A world premiere opera about real-life Savannahian Anna Colquitt Hunter will be presented by the Savannah VOICE Festival from Nov. 2-4.
The comedic ghost opera "Anna Hunter, The Spirit of Savannah" was written by SVF's composer-in-residence Michael Ching. The story of Savannah's preservation movement, it will be staged at the Davenport House Museum, where the movement started.
"I love her," says Maria Zouves, the co-founder and executive director of the Savannah VOICE Festival, who plays the role of Anna. "I think she's a dynamo. She represents so much about today's feminist and yet lived in a time when women actually had gloves in the glove compartment.
"She got married and had children. She lived on her own when her husband died at an early age. The fact that she went abroad, that she studied things, that she connected people through her influence is surprising.
"She didn't come from wealth," Zouves says. "She didn't live that way. She knew what it is to want, yet she knew how to live as a classy lady."
A live instrumental ensemble will accompany the singers, who will lead audience members throughout the house as they perform at 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Nov. 3 and 5 p.m. Nov. 4.
A performance with reduced instrumentation and the lead role sung by festival artist Kristin Schwecke will be at 2 p.m. Nov. 4, and an accessible performance will be presented for guests with limited mobility in the Davenport House's Kennedy Pharmacy at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 2.
To end the run of the "Anna Hunter" premiere, a patron performance will be at 7 p.m. Nov. 4 that includes a special meet the artists dinner and wine reception following the show.
A character to love
To say Zouves loves the character of Anna is an understatement.
"Anna was known to be a girl who loved a good party," Zouves says. "She was the belle of the ball.
"She came dressed as a bird in a gilded cage at the City Market farewell party, so she had a sense of humor. There's a lot of her I see in myself.
"The other thing is when I talk about Savannah, I get tears in my eyes," Zouves says. "Anna is very much a part of my feeling when I think about her and her love of the city."
Hunter and six other civic-minded women incorporated the Historic Savannah Foundation in 1955. They planned to raise money to buy the Davenport House and save it from demolition.
In 1963, the Davenport House was opened as a museum. Hunter became the first woman in Savannah to win the Oglethorpe Trophy, the city's top civic award.
"The final love aria is about Savannah, about how a love object can be a place," Zouves says. "That's what Michael Ching brought to the forefront."
The opera follows Louise, a young tour guide-in-training at the Davenport House. When she encounters a ghost, she believes the ghost is a museum guest who won't leave at closing time.
After knocking Louise on the head, the mysterious woman takes her on a journey through the history of the Davenport House and the preservation of Savannah. Louise discovers this woman is, in fact, the ghost of Anna Hunter, and is awed by the profound impact she had on the Savannah we know today.
Zouves was asked to take on the role by Ching, who wrote the opera with her in mind as Anna.
"Upon discovering Anna and learning about her life and many talents, I felt such a connection that I knew I had to take on this role as Anna Colquitt Hunter," Zouves says. "Michael Ching was a big influence on my decision, but I also saw what an amazing opportunity we had to highlight Anna's many accomplishments.
"Adding to that the ability to do this where the opera takes place, in the historic Davenport House, was an added incentive," Zouves says. "It was such an important place to Anna."
Others in the production are Emily Righter as Louise, Jeffrey Martin as Mr. Progress, Melanie Campbell as Quortina, Shana Grossman as Sarah Davenport, Sean Christensen as Isaiah Davenport, Legera Danielides as Lucy Barrow McIntire, Abigail Martin as Katherine "Kass" Judkins Clark and Angela De Venuto as Jane Adair Wright.
Zouve's understudy, Kristin Schwecke, will present one performance on Nov. 2. Kisma Jordan, the winner of the American Traditions Competition's Milnes Opera Award, will act as the understudy for Quortina and will participate in the ensemble with Ching, Lorraine Jones, Scott Moore and Marc Chesanow playing the piano, flute, violin and bass. Students from Savannah Arts Academy will perform the roles of callers at City Market.
Theater, history meet
"We are so grateful that the Davenport House Museum and Historic Savannah Foundation have been so open to this idea and instrumental in the process of bringing this opera to life," Zouves says.
Coinciding with the world premiere of the opera is the release of the book "Restoring Lost Times: Savannah's Anna Colquitt Hunter," written by A. Louise Staman. While writing totally separate works, Staman and Ching did share research and ideas, and Staman will appear at performances to sign and sell copies of her book.
"People should not think of this as a night of opera," Zouves says. "They should think of it as a theater experience, a historic experience.
"The Davenport House and their participation has been amazing. They've become like family to us.
"People should go because it's a wonderful hour in their evening, to have an emotional experience, from laughter to tears," she says. "It's theater, a fun, interactive experience where you're not asked to do anything but follow the story."
Ching was in Savannah in August to do a workshop of the show.
"We start in the back courtyard," he says. "The second scene, we go in the gift shop, and the rest of the opera is going to be in the parlor upstairs."
"Alice Ryley" premiered in Savannah in 2015 and Ching started work on "Anna Hunter" soon after.
"'Alice' is so sad. Even though Anna Hunter is not a ghost, she seemed like one of those subjects whose songs need to be sung.
"Anna seemed to have all the tools and all the skills at the time," he says. "I'm really pleased that I'm bringing her to Savannah's attention again."
House is a character, too
The enthusiasm of the Davenport House staff has been greatly appreciated, Ching says.
"It's been a really great relationship," he says. "They could have said, 'No way will we let you in this house.' They've been so helpful.
"Early on in working on the project, I took the tour without letting anyone know who I was," Ching says. "The house is definitely a character in the show."
Jamie Credle, director of the Davenport House, has a part in the production.
"It's a little teeny part," she says, but Credle is thrilled that the opera is set at the Davenport House.
"It's been an amazing thing," she says. "It's presented by world-class opera singers. What could be better than that?"
IF YOU GO
What: "Anna Hunter, The Spirit of Savannah"
When: Nov. 2-4
Where: Davenport House Museum, 324 E. State St., or Kennedy Pharmacy, 323 E. Broughton St.
Also: Author A. Louise Staman will sign her new book "Restoring Lost Times: Savannah's Anna Colquitt Hunter" from 5-7 p.m. Oct. 30 at the Davenport House. Savannah VOICE Festival singers will also preview new music from "Anna Hunter, The Spirit of Savannah." The event is free and books will be for sale for $29.95. Info at alouisestaman.com.
Program for guests with limited mobility: 6:30 p.m. Nov. 2 at Kennedy Pharmacy, $37.50
Shows with live instrumental ensemble: 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Nov. 3, 5 p.m. Nov. 4, $42.50
Reduced instrumentation performance: 2 p.m. Nov. 4, $37.50
Patron performance: 7 p.m. Nov. 4, $75, includes meet the artists dinner and wine reception
Find out more about author A. Louise Staman and Savannah VOICE Festival's Maria Zouves in the Savannah Morning News Arts & Culture section on Oct. 29.