It is billed as one of the most popular modern operas after 60-plus productions have been staged since its initial show in 2013, and now it will make its Savannah debut.
One of the Savannah Voice Festival’s four operas in the sixth season program, Michael Ching’s “Speed Dating Tonight!” will open Aug. 17 at the Charles. H. Morris Center with a young cast built from the Milnes Voice Studio, one of the educational wings of the festival, named after co-founder and legendary baritone Sherrill Milnes.
Ching was recently named the Savannah Voice Festival’s composer-in-residence. He has premiered two original operas about Savannah with the company, “Alice Ryley” and “Anna Hunter, the Spirit of Savannah,” and returns this year with his flagship score.
“Speed Dating Tonight!” was a commissioned piece originally staged by the Janiec Opera at the Brevard Music Center. Centered around the perils and stereotypes of modern dating, the one-act opera, of which Ching was both composer and librettist, is a series of vignettes that will be staged using different local backdrops.
Divided into three sections, Ching composed the opera with flexibility in mind, allowing for a broader range of ensembles to perform it. The number of cast members and voice types can be completely altered to fit the company producing the show.
“It’s my most popular opera,” Ching said in an interview with Do Savannah.“This is about the 62nd production. That’s a lot of momentum for an opera to have that many productions in such a short time. It’s a very unusual piece because it’s written flexibly. It’s really an easy opera to put on. It’s ideal for a place like Savannah Voice Festival, which has a lot of young singers in it.”
“Speed Dating Tonight!” was written after one of Ching’s other operas failed to make an impression. He had written a serious score that didn’t connect with the audience and only saw a single production. After, he took a moment to look at his work and reevaluate. He made two notes that helped shape the way he would approach his next composition, the 11th of his career.
He remembered another opera he had written in the mid-1990s, which featured Savannah Voice Festival executive director and co-founder Maria Zouves. It was a comedy, “Buoso’s Ghost,”which was premiered by Opera Memphis, and he had written the libretto as well as the music. When Brevard approached him, he knew what formula he would use this time around. Ching knew it would be a comedy, where he wrote both the music and the words, the exact formula he would later use for both of his Savannah operas.
“Speed Dating Tonight!” has been performed by Amarillo Opera, Southern Utah University, Ithaca College, University of Central Florida, Microscopic Opera and Poor Richard’s Opera and been heralded as “the most performed American opera within a year of its premiere.”
When approaching a score, Ching calls on the great American tradition of composers like Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin for inspiration.
“I like writing in a variety of styles,” Ching said. “Bernstein is kind of a model for that. Gershwin was a model for that. I think that there’s an American style, that is eclectic. It’s influenced and not afraid to delve into things that include pop music. Not every composer works that way, but I certainly do. I don’t want the audience scratching their head. I would rather the audience get my work on the first go around.”
Ching’s relationship with SVF co-founders Milnes and Zouves goes back decades. He worked with Milnes at the Florida Grand Opera in Miami before working with Zouves in Memphis.
Through the festival, the three have become reacquainted and their working relationship has grown. With this production of “Speed Dating Tonight!” Ching will have a chance to work with the entire Milnes family, as their son Theo Milnes joins the cast.
“Our son, 18 years old, has a role in ‘Speed Dating,’” Zouves said. “He’s the bus boy and is making his operatic debut. Michael Ching handpicked him to do the bus boy. Theo is super excited.”