Island Arts: Opera singer Eileen Meredith
By Lanie Anderson-Barrett
It was a beautiful June day in lovely Franklin Park and the birds were singing. Not the usual birds that filled the trees that provided a much-needed canopy on this sunny block in the Gold Coast neighborhood in Alameda. (Those birds had long been chased away by the hoards of kids hanging in the trees.) No, these songbirds – ten to be exact – were from Open Opera, a group of opera singers from all over the Bay Area and beyond. For over two hours, they sang and entertained a crowd of over 200 grateful admirers and among them, Alameda’s own soprano Eileen Meredith.
Meredith, a San Francisco Opera member, has been singing professionally in the Bay Area for over 15 years and is the co-founder, board member and resident artist of the Virago Theatre Company. Along with three other gifted Islanders – Laura and Robert Lundy-Paine, and Angela Dant – she founded Virago in 2005. They have produced shows in various venues in Alameda and around the Bay Area. Two summers ago, Virago began offering a training program called the Theatre Conservatory. Classes are guided by professional performers in various disciplines and are available for both children and adults.
Virago’s latest production, “La Bohème – A Concert Event,” directed and narrated by Robert Lundy-Paine, opens next week at Rhythmix Cultural Center, with a preview performance on Thursday, March 18, and additional shows on March 20, 26, and 27. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door (and $10 to $30 for the preview), and are available online. Rhythmix is at 2513 Blanding Avenue.
Meredith has also released a solo CD, Silver and Gold: American Songs and Arias.
So, how did you end up in Alameda?
I came to Alameda back when the big fire happened in the Oakland Hills. We were living in Oakland and we had a baby at the time and the air was pretty nasty and you could smell the smoke. We had a friend over here in Alameda who invited us to come over, and we stayed at her house that night, in a little guesthouse in the back. When we went through that tunnel (the Webster Tube), we thought, “Wow, this is like a whole different world, in a good way.” So, we started thinking about it, but we didn’t move here for a few years after that. That kind of planted the idea in our minds. Then, we had a kid starting school and we wanted to go somewhere were the schools are good, so that’s how we ended up here.
How did you come up with Virago?
About four and a half years ago my friend, Laura Lundy-Paine, and her husband, Bob, and her friend, Angela Dant founded a company. Laura was interested in doing “Threepenny Opera” and she knew that I was singing and she asked me to be in it and, of course, I said, “Sure.” And we just started it from there, and started all of the steps to creating a new company.
I know that you like to focus on local playwrights and innovative productions.
Yes, it usually is a little bit edgy theater and there is a focus on new works. We’ve done summer reading series that have turned into full-length produced plays. We’ve done a couple of those now – “The Hermit Bird,” and “Afterlife of the Mind.” So those were premieres. We’ve also done some well-known plays, like “La Bohème.”
Let’s talk about “La Bohème.”
Yes, it’s our third musical. We did “Threepenny Opera” in 2006 and then, two years ago, we did “Candide,” by Leonard Bernstein, which was a jump, almost, into musical theater, almost opera. And now with “La Bohème,” it really is opera. That’s about as opera as it gets.
You play Mimi in the show. What’s it like to play her?
It’s a great role. We’re doing it as if it were contemporary in San Francisco, but really nothing much changes. I mean it’s Paris in the late 19th century and this woman, she has tuberculosis, which is not so common now, but not as uncommon as you might think. So Mimi has a lung illness that kills her in the end.
Mimi is a seamstress. Do you share her talent?
That, I am acting. I am not a seamstress and I cannot embroider.
What would consider your career highlights?
(Her daughter, Claire, chimes in first) The one where you were a man. (Meredith) Oh, yeah, that was good. I was Thérese and Tiresias, a male/female character. I played a woman, but was annoyed with the plight of womanhood, so I eliminated certain items from my body, added a beard, and moved on, living my life as a gentleman. So I guess that’s a highlight. I also love playing these large roles, which I do at Virago, and other local companies. I’ve had other highlights at the San Francisco Opera. That’s only as a chorus person, but just to be there, to be among the real big stars in a high-budget production, that’s pretty exciting.
So, you get to play “dress up” every day at work?
Yeah, I get someone to do my hair and makeup and wigs. That’s pretty fun. It’s a good job.
Your dream role?
Dream role? Well, I’d love to do “Madame Butterfly.” I don’t know if it will ever happen. Maybe. I’m not sure if I have a big enough voice, but possibly. Or maybe “Tosca.” Again, maybe not my role, but it would be great.
What do see in the future for Virago?
Hopefully lots more successful productions in the next couple of years and then, hopefully growing our company membership and board membership.
And do you have any other Alameda performances on the horizon?
Yes. On May 14, I am singing with Open Opera at the Crab Cove as part of the “Concerts In The Cove” series. Be there!
What’s are you Alameda Top Five?
I’d say the police protection. If you ever call them, they are here in a minute, which is nice. Also, the beach, good friends, more shops than we used to have, good weather. And I like that it’s flat.
What’s in your iPod?
La Bohème, Gypsy Kings, Lady Gaga, Beethoven, West Side Story, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Earth Wind and Fire, Chopin.