Singing Its Praises

By Ken Mammarella

Keriann Otaño believes Wilmington has the potential to be a “hub for creativity.” And as vice president of engagement for OperaDelaware, she wants her organization to be a key part of that.

“I think the fact that the OperaDelaware studios are right on Amtrak means we are a place where artists can [easily] come together to create new works,” she said. “That gets me super-excited.”

She and her husband, opera singer Dane Suarez, recently bought a house in the suburbs west of Wilmington. “This is the first place we’ve really been able to call home,” he says.

Otaño grew up in Long Island, lived in Italy for a year and earned degrees from Indiana University and Mannes School of Music at The New School in New York City. She sang in operas in multiple cities before segueing into arts administration in 2020 and moving to Wilmington in 2022.

Suarez grew up in Princeton, Illinois, earned degrees from Butler University in Indianapolis and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and has performed in more than 25 cities.

As newcomers to Wilmington, they have a long local bucket list. “You could listen to a chamber orchestra perform on a Monday night and slam poetry on a Tuesday,” she says. “All that exists here. There’s so much to experience. We just have to be curious about it and find out where it’s happening.”

One such place, of course, is the OperaDelaware Wilmington Riverfront studios. The location has two spaces that can hold 100 or so people for intimate performances — by OperaDelaware or groups that rent it.

That prime site has allowed OperaDelaware to develop a less expensive way to handle understudies, aka “couch covers.” They stream in during rehearsals and can easily use Amtrak if needed.

The day before the interview, a soprano who lives in Washington stopped by on her way to New York to make audition recordings at the OperaDelaware, with Suarez, as the engineer.

“We take personal responsibility to take care of artists and provide a space where they can be creatives,” Otaño says. “I think this results in artists who want to come back and work here.”

The themes of accessibility to all and fresh takes kept recurring in the interview.

“We have this idea that theater and those classics are supposed to be about preserving,” she says — before being interrupted by Suarez adding “I’ve seen it before, and I don’t need to see it again” — “but it’s not just about preserving the art form. It’s also making it accessible for a new audience.”

They both praised the Delaware Theatre Company production of The Man of La Mancha, where all the actors were musicians. “It definitely changed my perspective of the piece,” Suarez says.

She praised Delaware Shakespeare — which rents space from OperaDelaware and performs all over, including nontraditional locations — for its new approaches, such as a bilingual version of Twelfth Night in 2022 and gender-blind casting in Macbeth this year, with a Black female as the doomed king. 

OperaDelaware also performs all over. Since it began outdoor pop-up performances in 2020, it’s done 200, some at private events, some free to the public. 

“Opera is for everyone,” Otaño wrote in an introductory blog post on One way is the verismo style of opera, “where you can see yourself in the story.” 

Consider Rigoletto, censored when it debuted in 1851 because she says it was “too close to life.” OperaDelaware presents it at the Grand on Oct. 27 and Oct. 29, with Suarez as the duke of Mantua.

Consider Turnadot, which OperaDelaware presents next May at the Grand. It’s a fantasy involving a Chinese princess asking suitors three know-or-die questions.

 “Puccini is a verismo composer,” Suarez says, “but while living in a fantasy, it’s as close as he could get to really talking about real life.”

Opera also shouldn’t make unrealistic and exclusionary demands on patrons, they believe. 

“When you go to the opera, you want to dress to be seen,” Otaño says. “You want to wear something you’re proud of. You want to wear something that makes you confident and comfortable. For me, it’s a polka dot ball gown with Converse sneakers. For my dad, it’s sweatpants and a baseball cap.”