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Review: Audience chases ‘Anna Hunter’ opera through Davenport House

  • Savannah VOICE Festival co-founder and executive director Maria Zouves, center, portrays the title character in the original opera “Anna Hunter, The Spirit of Savannah,” at the Davenport House Museum. (Provided by Savannah VOICE Festival)

Review: Audience chases ‘Anna Hunter’ opera through Davenport House

07 Nov 2017

It’s hard to miss when you mix a true story and a beautiful score with a remarkably unique setting and world-class musicians.

In yet another unique staging presented by the Savannah VOICE Festival, the original opera “Anna Hunter, The Spirit of Savannah” debuted at the Davenport House Museum last weekend. In the second fully original opera presented by the company — the first being “Alice Ryley,” and both from the mind of the talented Michael Ching — patrons enjoyed a full immersion into the true story of how Savannah’s charming aesthetic came to be.

Anna Colquitt Hunter, a direct descendant of James Habersham, was one of the city’s first preservationists. Hunter, along with six other women, were founders of the Historic Savannah Foundation, which in the 1950s began saving Savannah’s history one house at a time via a revolving fund.

The Davenport House was the foundation’s first rescue, so it’s appropriate that the origin story of Hunter’s work takes place at the the house.

The beauty of performance art is you don’t really need a traditional stage to create an atmosphere worthy of a story. If the story is well written or composed, it will carry in any space. In the case of this opera, which is staged in multiple locations in the Davenport House, the space and the music work in a symbiotic relationship. It’s rather interesting and rare that an audience change locations, or in this case, chase the drama, during a performance.

This opera could have easily been staged in a single room of the Davenport House, but the producers chose instead to use the stages that are already in place. In fact, it seems as if the opera itself was written around the locations used.

Logistics can be a nightmare if you’re performing in a non-traditional setting. The professionals from the Savannah VOICE Festival have done a particularly wonderful job with the logistics here. The mini-orchestra hardly moved, and use of the space for various vocal highlights showed the company’s extensive experience.

Throughout the opera’s score, Ching drew upon a variety of influences. From classical opera to modern musical theater and even American roots music, Ching’s score represents a fascinating variety of musical liturgy. At the helm of the opera, Maria Zouves as Anna Hunter showcases a lifetime of operatic knowledge and experience in gorgeous, soaring arias as well as lighthearted pieces. Zouves revives Hunter with a bubbly but determined and strong spirit, which seems to be accurate to her profile.

The most notable aspect of the opera is the still-relevant conversation that sparked Hunter’s passion for preservation and eventually led to the founding of the Historic Savannah Foundation. Savannah has long wrestled with the intersection of progress and preservation — a storyline which plays a central role in the opera.

Even in the past five years, as our community has conversations (sometimes effective, sometimes not) concerning different neighborhoods and businesses in Savannah and what their future will be, the spirit of Hunter has continued on in voices longing to keep the historic charm of the city alive.

“Anna Hunter, The Spirit of Savannah” does a wonderful job confronting that important conversation in a constructive and meaningful manner, reminding us that the aesthetic of the city we all love would not be what it is today without forward-thinking minds like Hunter and her company of preservationists.