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New act for opera – Institute to train singers

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By Todd Cohen

A Raleigh-based troupe that has brought opera to a broad audience of adults and youngsters for more than 50 years will become a performance-based training program for aspiring opera singers at the N.C. School of the Arts.

The Winston-Salem based campus of the University of North Carolina system is creating the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute for graduate and post-grad students, thanks to a $10 million gift from the A.J. Fletcher Foundation in Raleigh and the transfer of the foundation’s National Opera Company to the school.

Half the gift – the largest ever by the foundation — will support the institute’s operations, and the other half will help create an endowment for the institute.

The School of the Arts also has agreed to contribute $10 million over 10 years to the new institute – $500,000 a year to support operations and $5 million to be raised for the new endowment.

In addition, the school is launching a separate campaign to raise another $5 million for its overall endowment, which now totals $16 million.

Wade Hobgood, the school’s new chancellor, says he believes the endowment drive for the institute will take much less than 10 years to complete.

The school’s overall endowment drive already has commitments for two gifts totaling $1.5 million, says Bill Porter, vice chancellor for development and public relations.

Beginning in the fall of 2001, the new institute will offer performance-based training to 12 fellows while staging two operas each year.

School officials plan to more closely integrate opera into the school’s other programs, such as drama, film, design and production.

Performances will be at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh and the School of the Arts’ Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem.

The $55 million-asset Fletcher Foundation has contributed $2 million – its previous largest gift — to the new Opera Theater.

The theater will open in February as part of the city’s expansion of Memorial Auditorium into a new downtown performing arts complex.

The National Opera Company was formed in 1948 as the Grassroots Opera by A.J. Fletcher, a lawyer and amateur opera singer who wanted to make opera available to school children and adults, particularly in areas with little access to opera.

His grandson, Jim Goodmon – who is president of Capitol Broadcasting Co. Inc. in Raleigh and president of the Fletcher Foundation — says the merger of the National Opera Company and the graduate voice program at the School of the Arts represents “represents our commitment to Mr. Fletcher’s dream for opera and education.”

To permanently fulfill that dream, Goodmon says, the new institute “will provide the highest level of professional education to promising young singers, it will introduce opera to North Carolina school children and it will maintain a commitment to performance in the language of the audience.”

In the past, the National Opera Company has staged two or three productions a year, which were performed for free mainly in the evenings, plus another that was performed in public schools, mainly in the Triangle and Guilford County.

The new institute, which will begin charging for its evening performances, will continue to perform in schools in the Triangle and Guilford County, as well as in other counties.

The institute will discontinue the roughly two-dozen performances that the National Opera Company has given each year on tour, says Tom McGuire, the foundation’s executive director.

He says the Fletcher Foundation probably will sell the two buildings near downtown Raleigh that together provided housing for the opera company’s students.

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