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William & Mary professor brings opera to Williamsburg

Naama Zahavi-Ely, professor of Biblical Hebrew at William & Mary, is bringing her passion for opera to Williamsburg by producing a one-night performance of Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” at the Kimball Theatre on Oct. 26. 

Zahavi-Ely, who spends her summers in Tel Aviv, Israel, when not teaching at the College, attends every performance at the city’s International Vocal Arts Institute (IVAI).

IVAI performances purposely lack the extravagant sets and costuming of the Metropolitan Opera in New York; instead, they employ minimal sets and props to highlight the young performers’ talent. 

In 2011, after years of watching IVAI, Zahavi-Ely began to wonder if Williamsburg, too, could play host to first-rate opera.

She began crunching the numbers to see what it would take to bring a professional opera performance to Williamsburg, founding Opera in Williamsburg to help bring her vision into reality.

Zahavi-Ely had initial success by convincing an existing production of “The Telephone” to stop in Williamsburg for a matinee performance this May.

The upcoming performance of “The Elixir of Love,” however, is Zahavi-Ely’s first time assembling an entire cast and crew herself. 

“I’m a catalyst. I’m not a professional,” said Zahavi-Ely. “But I know professionals…I think it will be a win-win-win situation.”

In her view, the time and energy she invested in organizing the production will pay off, the up-and-coming professional performers starring in the production will use the experience to further their careers, and the people of Williamsburg will benefit from a world-class opera right in their neighborhood. 

If “The Elixir of Love” is successful, Zahavi-Ely intends to continue bringing opera to the Williamsburg community.

“I envision Opera in Williamsburg as offering two operas a year, and hopefully will be able to form a non-profit organization or work under the umbrella of one eventually,” she said.

Opera in Williamsburg also promises opportunities for students and faculty at William & Mary. A recent graduate from the College’s theatre program will be stage-managing the production, as was the case with this spring’s performance of “The Telephone.”

“I do not see students as being singers, but I can certainly see students as being supers and stagehands,” she said, “supers” being opera jargon for extras that have no speaking or singing roles, but are nonetheless a part of the action. 

To encourage student participation, Zahavi-Ely notes that there will be special prices for student tickets. 

“In the future…I can imagine it fitting into someone’s class,” she said. “The arts in the College are important, but they are not enough.”

Ultimately, Zahavi-Ely hopes to make opera a permanent part of Williamsburg’s artistic offerings. 

“I want people to give it a chance,” she said. “Once they see the quality that is possible to achieve, they’ll come again.”

Tickets to “The Elixir of Love” are $45 for adults, $40 for seniors, teachers/faculty and military, and $15 for students. For more information, visit Opera in Williamsburg’s Kickstarter page or contact Zahavi-Ely at nxzaha@wm.edu or 757-876-8204.

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