Jenny Wen, Hopkins med student, shares: "BCO is my favorite thing in Baltimore"

Executive Director Julia Cooke (L) and Jenny Wen (R)  Photo: Elisabet Pujadas.

Executive Director Julia Cooke (L) and Jenny Wen (R)  Photo: Elisabet Pujadas.

"Hey I know this one!" Henry turned to me with a grin as the first lyrical phrases of "La donna e mobile" rang out on stage. Henry, a college friend visiting from Boston, and I were at the premier of Baltimore Concert Opera's Thirsty Thursday "Arias, Ambers, and IPAs" in fall of 2015. We lounged on the velvety red couches in the dazzling Engineers Club, nursing glasses of local Baltimore Brewery's Bell's Amber Ale (specially paired with the musical selections), while hanging onto each inhumanly beautiful note resonating from the performers. Surrounded by audience members who also couldn't help beaming, we drank in the beauty with all our senses.

Both of us had grown up begrudgingly playing classical music (piano for me, clarinet for him) and had dutifully studied our scales and inversions. But as adults, we were still trying to learn what parts of our musical upbringing we actually feel connection with. I was lucky  to have been exposed to opera in college as a happy accident; Henry had never been to an opera performance of any kind. At that moment though, both us had were equally enchanted. We had no doubts we were having the time of our lives.

But arguably, the performers and directors themselves were having even more fun. They beamed jovially with each note, each wink at the audience, and each cheeky introduction ("this is the 'no you hang up' duet"). To our pleasant surprise, during intermissions and after the final standing ovation, the singers along with the executive director Julia Cooke and artistic director Brendan Cooke mingled with the crowd, and we discovered they're just as warm, funny, and charismatic offstage. In true BCO fashion, they invited the audience to join them for drinks and food  nearby, which my friend and I eagerly joined. The BCO team brought me back to my college days of wonder and openness, that feeling of the world is your oyster and any new person you meet can change your life.

During one of these post-show chow sessions after another performance, I sat next to Julia and Brendan and learned firsthand of their adventurous origin story and vision to share the best of opera with as broad an audience as possible.

"Well to be honest, I really don't know much about music," I confessed between mouthfuls of jalapeno poppers, " I have a ton of fun, and I bet these singers are great, not that most of us can tell though."

Brendan turns to me, suddenly uncharacteristically serious. " Well, I don't think that's true. People can tell quality. It's like when someone eats a hamburger from a McDonald’s versus a prime cut of filet mignon. They can tell the quality on the first bite, even if they don't know anything about steak, or have the language to describe it, or the skills to make it. It's the same with music. We only bring in artists at the top of the game and give our audiences the best."

If I loved BCO before, that moment cemented my respect and understanding of this team. Contrary to what many may assume about opera, these folks don't take themselves seriously, but they are very serious about their art. That faith in the audience, that firm belief we all deserve the best regardless of our musical background, that opera is fun and joyful-- this spirit is what draws me to BCO.

Brendan is right. I can always count on them. It is because I trust their vision and taste that I recommend  Baltimore Concert Opera to everyone with full confidence, whether they are classical musicians or just curious, whether they grew up in small towns or are visitors from New York or London (Henry still asks about when shows are so he can time his visits). Since that first Thirsty Thursday, I've made an effort to come to each event I'm in town for with friends, dates, classmates in tow. Inspired by BCO's democratic, down-to-earth approach, I make a special effort to bring people who are new to opera. I tell them with absolute sincerity that the BCO is my favorite thing in Baltimore. At BCO, I don't hold back my tears, laughter, or cheers. I relish the opportunity to break out of my daily routine and enter a magical space saturated with beauty. I itch for each chance to revel in awe, rub elbows with every generation, and hear joyous exclamations and amazed whispers in multiple languages. I look forward to meeting new artists from around the country who humble and exhilarate me with their talent, passion, and pursuits of excellence in paths so unfamiliar to me.

I am so grateful to BCO because they remind me how rich, expansive, and beautiful the world is, and how lucky I am to be here. I already can't wait for the next time.

Best wishes,

Jenny Wen

MD Candidate (2019), Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Join Jenny in her love of BCO --  make your tax-deductible donation today! 

