A good live performance creates electricity between the artist and the audience. Can that energy exist during a coronavirus pandemic?

You better believe it can. Just ask anyone – including the five College of Charleston students – involved with the Charleston Opera Theater and the outdoor opera it has been performing since October.

sandra deathos-meers

Saundra DeAthos-Meers (photo by Sebastian Smith)

Co-founded by Harold Meers, husband of Assistant Professor of Voice/Opera Saundra DeAthos-Meers, the Charleston Opera Theater (COT) is a nonprofit that aims to keep opera alive in the Lowcountry, making opera accessible to everyone and thereby giving performers an audience.

“The vision for COT has been in the making for a number of years,” says DeAthos-Meers, adding that her husband “is looking to tear down the perception that opera is only for the elite by making it accessible to everyone.”

And, since the pandemic, its role has been more important than ever – especially for pianist and CofC music major Mikhail “Misha” Pekar and DeAthos-Meers’ students, music majors Abigail Oldstrom and Lauren Reynolds and artist certificate in performance candidates Bradley Morrison and Brian Mengler. The theater has given them a unique opportunity to perform well-known opera pieces alongside a diverse cast with international credits. And the pandemic has given them the opportunity to do it all outside – performing in neighborhoods all over the Lowcountry, from Goose Creek to Johns Island.

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“It’s exhilarating to connect with the community in a way that’s unusual for opera. It’s shaping into an exciting and moving experience,” says Morrison. “I’m honored to be part of the effort to connect the artist with the audience.”

Morrison first studied with DeAthos-Meers, aka “Dr. D,” in Chicago before following her to Charleston.

“Studying with Dr. D changed my world, so my wife and I moved to Charleston,” says Morrison, who gives credit to his wife Robin for encouraging him. “I had been experiencing amazing things with my voice lessons, and Robin thought I needed to try a proper run of making music my life.”

And what better place to do that than the College of Charleston?

“The artist certificate program has given me a great opportunity to grow within my discipline,” says Morrison. “I am getting a kind of conservatory experience where I study and hone my craft.”

Both he and Mengler, who also came to Charleston from Chicago, are studying Italian to gain a better understanding of the richness of the language.

Despite all their preparation and rigorous practice, however, the opportunity to perform had all but dried up with the COVID-19 outbreak. And then came the COT.

opera at at the park

The Charleston Opera Theater performs at Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park. (Photos provided)

“There’s not a lot of other professional work right now,” says Morrison, noting that he had been laid off from his church gig. “It’s wonderful to perform safely outdoors and try some new repertoire and sing leading baritone parts, like those from Rigoletto and La Bohème. I wouldn’t necessarily have an opportunity to perform this repertoire at this stage of my career.”

But, for Morrison, it’s the audience involvement that really makes the COT experience special.

“When we were performing out on a hill, there was a family with a small child who was dancing, singing and smiling,” says Morrison. “What a great way to reconnect with the audience!”

By giving CofC students the opportunity to perform, COT is preparing them for DeAthos-Meers’ goal of full-scale opera productions at the College. She is working to establish a $2 million endowment for opera so that one full-scale opera can be produced each year. Such a production would not only give students a profound and career-building experience, it would add to the cultural diversity of Charleston.

“Opera is expensive to produce, but we are fortunate to have so many of the resources available to us at CofC – we just need to utilize them,” explains the soprano. “We have the recently renovated Sottile Theatre, an agreement with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra to perform alongside students and a collaboration with the Department of Theatre and Dance providing faculty and students an opportunity to contribute on the technical side, as well as the artistic. As our music chair Edward Hart says, ‘We have the gasoline to put in the tank, we just need to drive.’”