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Planting the seeds of opera
Turlocker to perform in Sherlock Holmes/fairytale family opera event
Nathan Stark 1
Turlock resident Nathan Stark has traveled the world during his decades-long opera career. The Hughson native is back in town to perform in the Modesto Opera’s production of “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Fallen Giant” — a mash-up of a Sherlock Holmes mystery and the Jack and the Beanstalk fable (Photo contributed).

If you peruse international opera star Nathan Stark’s Facebook page, you’ll come across a Greek proverb that reads, “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.”

At 46 years old, the Hughson native and Turlock resident is hardly an old-timer, but he’s admittedly slowing down and now hopes to plant the seeds that will produce a crop of future opera lovers.

Nathan Stark 2
Nathan Stark was introduced to musical theater in high school when he wore green body paint and played Mongo, the rock-eating monster in “Little Luncheonette of Terror” (a send-up of “Little Shop of Horrors”).

Stark, a bass-baritone, is performing in the Modesto Opera’s production of “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Fallen Giant” — a mash-up of a Sherlock Holmes mystery and the Jack and the Beanstalk fable — by Evan Meier (composer) and E.M. Lewis (librettist).  The two-show run will make its work premiere on Jan. 13-14 at Modesto’s State Theatre.

Showtimes are 2 p.m. both days, and admission is $25 to $40.

“I’m jumping into the crazy opera and kind of doing a crash course,” said Stark, who just completed a nearly year-long run at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City last summer. “Usually we have about three weeks, but we’re doing all this in two. 

“Thank God for coffee and caffeine.”

The family-friendly opera mashup of Sherlock Holmes and Jack and the Beanstalk was originally commissioned by American Lyric Theater in New York City.

Stark is pulling double duty for this performance, playing Inspector Lastrade in the first show, then playing the giant in the second.

“Opera can be cool,” said Stark, who has performed in every state in the U.S. with the exceptions of Alaska, Maine, Mississippi and Vermont. “I don’t want people to be scared of opera. I get it, people think it’s an elitist club with fancy people in tuxedos and gowns. But I performed in Helena, Montana — it was ‘Carmen’ — and this guy in the front row was eating popcorn and wearing overalls. He was having a good time. He paid for his ticket and he was enjoying himself.”

‘Singing Outside the Box’

Opera Modesto presents Jeremy Stolle and Effie Passero in concert on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the State Theatre in Modesto.

The duo is returning to their hometown to perform together for the first time. They will be joined by another Central Valley product — pianist Jordan Williams of Selma — in “Singing Outside the Box,” their take on Broadway classics.

Jeremy Stolle
Jeremy Stolle

Stolle, who performed in the Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera,” is a graduate of Modesto High School and Modesto Junior College. He has performed locally in the lead role of the musical “Jekyll and Hyde” with Townsend Opera (now Opera Modesto) before joining the “Phantom of the Opera” cast until it closed in April after a record-setting run of 13,981 performances.

Stolle is now a major concert artist with his “No More Talk of Darkness” Tour. He lives in New York City when not on the road. In 2021, he was honored as the MJC Distinguished Graduation Speaker.

Passero is a graduate of Downey High School and was active with the Townsend Opera (now Opera Modesto) training programs for young singers, studying voice with Buck Townsend (the founder of Townsend Opera) and then with Burr Phillips at the University of the Pacific. She was part of the Townsend Opera Chorus and performed many roles in the Little Opera Hall as a teenager, especially Hansel in Hansel and Gretel. Her classical voice training became a huge asset when she became a lounge singer (first at Dewz Restaurant in downtown Modesto) and began to develop her distinctive and remarkable crossover styling.

Effie Passero
Effie Passero

Passero won the Valley Talent Project Competition at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto, and then was an “American Idol" finalist.” She now resides in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Recently Passero became an international star, touring the world as a leading soloist with Postmodern Jukebox. Her videos with PMJ, including Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” have garnered millions of views.

Tickets for the show are $60, $45 and $30, and $20 for students with a valid student identification card.

Doors open at 6 p.m. and run time is 120 minutes.

Stark was introduced to musical theater in high school when he wore green body paint and played Mongo, the rock-eating monster in “Little Luncheonette of Terror” (a send-up of “Little Shop of Horrors”). 

“I did some theater in high school and I did it mostly for fun,” said Stark. “Then, in my senior year, I started doing musicals and things like that.”

His performance even inspired a legendary football coach to devise a play called Mongo.

“I would hike the ball and hold it there between my legs while somebody other than the quarterback ran by and took the ball,” said Stark. “That’s not easy to do, to hold the ball in that region of your body, while trying to fight off a defender."

Stark came to opera not long after enrolling at Modesto Junior College. Instructor Louis Woodward became a mentor and encouraged him to think big. 

“Being a big ‘Star Wars’ nerd … he was like my Obi Wan Kenobi,” said Stark.

Cherrie Llewellyn, who took over for Woodward after his retirement, was another key figure in his development.

But a horrific car accident outside of Ripon not only derailed his studies, it nearly cost Stark his life.

“I was on life support for a month, and in a coma for three weeks,” said Stark. “I had compound fractures, my tongue was hanging on by a tiny piece of skin, half my jaw is made up of metal rods, my orbital socket is made of metal. I’m kind of like RoboCop now.”

But Stark would not be deterred.

“After I recovered from the accident — it took me a good year to recover — I went back to MJC, just a crazy 19-year-old trying to make an effort,” said Stark. “It sounds cheesy, but it’s definitely sincere: it gave me a perspective that if you want to do something, you’ve got to do it now. It gave me the drive to do something crazy, like go into music.”

He eventually earned bachelor’s and master's degrees in opera performance. 

But after a career that has spanned more than two decades and taken him to locations all over the world, with performances for such dignitaries as President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, and First Lady Nancy Reagan, Stark is mulling his future.

“After this performance with Opera Modesto I have a three-baritone concert for Valentine’s Day in Chicago, then it’s off to Detroit for a month for a show called “Breaking the Waves,” which is another new-ish opera, then to St. Louis for 'Barber of Seville,’” said Stark. “After that, maybe I’ll think about slowing down a bit after 22 years on the road.

“I play a lot of old-man parts these days. I go in for my old-man makeup and they’ll do a light dusting and go, ‘OK you’re done.’ I remember when I was a young man, after a performance I’d go out drinking with my friends. Now, I go home and have a TV dinner. That’s my party these days.’

While the future is uncertain, Stark is happy to be planting the seeds of opera on his home turf.

“I’ll say this about (Modesto Opera general director) Roy Stevens and wife (artistic director) Annalisa Winburg: I’m such a huge fan of the work they’re doing,” said Stark. “Not only building Opera Modesto and garnering more support, but their passion about heading out to different communities and making opera accessible to all communities in the Valley. What I like about Opera Modesto is that they know their audience and are providing opera to the everyday person.”