Meet: Brendan Cooke

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This post appears courtesy of New Market Wilm, who features a new blog about Downtown Wilmington each and every Wednesday! View the original post here

Brendan Cooke, general director of OperaDelaware, talks about whether or not opera sets float (spoiler: They float!), scooting around the city, and the beauty of the human voice as heard from inside The Grand Opera House.  But first, the early years…

“I was supposed to be a famous rock ‘n’ roll guitar player. That didn’t work out.”

“I had no designs on becoming an actual singer until I saw my first opera. And honestly, I went because I found out that a buddy of mine was getting paid $700 to be in an opera. That sounded awesome. I bought the tickets to impress a girl. I was 19, maybe 20. It was a pretty heavy show for a first timer – Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” – which is a giant undertaking. There’s, like, 80 players in the pit, then the curtain goes up and you’ve got 100 people on stage in hand-made costumes. Just the enormity of it … I got hooked almost immediately.”

While interviewing for his position at OperaDelaware, Brendan visited The Grand Opera House a few times:

“My predecessor was presenting ‘Porgy and Bess’ and I fell in love with this opera house. I don’t know there’s another structure like it on the east coast. It’s that special. It’s hard to describe the sonic experience inside the Grand when you have singers on the stage and the orchestra in the pit. I sit in the last — you shouldn’t print this or I won’t get the seat that I like — I sit in the very last row, up against the wall, right underneath the lighting booth, and I can hear the singers as if they’re as close to me as you are right now. To an aficionado, it hits you like a ton of bricks. There’s nothing like it. The place is so ridiculously kind to the human voice.”

Nature wasn’t as kind to ‘Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci,’ the first production Brendan oversaw at The Grand:

“‘Cav/Pag’ happened during Superstorm Sandy. We discovered that our set was seaworthy because we had about three feet of water come into our shop. We couldn’t get in for a couple of days. We got cheated out of some rehearsal time because we couldn’t get downtown. And I was living in Baltimore at that time. It was tough. And a lot of our marketing was set for the weekend when I think a lot of people didn’t get the newspaper.”

So began a few rough years, until the OperaDelaware 2016 Spring Festival literally left its mark on Wilmington with an internationally lauded production of Franco Faccio’s “Amleto” and a single word that became a rallying cry:

“‘Essere’ is Italian for ‘to be.’ And back then, we were asking a lot of those existential questions about what are we going to do as an opera company. We decided to swing for the fences and opted ‘to be!” So we thought we’d have a little fun with a marketing campaign. I’ll send you a picture of the back of the can of spray chalk, which says ‘may last 3-6 weeks.’ I did send them an email to ask if they tested that theory in a rainforest in Coast Rica.”

These days, you’ll see Brendan scooting between OperaDelaware’s offices and studio on the Wilmington Riverfront and The Grand, where he’s preparing for the 2017 Spring Festival that begins at the end of April:

“Santa got a scooter for my then 6-year-old, and I ignored the sign on it that said ‘Not to exceed 100 pounds.’ What’s 120 pounds among friends? I zipped around the neighborhood and then endeavored to find if they made it in an adult version. I love it. I get mocked pretty vigorously, but I can take it. One time I was wearing a suit and a bowtie, zooming – well, not ‘zooming’ – ‘putting’ by on my scooter, and someone tweeted ‘I just spotted OperaDelaware going by on their scooter.’”

About the upcoming festival:

“We’re trying to stick with this plan of one piece that makes the opera world go ‘Hmm, they must be serious,’ and one that’s designed to bring in folks that might be new to opera. So we’re doing a very seldom-performed Rossini tragedy, ‘Semiramide’ – seldom performed due to the vocal resources it requires. And then we’re doing his well-loved setting of ‘Cinderella.’ We’re celebrating Rossini’s 225th anniversary of his birth with the comedy he’s known for and the setting of a tragedy that frankly I think he should be known for.”

And about that girl – does opera really impress the ladies?

“I don’t remember if she was impressed, because I don’t remember her name. I don’t know if she stayed for the rest of it. But I remember being changed. I would venture to say that if opera does impress the ladies, my scooter brings them back down to unimpressed pretty quickly.”