Celebrating the Past, Present & Future
Opera’s Singing Doctor and Aspiring Actor
By Emily Pritchard Cary
"Is there a doctor in the house?”
If that urgent cry goes up during a Virginia Opera
performance, Dr. Marilyn Kellam steps out of character to assist the
ill or injured. Even when poised on stage in costume, she is ever
alert for the emergencies that mirror her responsibilities as a physician
specializing in internal medicine at Short Memorial Hospital in Nassawadox.
“One never ceases being a doctor, even in the middle of an opera,”
says the engaging mezzo-soprano. “Luckily, I was there when
the assistant stage director fell off the stage.”
As the Official Opera Company of the Commonwealth
of Virginia since 1994, Virginia Opera is renowned for creative guidance
by Artistic Director Peter Mark, international guest stars, an intense
educational outreach program, and imaginative productions performed
in three fine halls: Norfolk’s glittering Harrison Opera House,
Richmond’s Landmark Theater, and George Mason University Center
for the Arts in Fairfax. One reason for its reputation as one of the
finest opera companies in the nation is the high caliber of local
singers in the chorus.
The uncommon devotion of company chorus members
and supers continually astounds staff and visiting artists alike.
Baritone Andrew Oakden, who sang the double roles of Alfio and Tonio
in the most recent production, “Cavalleria Rusticana“
and “I Pagliacci“ (the double bill affectionately dubbed
“Cav/Pag”), speaks for everyone who works with them.
“I’m in awe of the chorus and supers, the heart and soul
of the organization,” he says. “It’s the best, most
energetic chorus I’ve ever worked with. They make our job easy.”
Like most chorus members, Marilyn Kellam unwinds from her demanding
day job by stepping into the magical world of musical theater. Unlike
the majority, she and tenor Josh Dooley commute 130 miles round trip
from their homes on Virginia’s Eastern Shore to every rehearsal
and performance. No matter that the drive consumes nearly two hours
of their long days, the joy of involvement in one of Virginia’s
cultural jewels is ample reward.
“I came to music late in life,” Marilyn says. “Although
I love medicine, it’s confining. I needed another aspect to
my life and was soon drawn to the Trawler Dinner Theater near my home.
“Before long, I became very involved in music and dance and
started voice lessons with a wonderful professor at the University
of Maryland Eastern Shore, but when his class schedule became too
heavy, he suggested I study in Virginia Beach with Sondra Gelb, a
former singer with New York City Opera.
“About the same time, I sang in a production of ‘The Messiah’
in Norfolk. There I met several people who are in the Virginia Opera
chorus. They and Sondra urged me to audition, so I took their advice
and was immediately cast in ‘Turandot,’ the opening show
of the 2000-2001 season. It was a memorable first experience.
“My favorite opera is always the one I’m in at the moment,
but ‘Madam Butterfly‘ ranks high on my list because I
was asked to cover the role of Suzuki. I never had the opportunity
to go on for the principal, but I paid close attention to the director’s
suggestions during rehearsals and feel ready to take on the role should
it be offered me one day.
“I gravitate to funny things, one reason I enjoy dinner theater
so much. Among the operas we’ve done in the past, I adore ‘The
Mikado’ for its humor, and this year I had a ball doing ‘Cav/Pag.’
I also loved playing the Wicked Witch of the West in a production
of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ at a local church.”
Sharing the gift of humor with others is a big part of a doctor’s
routine, Marilyn emphasizes. Patients must be made to relax and feel
comfortable. Along with the comfort of humor, she understands the
roles pathos and drama play in life.
“Performing in ‘Fidelio’ meant a lot to me because
I’m a child of Holocaust survivors,” she says of Beethoven’s
only opera, a condemnation of oppression and plea for life and liberty.
After the highly successful season of “Carmen, “Agrippina,”
“Susannah,” and “Cav/Pag,” Peter Mark has
scheduled four blockbusters for the 2007-2008 season. Variety abounds
with “Tales of Hoffmann” followed by “Pirates of
Penzance,” “Eugene Onegin,” and “Lucia Di
“I’d like to do them all because I’ve worked with
two of the directors before and am impressed by their approach,”
Marilyn says. “Of course that may be wishful thinking. Even
though I’ve sung with Virginia Opera for seven years, I have
to audition at the start of each season like everyone else, but I
don’t mind. It’s a joy to be associated with real pros.
It’s especially thrilling to work with the professional guest
artists and watch them develop into wonderful characters. I love rehearsals,
seeing people grow, and basking in the layering of costumes, setting,
Tenor Josh Dooley, a resident of Melfa, shares Marilyn’s enthusiasm
about Virginia Opera. While singing in the chorus is a hobby for Marilyn,
he has used it as a step toward an acting career. After graduating
from the University of Virginia with a degree in philosophy, he returned
to the Eastern Shore and the Franktown Community Theater where he
has been performing since childhood.
Last season, he appeared in “Fiddler on the Roof” and
was subsequently inspired to begin studying voice. Shortly after meeting
Marilyn at Sondra Gelb’s studio, he heeded her suggestion to
audition for Virginia Opera.
“I play the piano and cello and have always been fond of opera,”
he says. “My family was big on it and my father listened to
it frequently. This season, I sang in all four operas and got to meet
a lot of very helpful people. I even got an agent!”
Josh enjoyed each of the four productions for different reasons. “Carmen,”
exciting to him for the newness of the experience, was followed by
“Agrippina” all dolled up in unique trappings.
“It was my first opportunity to be a mime,” he says. “All
the men in the chorus wore morning coats. Our faces were covered with
white pancake makeup and our eyes were lined with black. We were ‘The
Creepies,” silent and seductive.
“The next show, ‘Susannah,’ was spectacular. I even
learned to square dance and most importantly met Carlyle Floyd, the
composer. Last of all, ‘Cav/Pag’ was fabulous for the
guest artists, all up-and-coming singers. Several among them will
make their debuts with New York City Opera next season.
“Even though I’ve lived on the Eastern Shore my whole
life, my mother is from New York and we’ve spent time there,
so I won’t feel like a stranger when I move there this summer
to try my luck in the theater.”
Both Marilyn and Josh are grateful for the honor of singing with Virginia
Opera and utilizing their rich talents to spread joy to others. Next
season, while Josh devotes the days to exhibiting his talents at Broadway
open calls, Marilyn will welcome each sunset, the magical hour when
she leaves the hospital, slips into her car, and begins tooling along
the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel toward the bright lights of Norfolk’s
Harrison Opera House.