“When I walked in there,” says bass-baritone Robert Orth, “I thought, ‘Oh, okay: My mom’s got a barn!’ ” He assumes the voice of a wide-eyed, stage-struck rube in full “Babes in Arms” mode: “‘We can make some costumes! My dad’s got $5 million! We can put on an opera!’ ”
In fact, he’s not so wide of the mark. Kim Pensinger Witman, Wolf Trap’s opera director, has a kind of can-do attitude that doesn’t shy away from the homemade, roll-up-your-sleeves approach to getting a job done. In the summer, Witman works with a support staff to put on the productions of the Wolf Trap Opera. But “The Inspector” is a production not of the opera company, but of the Wolf Trap Foundation, which has no such support staff itself. It has only a handful of year-round employees, which means that Witman has to do nearly everything herself: line up a substitute for a sick singer; ferry artists to and from rehearsals; even babysit for a 10-month-old named Henry. The boy’s mother, soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, is playing Beatrice, the daughter of Orth’s character, a corrupt Sicilian mayor in Fascist-era Italy whom the opera’s librettist, Mark Campbell, has given the graphically descriptive name of Fazzobaldi.
Her resourcefulness has helped Witman and her crew not only to stage two world premieres, but to snare a Grammy nomination for the recording they made of Wolf Trap’s last new opera, “Volpone,” which had its premiere in 2004. At a time when some companies lament that they can’t afford to do new work, Wolf Trap, which isn’t really a company at all, is figuring out how to do it, on a shoestring, and make it count.
The summertime Wolf Trap Opera is designed to use young artists who are just emerging from training programs and testing their wings in the professional world. By contrast, “The Inspector” is a fully professional opera using singers of all ages and all levels of experience. Many of the artists, however, are Wolf Trap Opera alumni — of more or less recent vintage. When Orth first came, in 1975, he was a public school music teacher.
In those early days, the program involved formal classwork in movement, acting and diction. There were no Barns: The young singers gave performances at the Madeira School and took small parts in operas on Wolf Trap’s main stage with the likes of Anna Moffo (in “The Taming of the Shrew”) and Beverly Sills (in “La Traviata”).