‘Living, breathing’ Alice Ryley

Voice Festival event celebrates chapter of Savannah history

SEXY PEOPLE die in operas. They fall in love. They plot, avenge, curse the gods, slay the innocent and do it all with amazing costumes and soaring voices.

 Do we have any “opera stories” in Savannah? Too many! But how many make it into the hands of a nationally known opera composer? 

I’m struggling to think of any until now.

This year on Halloween Eve, the Savannah Voice Festival will premiere a Savannah opera that flows from the mind of the innovative composer Michael Ching.

“It’s got a great title character,” Ching says of his new work, Alice Ryley.

“If you think of the great title characters of opera like Carmen or Madame Butterfly, you’re looking for a heroine that has some strength but you can feel sorry for her or empathize with her.”

And the real life story of Alice Ryley is operatic. The first person hanged in Georgia, Ryley swung from a noose on Wright Square hours after giving birth to a baby boy.

Her sad tale is so endlessly repeated by the trolley, ghost and walking tours that it hardly needs repeating. But I will tell you that it happened during James Oglethorpe’s time.

Savannah back then was a remote English outpost that reeked of anti-Catholic bigotry, indentured servants, Madeira drunks, funny hats and imperfect male-administered justice.

Ching combines these themes with his own artistic license to craft a gripping story rich in melody. And I do mean melody. Ching’s influences are more traditional than modern.

“The challenge in writing in a medium like opera is that you have these great works by Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini and all those folks as competition,” he says. “To have something that’s viable and lasting is a real challenge and only a fool would give it a go!”

Ching must be a great fool then because he’s given opera about a dozen goes. His most popular works have turned out to be two where he wrote the words and music himself.

So when the Savannah Voice Festival came calling with some story ideas, he ditched the librettist again and went solo on the composition. The results delight my opera ears.

“I feel very lucky to have unlocked my inner wordsmith,” he says. “It’s part of what made Alice Ryley work.”

Not that Ching is a lone fool. The opera nods to Verdi’s La Traviata with its upbeat start before moving into more ominous tones. It nods to Porgy and Bess in one part.

And it nods to Ching’s teachers, composers Robert Ward and Carlisle Floyd. But mostly, it nods to the opera’s director, Maria Zouves, whose ideas run though the production.

“We have this impression or this stereotype of Richard Wagner where you have this genius who’s sitting on a high cloud and makes it all up and has everybody else just subserviently do their bidding,” he says. “I think of opera as a collaborative process.”

Zouves carved two Alices into the script. One narrates. One goes to the hangman. It’s a little unusual at first. But the result is compelling, especially when they sing together!

Ashley Dannewitz and Jessica Best play the title character. Opera legend Sherril Milnes has a cameo. Ching says these talents and others shaped his composition.

“It’s a living, breathing, collaborative art form,” he says. “I think the team is good, the Savannah vibe is good and the story of Alice Ryley is just a really special one.”

And since Savannah has many operatic stories, can this be the last of Ching’s work here? He reveals only that he’s made exploratory visits to the Bull Street library’s history room.


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