Q&A: Mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson speaks with BCO's Executive Director, Julia Cooke

Mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson returns to Baltimore Concert Opera to sing the title role in ‘Tancredi’ in co-production with Opera Southwest.  Heather made her BCO debut as Rosina in ‘Il barbiere di Siviglia’ in 2011, and was our leading lady in ‘Carmen’ in 2013.  She’s been singing all over the country since we last saw her, including her Metropolitan Opera debut! Heather was kind enough to share some thoughts about her career, and in particular, singing the title role in ‘Tancredi’ with us and with Opera Southwest.

Q: What drew you to a career as an opera singer?

A: I was also involved in Music from the time I came out of the womb.  My parents are both professional musicians and teachers and my grandfather was a tenor and choral conductor so I guess it was in my blood.  I started out playing the violin when I was 4, added the piano when I was 6, then the oboe when I was 11 (that only lasted two years...I was horrible!) then finally started taking voice lessons when I was 15. I knew almost instantly that singing was what I wanted to do with my life.  It was solidified when I went to college at St. Olaf and started to really study opera.  I was hooked!

Q: You told me in a recent phone conversation that you felt like Rossini wrote the role of Tancredi just for you! Tell us about singing it.

A: It's amazing!  I love this role so much.  First of all, I typically sing the comedic Rossini roles so it's a pleasure to dig in dramatically to a role like this within the same musical style.  Not only do I love the drama of the opera but I love that it's a bit lower than a lot of the Rossini roles that I sing.  I had a baby two and a half years ago and, like many women who have children, my voice changed a bit.  It really filled out in the lower middle so I love singing down there, if you will. 

Q: What is it like to sing a role for the first time? Particularly this one.

A: Singing a role for the first time is always a bit nerve-racking.  You can't really get a good sense of pacing until you actually get it "up on its feet", so to speak, with the whole cast.  But, I love learning now roles!  You get to sink your teeth into something new musically and dramatically that you can make your own.  This role is particularly that way.  Like, I said earlier, I love the drama of it. But, that being said it is a challenge as far as pacing is concerned.  It's very large role and one has to really pace it so that you save enough dramatically and vocally for the scenes at the end.

Q: Can you tell a bit about the BCO format and how the co-production element with Opera Southwest will be helpful to you and the rest of the cast?

Johnson in Sarasota Opera's Cenerentola.

Johnson in Sarasota Opera's Cenerentola.

A: Doing a co-production is such an incredible luxury!  We get an entire week to work it musically which almost never happens in the opera world these days.  It brings us back to focus on what is the most important part of opera....the music!  Not only do we get to work out the musical kinks first here in Baltimore but then we get an opportunity to perform it twice just concentrating on the the music.  This puts us all at such an advantage going into the staging process.  Plus, it's always such a treat to sing here in Baltimore. 

I want to extend a big THANK YOU to Heather for taking the time to speak with me!

She is a brilliant artist and a wonderful colleague. If you don’t have your tickets for ‘Tancredi’ this weekend, we do still have some available. Click here to find out more about Heather and the rest of the cast, and click here to buy tickets which start at just $27.50.


The Case for Concert Opera

by Courtney Kalbacker, Managing Director

I am an opera performer/director, a lover of music-theatre and drama-driven spectacle. I am also a fervent supporter of the concert opera form. My last two years with Baltimore Concert Opera have helped me understand concert opera's unique value in the general operatic landscape. As I become more involved with opera companies internally, I realize what streamlined concert opera can do to support our art form and boost audience development. Besides the obvious appeal of hearing fantastic singers perform gorgeous music in our own neighborhood, the concert format has an important place in the operatic scene at large.  1.) BCO can produce roughly four operas in concert form for less than the cost of one grand opera.  2.) Because of this cost structure, concert opera can afford to take chances on rarely-heard works and rising young singers. 3.) Concert opera can give full productions a head start on cast cohesion through collaborative co-productions. 4.) Most importantly, Baltimore Concert Opera gives Baltimore more opera. More singing. More operatic options. More chances to connect with audiences. This is a very, very good thing. So often, our art is overlooked, misunderstood, or just unknown. Baltimore Concert Opera has reached hundreds of new patrons this past year through 4 mainstage productions and 3 "Thirsty Thursday at the Opera" events. Some of these new patrons will prefer Falstaff over Lakme, or Amleto over Die Fledermaus, but the point is - folks can have choices, develop opinions, and learn about opera in Baltimore. This is a valuable chance for Baltimore's lucky opera lovers, singers, and producers. I am all three -- but if you identify even as one of these, you can be proud to join me in my support of BCO.

