Running a small opera company presents a different set of problems than those faced by major opera companies. Both struggle with complicated budgets and the necessity of expertise across a wide spectrum of performance personnel and decision-making. Opera is, after all, a kind of mash-up of symphony, theater and dance driven by the need to create and sustain that most extravagant and iconic of theatrical figures, the opera singer.

Large houses, though, have a kind of presence and momentum that smaller houses struggle to maintain. Mounting two or three operas per year – what seems to be the minimum viable – leaves smaller companies straining to attract and hold a devoted audience. A component as necessary to the success of opera as the diva herself.

In its usual innovative and engaging way West Edge Opera, originally the Berkeley Opera, has come up with a means to engage and develop opera audiences in that home of West Coast radicalism, the San Francisco Bay Area. The plan is to present a series of unusual operas in concert form in unusual venues. The brainchild of long-time Music Director Jonathan Khuner, Opera Medium Rare (but well-done!) launched its second season this past week with a concert version of Rossini’s Zelmira. Though Khuner was artistic director of the company from 1994 to 2009, Mark Streshinsky is the current artistic director of West Edge Opera. 

Khuner, a dedicated and respected opera professional, has selected operas from the bel canto repertoire. The idea is to choose lesser-known works from well-known composers, thereby appealing to the conservative tastes of the most opera house audiences and casting a wide net that includes more than the devotees of the avant-garde and the experimental. Why these particular operas became the lesser-known works is a hard question to answer, and certainly Khuner offers the opinion that Zelmira is as enchanting as Lucia

Certainly the music is as delightful as any that Rossini wrote, though Zelmira requires stratospherically high voices to glide effortlessly through those endless runs and exotic, hiccupping ornamentation. With the appearance of singers like Juan Diego Floréz, Rossini’s high tenor parts have re-emerged in the opera repertoire. A young singer from Wichita, Brian Yeakley, sang the high tenor role of Rossini’s Prince Ilo. Yeakley has a very bright high tenor, and although he doesn’t have that ebullient, machismo-tinged presence of Floréz (Who does? What an unfair comparison!) he acquitted himself well on the concert stage.

The exquisite Shawnette Sulker sang the role of Zelmira, and she flew through those runs with ease and expertise. Her first act duet with mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz, who sang the role of Zelmira’s confidante, Emma, was a high point of the production. Printz’s complex and weighty sound blended beautifully with Sulker’s light, high soprano in this lament for the imminent loss of child and family.

Bass Paul Thompson sang the role of Zelmira’s father King Polidoro, tenor Michael Belle sang Atenore, the general who covets Polidoro’s throne, and baritone Jordan Eldredge sang Leucippo, Atenore’s right-hand assassin. I loved the tonal quality of all of these singers’ voices, which were strong, richly colored and vigorously sung, even though the singers had some difficulty negotiating Rossini’s killer score. 

The soloists were backed up by a chorus of 12 singers, all in concert black. And the instrumental ensemble included violin, cello, flute and piano. Alexander Katsman, director of the Livermore Opera Company, directed from the piano, keeping admirable control of the tempi. Originally Khuner thought of accompanying the singers on piano only, but he opted for the “special effects” and “variety of color” that the additional instruments could bring to the music.

The venue, Freight & Salvage, is a long-time and much admired home for traditional music. Originally, a coffee house/ performance space settled into a former used-furniture store on the long, industrial-looking San Pablo Boulevard, the Freight moved into the theater district of downtown Berkeley in the late 1980s. A non-profit with the more formal name of the Berkeley Society for the Preservation of Traditional Music, the Society’s 600-seat house features primarily folk and world musicians. It provides however a more splendid setting than the usual black box. Its acoustics are excellent, even without mics. The week before Buffy Sainte Marie performed there, next week it’s the Swingle Singers. Is that even possible?

Despite the elegantly rustic interior and rather posh concert arrangement on the filled-to-capacity-with-performers stage, the company faced the impossible difficulty of creating the atmospheric imaginings of Rossini’s opera, with its hordes of Greek and Trojan warriors, cavernous mausoleums, royal trappings galore. But reducing the production down to voices is not a bad thing, it gives the music a chance to display its essential purity.

Bel canto, as Khuner points out, is “a virtuosic art” and he might have added that Zelmira requires the virtuosos of the virtuosic. The opera demands an extraordinary amount from both singer and listener. But these abridged versions of professionally directed operas for smaller audiences allow young singers to take on parts they would need years of experience and negotiation to achieve. And it allows the audience a taste of the expansiveness of operas available from its centuries-old history.