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Turlock duo brings Poe’s ‘Annabel’ to opera stage
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Composer Deborah Kavasch, a music professor at CSUS, and librettist Linda Bunney-Sarhad, professor emeritus at CSUS, are the creators of "Annabel," an opera based on the Edgar Allan Poem "Annabel Lee." Their opera, along with "Tell Tale Heart," another opera based on Poe's work and composed by Stewart Copeland, former drummer for The Police," will be performed Saturday and Sunday at the State Theatre in Modesto at 2 p.m. - photo by Joe Cortez

OK, perhaps you’re not the world’s biggest opera fan. Be that as it may, most everybody has heard of one or two famous operas.

There’s “Carmen” — perhaps the most famous — by Georges Bizet, and there’s Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” and “Aida,” or Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca” and “La Boheme” and “Madame Butterfly.”

And then there’s “Annabel,” by composer Deborah Kavasch and librettist Linda Bunney-Sarhad — both of Turlock.

Haven’t heard of that one? Well, that’s only because its premiere won’t be until this weekend at Modesto’s State Theatre, 1307 J St.

But give “Annabel” a little time and it might rank up there someday with the greats.

“Annabel,” based upon the Edgar Allan Poe poem “Annabel Lee,” will be performed this weekend along with “Tell Tale Heart,” based upon the Poe novel and composed by Stewart Copeland, former drummer for the Police.

“Annabel” is the second opera commissioned by Opera Modesto from Kavasch, a music professor at Cal State Stanislaus, and Bunney-Sarhad, who holds emeritus status at CSUS. Their first operatic collaboration was “The Race.”

“(Opera Modesto) wanted to do something based on Aesop’s fables and I had told them that I had a duet for a soprano and any male voice — 'The Tortoise and the Hare' — so that became the centerpiece for ‘The Race.' And they wanted to have a mashup of various fables. So, Linda ran with the idea, chose five fables and put it together in a month.”

Bunney-Sarhad added: “And I never stopped laughing once.”

“And I never stopped chuckling as I was setting it to music,” said Kavasch.

For years, Kavasch and Bunney-Sarhad have been Turlock’s version of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, but they’re relatively new to operas.

“I actually starting attending the operas about five years ago,” said Bunney-Sarhad, a Turlock native. “I had been writing with Deborah for a long time and when (Opera Modesto general director) Roy Stevens asked her if she’d be interested in doing an opera. She said, ‘Well, I have to talk to my lyricist.’ I said, ‘I don’t know how to write a libretto, but why not?”

Bunney-Sarhad was hesitant because writing a libretto is not like writing lyrics to a song.

“Writing a libretto isn’t just putting words on the page,” said Bunney-Sarhad. “You have to create a drama, because if you put the actors on stage and they’re just singing words and don’t have any action or any conflict, that’s a concert, as beautiful as it might be. But if you’re going to have an opera, you’ve got have something happening. You’ve got have some kind of conflict and some kind of resolution and you have to have characters that are developed and are different from each other. I hadn’t done that kind of writing, and I’ve been learning ever since.”

But why take a poem by the Poe — one of the legends of American literature — and turn it into an opera?

“Opera just brings more out of it,” said Kavasch, a native of Washington D.C. who grew up in Virginia. “It creates a whole scenario of events. The poem is very static. It’s just the lover grieving over the loss of Annabel and describing how they had such an amazing love that even the angels and demons were jealous of them. So how do you make a story out of it?”

Opera, that’s how. 

Kavasch, who has had her symphonic pieces recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Scottish Philharmonic Orchestra, is putting her music in the hands of director Annalisa Winberg and conductor Liisa Dàvila.

Oakdale native Darby Schmidt, a soprano, will perform the titular role, while Chad Somers will play the Lover and Jason Detwiler the Kinsman.

But Kavasch and Bunney-Sarhad aren’t the only local connections.

CSUS graduate Rosa Moreno-Aranda (mezzo-soprano), CSUS seniors Luca Mitchell (tenor) and Stephanie Ortiz (soprano), and Pitman High graduate Allison Harrison (mezzo-soprano), now studying at BYU, will be part of the solo ensemble.

They all are music majors.

“I think I’ve known since I was 11 years old that this was something I wanted to pursue as a career,” said Moreno-Aranda. “Opera really challenges me in that way where you act and you sing and you move and you dance. I feel like it’s really the most fulfilling art form that I’ve ever been involved in.”

Mitchell enjoys opera because it’s the purest art form.

“Opera is essentially the earliest form of theater and music put together,” said Mitchell. “There’s no magnification, there’s no electric way to make your voice louder. And, so, you have to project. And what is projection other than bringing your voice louder and using the natural forms of resonance that your voice has.”

Harris grew up in a musical household.

“My mom was a music major and then I started playing the flute and music was always a thing in our house,” said Harris. “We were looking for something to do one summer because my mom wanted to keep us busy so we weren’t just at home watching TV. She couldn’t find anything so she reached out to Liisa (Dàvila) and she was working with Opera Modesto doing the Summer Opera Institute. I did that for four years and this is my first real opera.”

Ortiz didn’t find opera, opera found her.

“Roy Stevens is really good friends with Dr. Joseph Wiggett, my voice professor at CSUS,” said Ortiz. “Roy reached out to me last year, but unfortunately, I came down with a really bad cold and couldn’t do it. So, he reached out to me again and I was all for it. And this is my first full opera production.”

The operas, presented by Opera Modesto, begin at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and are part of a weekend-long Poe celebration at the State.

Friday night is Poe’s Pub, which features food, drinks and a showing of the 1963 film “The Raven.” And on Saturday and Sunday, aside from the performances, is PoeCon, with six 45-minute sessions delving into all things Poe.

Tickets are $25 to $40 depending on seating, and $20 for students. For tickets and times, visit

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From left, mezzo-soprano Rosa Moreno-Aranda, tenor Luca Mitchell, mezzo-soprano Allison Harris, and soprano Stephanie Ortiz are part of the solo ensemble for Opera Modesto's productions of "Tell Tale Heart" and "Annabel," which will be performed Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the State Theatre in Modesto. - photo by Joe Cortez