe in the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s production of “Pagliacci” in 2017. Kleinknecht will accompany him in Schumann’s “Dichterliebe,” a set of 16 art songs for piano and voice.

The opera theater has had to put so much on hold since mid-March, when the pandemic hit Iowa. And yet, expenses continue for the office space and the one full-time employee. It’s a situation that can’t be planned for, Kleinknecht said.

The biggest challenge has been “just facing the unknown,” he said. “We all can make a decision and then that can change direction at the drop of a hat. It’s impossible to know the future, and I think we’re just trying to survive and stay with it. Sometimes that means taking a step back and sometimes being silent is the best thing. Not overdoing. Following the science is important, and not forcing ourselves to do things that are dangerous.”

Kellerman has been using this time to reconnect with nature, hiking, kayaking and even just recently, going to the beach for the first time this summer.

“This has been a time of great personal growth for me, because I have the time to do it,” she said.

With all of these unchartered waters, she hopes viewers will embrace this new virtual artistic path now and in the future, even after live performances resume.

“The thing that’s come out with a lot of these online performances are things that normally would not have happened if the season had been a normal season,” she said.

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“It’s a different way to learn about and view and hear the great music we have at our fingertips. It’s just a different perspective on performing these songs and arias, and a different way to get to know the artists. You get to hear up-close and personal with the artists who are singing. It’s just a different approach to live performance.

“I hope it makes people feel hope and joy. That’s why we do it — to bring people hope, joy, peace, love — all good things.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

At a glance

• What: Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s new 2nd Thursday Series: “Italian Arias”

• Who: Janara Kellerman, mezzo-soprano; Daniel Kleinknecht, piano

• When: 7 p.m. Thursday

• Where: Youtube.com/cedarrapidsopera with subsequent viewing at Cropera.org

• Cost: Free

• Details: Cropera.org/italian-arias

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