-Courtney Kalbacker, Managing Director

Courtney Kalbacker is a dedicated opera performer and producer based in Baltimore, MD. She has taken on many roles both on and off stage including currently serving as Managing Director of Baltimore Concert Opera and Director of Production at UrbanArias. She is also a freelance stage director with Maryland Live Arts, Victorian Lyric Opera, UrbanArias, Silver Finch Arts Collective, Unmanned Stagecraft, Oklahoma City University and the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. She performs as a coloratura soprano with many local companies including Washington National Opera, Lyric Opera Baltimore, The Victorian Lyric Opera Company, Harford Choral Society, HUB Opera Ensemble, Silver Finch Arts Collective and at venues abroad including the Warsaw Chamber Opera and Kingshead Theatre (London). More info at

The Focus on the Singing, a Pure Pleasure

by Virginia Pond, BCO Supporter

As a sometime backstage worker, I am often distracted, watching a performance, by an unfortunate wig, a costume problem, an annoying mannerism or odd direction. I love the theatre of a production, and sometimes pay more attention to that than to the music. With Baltimore Concert Opera, and the friendliness of the audience and the Engineers' Club ballroom, I can focus on the singing. I am struck by the joy -- and the commitment -- of the singers doing what they love and have chosen to do with their lives -- sing. And how well they do it! BCO is pure pleasure.

- Virginia Pond, BCO Supporter

Drawn to the stories: the operas, the individuals, the organization

by Susan Yager, BCO Board Member – Treasurer

Stories are what draw me to Baltimore Concert Opera; the stories of the organization, the stories of the operas we present, and the stories that lead each of us and our audience to the music. BCO was founded on the idea of keeping opera alive in Baltimore, and from that idea we have attracted incredible vocal talent to the city and fostered the incredible voices of our home. It's a tale of incredible resilience, determination, and passion. We've told some of the greatest musical stories put to paper, from uncovering a lost Amleto to the epic tale of Aida. I have always enjoyed opera, and even studied it extensively in college, but what draws me in the most is the power of the human voice to convey the deepest of emotions.  Each member of our audience has their own unique story, joining us from within Baltimore or coming into the city to see us. I'm excited to help the Baltimore Concert Opera continue its story and write the pages of its future.

- Susan Yager, BCO Board Member - Treasurer

Susan Yager is focused on melding her passion for music and accounting by serving the BCO. She is an accounting specialist at MJM Innovations, a software and management services firm. In her position she works with various government agencies to improve transportation services for seniors and persons with disabilities through auditing and payment processing. To further her career, she is pursuing a graduate certificate in accounting at the University of Baltimore. Susan’s bachelor’s degree is in vocal performance from Trinity University in San Antonio, TX where she won the Rosalind Phillips Vocal Excellence Award. While in Texas Susan sang with the San Antonio Chamber Choir and the San Antonio Opera. In Baltimore Susan enjoys singing with the newly formed chamber ensemble, Canticum Novum.

BCO: Creating camaraderie in Baltimore City

by Joe Zuccaro, BCO Board Member

Moving to Baltimore five years ago from the Washington, DC area, I had thought I knew what opera was.  I was blessed in that my parents introduced me and my brothers to opera when we were boys.  Little did I realize at the time that I was weaned on Renata Tebaldi LPs - it was just something in the background as we had our traditional Sunday pasta dinner. As a young adult, I was active with the young professionals group, BRAVO!, that supported the Washington Opera (now Washington National Opera) and saw my share of wonderfully staged productions as well as the headliners that sang them. But in Baltimore, I was introduced, through former board member Mimi Hatch, to a more endearing, intimate and just-as-musically potent form called "concert opera."  The opulence of the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion, the friendliness of the Cookes (Brendan remembered my name the second time I came), and of course, Maestro Harp and the singers sealed the deal.  I knew I had to become more involved. I now better understand and appreciate the behind-the-scenes work it takes a small arts organization to achieve excellence, the wonderful personalities and talent of the singers who have stunned us with their gift on the stage, and the camaraderie it takes to make it all happen.  Most importantly, as I stand and either welcome guests or thank them for coming on their way out, I feel great satisfaction knowing we are touching so many people in this great city.

