Capitol City Opera hits milestone with premiere of ‘The Secret Agent’

Full-scale opera premieres are almost nonexistent in Atlanta. For that reason alone, the opening of “The Secret Agent,” to be presented by Capitol City Opera starting Friday, is something to celebrate.

With a score by Atlanta composer Curtis Bryant and a libretto by New York forensic psychiatrist Allen Reichman, the opera is based on the 1907 Joseph Conrad novel of the same name. It’s the story of an English anarchist, Verloc, whose job is to organize terrorist activities, and it resonates strongly in the post 9/11 age.

The opera has been updated to the 20th century and moves between Verloc’s terrorist activities and his family life, involving his wife (who is clueless about his work), his mother-in-law and his autistic nephew. Verloc’s attempt to use his nephew to plant a bomb goes awry, and the nephew is killed. When his wife discovers the truth, she kills Verloc. For the mostly male cast, which also includes Verloc’s spy ring and those tracking him down, Bryant has employed a full range of voices.

“I’m a tonal composer,” Bryant said. “My music is easy to digest.”

He has worked extensively, writing for film, chamber groups, choral ensembles and orchestras, but this is his second opera. His first, “Zabette,” was performed at the Rialto Theater by Georgia State University and excerpted at New York’s Center for Contemporary Opera. Ironically, the center recently presented another version of “The Secret Agent” by composer Michael Dellaira. Despite the common source, the two operas are quite different. [Disclaimer: The writer is a former member of the center ‘s board.]

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After Reichman wrote the libretto, he searched for a composer. He contacted former soprano Beverly Sills, then the head of New York City Opera. This contact led to Bryant, who had competed in a City Opera program. Ultimately, Reichman chose Bryant, and the work began. The score was completed in 2007 and given an abbreviated “workshop” production at Georgia State. Then Bryant approached the team at Capitol City Opera, which is Atlanta’s irrepressible and irreplaceable small opera company. With a tiny budget, it has somehow managed to present dozens of operas, most of them from the 20th century. It serves as a springboard for young local professional singers, many of whom have gone on to important careers.

“Our primary mission is to support local artists,” said Michael Nutter, the company’s artistic director.

The company is one of the last anywhere to sing almost everything in English. And its education programs go into schools all over the state “almost daily,” Nutter said.

The company brought to Atlanta Andre Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa” and a host of works by Gian Carlo Menotti. One thing it has never done is a world premiere. Nutter and Donna Angel, the company’s founder, knew Bryant’s work and eventually agreed to do one, but it took several years to make it all happen.

“The Secret Agent” will open Friday at Oglethorpe University’s Conant Center. The company usually has only pianos for music. The last opera with an orchestra was Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” in 2008.

Since then, “my credit cards were too full,” Nutter said. But “Secret Agent” will have a 17-piece orchestra, conducted by Michael Giel, as well as a fully realized production, directed by Nutter, whose primary experience has been as a stage director. Catherine Giel is music director. It’s an important milestone for the company and for Atlanta.

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