A new voice heading Connecticut Lyric Opera
Mystic — In Jurate Svedaite Waller's home, the grand piano sits center stage in the living room, an appropriate touch in a life full of music.
Waller, just named executive director of the Connecticut Lyric Opera, succeeding Matthew Burry, has been involved with music all her life, from a girl in Lithuania to stages in Italy, Colombia and beyond as one of the leading operatic sopranos in the state.
She won't be on stage, but she will still play a leading role in the upcoming English-language production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 2 at the Garde Arts Center, helping coordinate all the performance details.
"The company needed somebody — somebody who loves the company," said Waller, an adjunct associate professor at Connecticut College who is also known by her performance name Jurate Svedaite.
And Waller, along with husband John Waller (the company's first executive director) and artistic director Adrian Sylveen, have nurtured Connecticut Lyric Opera from its beginnings 14 years ago, so it made sense that she would finally step into the organization's lead role.
Local opera stagings with Waller in a featured role began quietly with productions in 2001 and 2002 of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" at the Thames Valley Music School, where Waller still teaches voice lessons. But when conductor Sylveen heard Waller's voice, he expressed an interest in putting on an opera and perhaps forming a company in which she would take a leading part.
They started intending to do just one show, a production of "Carmen," which they miraculously pulled off in a very cramped space at the First Congregational Church on State Street. The production was so successful that they carried on with the "Barber of Seville" and decided to pursue nonprofit status, developing a loyal following.
"It's been a labor of love," Waller said. "Our budget is pretty limited. ... But we figure if we have good singers and great music, people will forget about the things we don't have."
Connecticut Lyric Opera doesn't spend a lot of money on costumes and lavish sets, for instance.
"When we step on stage, it's almost like being in a black-box theater," she said. "The singers are completely exposed, so the voice has to tell the story."
But the opera company also probably boasts one of the best musical ensembles in the state, the Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra. Led by Sylveen, many of the players are trained at the Yale School of Music in New Haven.
"They are absolutely amazing players," Waller said. "It's a huge asset."
Still, it's been hard to raise money, especially since 2008, when the economy went south and Waller estimates financial support was cut in half, "if not more."
"Our relationship with the orchestra allows things to happen," Waller said. "We help each other out."
What started as small-scale productions in a couple venues have slowly evolved into more elaborate productions that this year will be held in four spaces, including the Garde and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. The opera company also performs regularly in Middletown and New Britain.
In addition, the Connecticut Lyric Opera for the past three summers has been featured in productions held in Tuscany, Italy, that are being done in partnership with the Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra and the Greve Opera Academy and Music Festival. Next year, productions of "Aida" (to be performed locally in May) and "Carmen" will be presented at the festival by both Connecticut and international singers, some of whom likely will go on to appear locally.
The company also has been working with the Holguin Lyric Theater in Cuba to bring Cuban artists to the United States in a collaboration that includes the Connecticut College Music Department.
"Unfortunately, that got a little bit delayed due to the diplomatic difficulties between our two countries, but we are not losing hope," Waller said.
Another project in April will feature Connecticut Lyric Opera performing "The Emperor of Atlantic" by Viktor Ullman in Israel with the Tel-Aviv Chamber Orchestra and locally with its own ensemble tentatively scheduled in March, thanks to the support of the Garde and local Jewish federations. Several performances in Israel in conjunction with Holocaust Remembrance Day will note that the opera was written during World War II at a Nazi concentration camp.
Separately, Waller has begun to branch out from performing exclusively with Connecticut Lyric Opera, earlier this year performing the part of Desdemona in Puccini's "Otello" with the ProLyric de Medellin in Colombia.
The whirl of activity doesn't seem to faze Waller, daughter of two physicists and granddaughter of Jonas Svedas, perhaps the most famous Lithuanian composer of his generation and founder of Lietuva, a Lithuanian song and dance ensemble that still travels the world today.
Her grandmother, Zofia Wernicka, was a prima ballerina for the Warsaw Ballet until the German army invaded Poland, Waller said.
"I heard music all the time," she recalled of her childhood.
Eventually, she joined a girls' choir and became a soloist, spending her young life listening to records and going to the theater every week.
"I couldn't see myself as anything else but a singer," she said.
An only child, she eventually went to a music conservatory. She met her future husband, an American businessman and amateur musician, during a chance encounter in Lithuania a quarter century ago when he needed help with translation, and they married a month later.
Six years later, the Wallers moved to the United States, but she was facing health issues that she said cost her at least a decade of her career.
"I actually died on the operating table once," she said.
Waller had been performing a voice exam at the Lithuanian Music and Theater Academy when she suddenly suffered a ruptured spleen. Seventeen hours and three hospitals later, the correct diagnosis was finally made, but by then she had lost so much blood, three to four liters, that she needed fresh units to replace it (otherwise her body would have rejected the transfusion).
"Lucky for me, my uncle was a deputy defense minister of Lithuania at that time and he was able, on a moment's notice, to organize and send to the hospital soldiers from the Iron Wolf Brigade with my blood type," she recalled. "My friends, my professors, my family - everyone was donating their blood. ... If not for my mom and my husband John I would not be here today."
But the outfall of the drastic measures required to bring Waller back to life led to a myriad of health issues that continued for a decade.
Finally feeling healthy, she has tried to make up for lost time, fighting through shyness to reconnect with the musical career she had put on hold for so long. She believes her near-death experience has refocused her energy.
"When people make excuses, that doesn't really enter my mind," she said with an accent still tinged by her Lithuanian roots.
Her focus today is on building a broader audience for opera. And that means trying to reach out to younger audiences at local schools who don't see opera as cool, partly because they've never experienced a live performance.
Waller is also reaching out in other ways, planning to offer house parties for those who want to hold fundraisers for Connecticut Lyric Opera. But she said such events, usually involving 30 to 50 people, are more about spreading the word about opera than about raising funds.
Acknowledging an aging audience for opera locally, she wants to find converts and spread the word on social media and elsewhere, especially after the company's performance last spring of "Tosca" at the Garde attracted just under 250 people.
"Opera is a really accessible art," she said. "It's a wonderful art form, with visual sets, acting, singing and orchestral music."
Opera, Waller noted, is a different kind of singing, but when kids hear it live, they are very impressed with the ability of singers to project their voices.
"They are completely mesmerized," she said. "'How do you sing so loud? How do you sing so high?' they ask. They're used to processed sound. We don't have amplifiers."
The human voice heard live, she said, evokes emotions not available to those who count on amplification, which naturally distorts sound.
"Live music doesn't have to be perfect, but it does have to mean something," Waller said. "It's better to sing a meaningful note than a beautiful note."
IF YOU GO
What: "The Magic Flute" by Connecticut Lyric Opera
Featuring: Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra
When: 6 p.m. Dec. 2
Where: Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London
Phone: (860) 444-7373
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