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TideWriters Tales

Celebrating the Past, Present & Future

Virginia 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 Lammermoor.”

   “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, and lights.”

   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.


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