For many, the word opera evokes images of ornate costumes and talented vocalists singing to their tragic deaths. So it may surprise some to learn that Italian composer Giacomo Puccini ended his career with Gianni Schicchi, a farcical comedy. The libretto will make its way to the Island next week, when Wendy Taucher Dance Opera Theater stages a full production at Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs. The hour-long opera, Mr. Puccini’s only comedy, begins when a wealthy man, Buoso Donati, leaves his fortune to the church, instead of his family. Gianni Schicchi enters as a negotiator charged with the task of advising the family in the wake of Donati’s death. The show, produced in collaboration with Opera Noire of New York, stars Kenneth Overton as Gianni Schicchi and Robert Mack as tenor Rinuccio.
Opera Noire is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting black operatic singers. While Opera Noire has performed in concerts at the Union Chapel the past two summers, this is its first full-length opera on the Island. Ms. Taucher started raising money for the production in September. Auditions were held in June.
Ms. Taucher said the play is full of “lazzi,” or jokes.
“It’s a comedy, and it’s kind of goofy,” she said.
Ms. Taucher, former artistic director of the Yard, has been coming to Martha’s Vineyard for 14 years. She most recently directed Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for Mississippi Opera.
The cast is currently rehearsing in New York city, but on Monday they will begin staging the production at Featherstone. The show opens next Friday, August 3. Arthur Oliver, set designer, has prepared fanciful costumes, which Ms. Taucher affectionately calls “fantastical monstrosities.”
Though the Island is not known as a go-to place to hear opera, the cast is confident that exposure will help integrate it into the arts scene.
“I think there is an audience,” Ms. Taucher said. “I thought carefully about what opera to program. I understand the Vineyard summer audience . . . The singers are top quality and that’s a joy to behold.”
Mr. Mack, who first performed on the Island six years ago, said last year’s Opera Noire performance received a standing ovation.
“People were blown away,” he said. He hopes this summer’s staged opera will meet an even more enthusiastic crowd. “It’s all about bringing the right production. Every time I come to Island I meet people from all over the world. Just like there are people who come to the Island for book festivals, drama festivals and arts festivals, there are people who are looking for the opera just as well.”
Janinah Burnett, who plays Lauretta, the soprano love interest of one of the relatives left out of the will, has been singing professionally for ten years. Lauretta is a small but important role.
“She is pivotal because she is the reason he [Gianni Schicchi] decides to help the family.” Lauretta’s soprano aria O Mio Babbino Caro is one of Mr. Puccini’s most popular arias.
Mr. Mack is certain that audience members will be delighted by Puccini’s humor, from universal family antics to the comical dilemma of where to hide a dead body.
“[It is funny] from the moment it starts, to the moment it ends,” Mr. Mack said. Mr. Mack plays the tenor Rinuccio, a “petulant boy who is in love with Lauretta,” Mr. Mack said. “I want a better life so I can get married. I guess you would take him as this romantic guy.”
This is Opera Noire’s first collaboration with Wendy Taucher Dance Opera Theater. Opera Noire was founded by Kenneth Overton and Robert Mack seven years ago.
“I was encouraged by Benjamin Matthews, an African American operatic singer. I was telling him, I would love to see more African Americans in opera. He said, ‘it is up to you to make it happen,’ and I started to think, I can be responsible for that.”
The production will begin with a presentation of the Inspiration Award to Island arts patron Anne Gallagher. The award celebrates “a Martha’s Vineyard leader who has maintained an extraordinary commitment to Island arts and artists.”
Gianni Schicchi is performed on August 4 and August 5 at 7 p.m. Ticket costs range from $15 to $300. For information, call 646-872-7249, or visit www.ticketsmv.com.