Opera training program moves from Belgium to Portland

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PORTLAND — The Intermezzo Foundation is seeking a new permanent home and Mitch Piper thinks Portland just may be the place.

“I used to vacation up here with my family and I always thought, god, Portland is great,” said Piper, who runs the opera training program, Intermezzo, which offers young musicians the opportunity to train with world-renown opera professionals.

For the past few years of its 10-year existence, the four-week Intermezzo Festival has operated in Brugge, Belgium. Students from all over the world travel to participate in the festival, take master classes with famous opera singers, work with the festival orchestra to perform a wide variety of musicals and operas, and take daily vocal lessons, dance and staging classes.

However, with the economic challenges many people are facing, Piper said the festival started looking to move back to the United States, where it could reduce travel costs for many of the participants.

So Piper sent an e-mail to the Portland mayor’s office.

“Within six hours, I got a call from (business development representative) Nelle Hanig,” he said. “We really saw eye to eye. They really liked the story of what we do.”

Hanig said as soon as she heard about the program, she did what she could to convince Intermezzo to come to Portland.

“This just seemed like a wonderful opportunity for Portland,” she said. “I thought it was very consistent with the creative city, with the interest here in growing the creative economy.”

Hanig helped Intermezzo gain access to classrooms at Portland High School, and get in touch with the operators of the PortCity Music Hall and Merrill Auditorium to book performance space.

“Between the teachers, staff and students, there will be more than 100 people coming to the city for this program. They’re staying at hotels, purchasing food here, shopping in our stores,” Hanig said. “And they’re bringing young people to the city. It’s just a wonderful addition to the Portland creative economy.”

Two weeks ago, 50 young opera students arrived in Portland, some from as far away as South America and China, and began working on their art.

But it isn’t just the students who will reap the benefits of this program. There are more than a dozen performances of a variety of different genres, including the Stephen Sondheim favorite “Into the Woods,” Benjamin Britten’s operas “Albert Herring” and the “Turn of the Screw,” and a number of cabaret evenings at the PortCity Music Hall.

The festival is even bringing Broadway star Craig Shulman to Merrill Auditorium for a performance on July 10. Schulman is the only actor to have performed the roles of The Phantom in “The Phantom of the Opera,” Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables,” and the title roles in “Jekyll & Hyde.”

A full list of performances and ticket prices can be found on the organization’s website, intermezzofoundation.org.

Most kids graduate from college having been in one main-stage performance, Piper said. But Intermezzo gives them the opportunity to perform several main-stage shows, as well as cabaret shows, which are a great opportunity to learn the popular works they will likely perform later in their careers.

“This is the kind of thing you can’t get in college,” he said. “We help propel them into their professional careers.”

And, once they’re ready, Intermezzo also has a talent management agency that represents young vocalists as they work toward their professional careers.

This summer is the test to see if the Intermezzo Festival will remain in Portland. Piper said if the public turns out for the performances and the program is supported by the community, the festival will likely stay in the city.

“We’re really hoping for attendance,” he said. “That will speak highly for the support we need.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net

Sidebar Elements

Intermezzo student Dmitri Ribero, left, rehearses with conductor Chris Crans and director Eric Dillner for his role as Sid in the comic opera “Albert Herring” by Benjamin Britten. Ribero, who is from South America, is in Portland for the summer for the Intermezzo Festival, a four-week training festival that helps college graduates prepare for professional careers in opera. The festival moved to Portland from Brugge, Belgium, and hopes to make the city its permanent home.