Roy Steven’s first foray at an opera did not exactly foreshadow his future career as an international opera singer. The Modesto native was a third-grader at Paradise Elementary, a small country school and the class was taking a field trip to Modesto High to see “Madame Butterfly” staged by the Western Opera Theatre, a traveling arm of the San Francisco Opera.
“I recall I had a marvelous time, but that was mostly because of the spit wads we were shooting at each other,” Stevens recalled. “So, I wouldn’t say my first experience with opera led me to my career.”
Spit wads aside, Stevens grew up in a family bustling with children and full of music.
“We didn’t have much money but we had much love and lots of music,” Stevens said. “We sang a lot together and listened to lots of records of musicals, even the opera and things like that.”
That was the start of the pathway that led to Stevens performing in theaters and with symphony orchestras in more than 20 countries on five continents and in 14 languages. Now, he is taking his experience on the stage and off as a producer, casting director and organizer and is serving as the General Director for Opera Modesto. In taking on the role, Stevens has set a goal of expanding the company’s outreach, especially among children so that when they get a chance to see and hear an opera, they experience it in its entirety, rather than a chance to shoot spit wads.
To do that, Stevens is breaking down the boundaries that so often define opera in this country, particularly that it’s stodgy and not understandable to a wider audience.
“In other countries, opera is like a participation sport,” Stevens said. “If you go to an opera in Italy, everyone is screaming and shouting.”
One example of how Opera Modesto is changing the script on operas is through their production of “The Race.” It is a re-telling of some of Aesop’s well-known fables. It was composed by Deborah Kavasch and libretto by Linda Bunney-Sarhad. Opera Modesto cast 19 youth performers and since they couldn’t perform it live because it was during the COVID-19 pandemic, they decided to make a movie. It was filmed by Michael Everett of The Creation Lab, with costumes by Keilani Gleave, conducted by Liisa Davila and directed by Carolina Stevens.
The result was a film that has won more than 50 awards, been translated into multiple languages and inspired a graphic novel.
“We have been making opera accessible to thousands of kids and adults and it’s usually the adults who think they know what opera is and think they don’t like it,” Stevens said.
The tie in among opera and literature is the next big venture from Opera Modesto with their upcoming PoeCon in Modesto. PoeCon will be a family-friendly weekend that investigates and celebrates the life, works, and legacy of America’s own literary giant, Edgar Allan Poe. There will be a total of six unique sessions over two days. Each session will be led by a Poe expert. The array of presenters includes educators, authors, professionals and aficionados of Edgar Allan Poe. Each presentation is approximately 45 minutes. Three sessions are from 9 a.m. to noon on Jan. 14. An additional three sessions will be from 9 a.m. to noon on Jan. 15. A PoeCon ticket guarantees entrance to all six sessions.
Opera Modesto will also be staging two Edgar Allen Poe inspired operas. “Tell Tale Heart” and “Annabel” will be performed at The State Theatre on Jan. 14 and Jan. 15.
For tickets to PoeCon and/or the operas, visit operamodesto.org.