- Joe Zuccaro, BCO Board Member

  A lifelong opera lover, Joseph Zuccaro has over 25 years of experience in Marketing, Sales, and Business Development, including angel-funded, pre-IPO and post-IPO technology companies. He is the Founder and President of Allinio LLC, a CRM and Marketing Automation professional services firm helping organizations plan and implement web-based technologies to better gather, store, analyze, share, and act upon data that maximizes marketing ROI and drives higher revenue. Joe attended the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. He earned a Bachelors degree in Logistics, Transportation, & Supply Chain Management and an MBA in Marketing from the R.H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Expanding Opera Offerings for Baltimore

by Dennis Ferguson, BCO Board President

I love music. I grew up playing classical piano, but my tastes run eclectic. The great thing about living in Baltimore was the ability to see a band play at Hammerjacks or The 8x10 on one night, then listen to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra or the old Baltimore Opera Company on the next. In fact, it was through friends at the old Baltimore Opera Company that I first heard about Brendan Cooke's idea for Baltimore Concert Opera in 2009.

From that initial contact, I started as a volunteer with BCO's first production, Don Giovanni. After a few more productions and a few conversations with Brendan, I was introduced to the board and ultimately joined. Of course I joined! I was tremendously excited to have the opportunity to expand the opera offerings in the city. Baltimore Concert Opera allows existing opera fans hear the music in a new way, while also providing the opportunity for a new audience to become introduced to the power of the voice. It's so rewarding to see new audience members from MICA or Johns Hopkins listening to opera alongside life­long opera lovers. I'm happy to play a part in sharing this timeless music from generation to generation.

- Dennis Ferguson, BCO Board President

Dennis Ferguson has been involved with Baltimore Concert Opera since its inception in 2009, first as a passionate volunteer and later as a board member and chairman of the Technology Committee. As a result of his dedication and devotion to BCO, he was appointed as president of the Board in January, 2013. From a young age, he began developing an interest in classical piano and computer software design. He further developed his technology and management skills at Carnegie Mellon University and University of Maryland. Since college, he has worked for St. Paul Companies and Travelers Insurance. Today, he is employed as a lead IT specialist and project manager at the Social Security Administration. In addition, he also serves as the president of his homeowner’s association and volunteers at his church and other organizations in the Baltimore community. In his remaining time, he enjoys traveling the world with his wife of 9 years.

The Magic of BCO? Hear 19th c. operas in your own ‘Downton Abbey’!

by John Shields, BCO Board Member

Knowing many of the singers and pianists of the young Baltimore Concert Opera since the beginning, I wanted to support the company from their first year, 2009. Single tickets led me to become a subscriber and I was thrilled when a friend asked to come along - and then she became a long-term subscriber. We now enjoy four operas per BCO season.

When I first started attending opera in NYC in the late 1960s, I always wondered what the on-stage, piano rehearsal sounded like, especially for complex orchestral works. Who knew that many years later I would have this intimate experience! At the BCO, the absence of 80+ instrumentalists is never an issue. The piano vocal scores are extremely rich in their own way and one can focus on the beauty of the voices with all of their colors and vocal shadings. The young, talented soloists travel from all over to perform here in Baltimore and this makes for a great opportunity to hear emerging talent in a gorgeous, nineteenth-century environment (think Downton Abbey) and at reasonable prices.

Patrons have the chance to hear little-known operas, such as Amleto, Edgar, and Tancredi. Join us on a Friday evening and if you love it, return on Sunday for the second performance while the music and singing are still fresh in your mind.

As a new board member, I would love to share my enthusiasm and admiration for BCO with you. We can all be part of the magic of our Baltimore Concert Opera!

- John Shields, BCO Board Member

After seeing his first opera in high school (Carmen in English by the Met Opera National Company at Lincoln Center; I still have the program!), John, overnight, became an opera fanatic. Later that same year he saw La Fanciulla del West at the old Met right before it closed. He recalls straining to see the tenor’s blood fall from the hayloft in the second act from his high-in-the-sky Family Circle seat, next to a column. No such luck! After that he went to the opera as much as possible.  Changing careers mid-life from telecommunications sales to museum work, John was the Docent Manager at the Snite Museum of Art, Notre Dame, IN and moved to Baltimore in 1992 to take the position of Manager of Docent and Intern Programs at the Walters Art Museum, where he currently works. John was instrumental in organizing our four Silent Auctions and he participated in our Free Fall Baltimore Aïda presentation in 2015. He has been a long-term BCO subscriber and looks forward to seeing the company expand and enliven the city arts’ scene.