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By Steven Brown

If you scanned the list of works Opera Carolina has performed over the past 66 years, you wouldn’t know that Ludwig van Beethoven and Sergei Rachmaninoff ever devoted their talents to the stage. That’s about to change.

Beethoven’s “Fidelio” will open Opera Carolina’s 2015-16 season. Rachmaninoff’s “Aleko” will have not only its Charlotte premiere, but its first professional staging in the United States when the company performs it in a double bill with one of the most beloved of all operas, Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.”

The company hopes the familiarity of “Pagliacci” and Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which will commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, will balance out the other operas’ novelty. And in the same strategy the company used in 2012 with Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” it’s banking on audiences’ affection for the composers as a draw, general director James Meena says.

“Everybody knows Beethoven, even though they may not know ‘Fidelio,’” Meena says. “We’re trying to … add some new (to Charlotte) and creative repertory – but do so in a way that people have something to connect with.”

In “Fidelio,” which the Charlotte Symphony performed in concert in 2004, a woman disguises herself as a man in order to free her husband from prison, where a tyrant holds him captive. The score includes some of Beethoven’s most electrifying music.

Opera Carolina’s production, directed by Tom Diamond – who staged the January production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot” – will transplant the story to East Berlin in 1989.

“’Fidelio’ is a magnificent piece, not just musically but its theme of liberation from oppression,” Meena says. Performances will be Oct. 17, 22 and 25 at Belk Theater.

Like many U.S. companies, Opera Carolina is breaking up the longtime pairing of “Pagliacci” and Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana.” In 2007, it performed “Pagliacci” alongside Manuel de Falla’s “La Vida Breve.” Now it turns to “Aleko,” a love-triangle drama that Rachmaninoff wrote as a Moscow Conservatory student.

“The orchestration is unbelievably beautiful,” Meena says. “The choral writing is extraordinary. (‘Aleko’ is) very Russian in so many ways.”

Xu Zhong, a Chinese conductor and pianist who leads the Shanghai Philharmonic, will take the podium for the double bill. Though recession-induced belt-tightening led Meena to conduct all of Opera Carolina’s performances for several seasons, the company is going back to its pre-recession pattern of typically having one guest conductor a season, Meena says.

Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” will round out the season. Charlotte audiences will be the first to see new sets, costumes and staging co-produced by Opera Carolina and the Virginia Opera. Frequent Opera Carolina guest Bernard Uzan will direct the production.

Missing from the season: an installment of Opera Carolina’s Puccini cycle. The most important remaining works, “Manon Lescaut” and “The Girl of the Golden West,” are less-often performed, Meena says, and the sets available for rental are designed for “big, big companies” – and won’t fit in Belk Theater.

“We’re having to build productions, which is a much bigger undertaking,” Meena says. The company is looking for companies to go in with it, as with the “Romeo and Juliet” co-production.

The coming season will also include “Art-Poetry-Music” programs showcasing opera along arts of world cultures. An Asian-themed program Oct. 3 will include Korean and Chinese folk dancers. A Russian installment will come at a winter date to be announced.

Meena will weave opera into each concert: “It’s both an audience-building and a community-building initiative for us.”.