The term “opera” derives from the Latin word for work or effort, and putting on such an elaborate production certainly entails lot of work. “It’s the most challenging art form,” affirmed Adjunct Artist in Music Miriam Charney.
The fruits of such labor will be presented on Friday, May 13, in Skinner Hall’s Mary Anna Fox Martel Recital Hall in this year’s Opera Workshop performance, the culminating presentation of the Music Department’s Opera Workshop course. The event will also be simulcast on the department’s website.
“[This year’s performance] is different because there isn’t really an overarching theme,” explained music major Madeline Pollis ’16. Past performances have included scenes from operas retelling the mythologies of Orpheus and Ariadne or have been full operas, such as Viardot’s “Cendrillon” and Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.”
This year’s program, by contrast, will feature excerpts from a wide range of opera styles and periods. “We are doing a scenes program, broadly chosen from operas in French, German and Italian, and one little scene in English as well,” wrote Senior Lecturer in Music and the director of this year’s workshop Drew Minter in an emailed statement.
Minter, a former opera singer, and Charney, the music director and piano accompanist, chose scenes to complement the students’ varying ranges and levels of experience. Thus, the performance will include music by the composers Mozart, Rossini, Bizet and Berlioz, among others, and will comprise duets, trios and ensemble pieces. “…Drew and Miriam picked [the scenes] with each of us in mind, so they really show off our voices and abilities,” wrote singer Rachel Fuerstman ’16.
Such a diverse program will represent a semester’s worth of preparations and preparing an opera is not a simple task. Large-scale operas have their origins in the Italian-Baroque period, an artistic style characterized by high emotion and a union of media. Opera is the ultimate example of such an exuberant amalgamation. “[It is] this incredible synthesis of music, drama and text, where they all come together in such a way that it feels as if it’s being created at that moment,” said Charney. “It’s rare when that happens, but that’s what we’re aiming for all the time.”
The spontaneous and free-flowing quality of a successful opera belies the incredible amount of multitasking performers must execute. Opera singers are often singing a text in a foreign language—memorized, of course—along with a complex musical score, all while moving around and acting within the scene. The text is also not sung at normal speaking time, and so a depth of emotions must be conveyed at a much slower pace than how one would regularly express them in speech.
On top of all of this, Charney described, “The ultimate goal is to make it sound ‘natural,’ as if people walked around singing to each other all the time.” Minter agreed, adding, “I tell students that it should at all times look like they are creating the music.”
In order to prepare students to accomplish this seemingly impossible task, after frequent rehearsals, Minter and Charney assigned each singer an aria to learn for the final performance program. They all workshopped their respective pieces, mastering not only the music and style, but also studying their histories and contexts. “I think, in that sense,” said Pollis, “it became more of a learning opportunity and not just a performance.”
To address the added difficulty of singing while moving, Minter has also been instructing the singers in the acting technique Viewpoints, which helps in developing performers’ awareness of their bodies and their surroundings.
The singers will have to move in tandem with their co-performers, and the collaborative nature of the Opera Workshop differs from other voice performances at Vassar. For example, both Fuerstman and Pollis had to switch gears entirely from their senior recitals, in which they were singing a solo set. The Opera Workshop will feature a number of big, rousing ensemble pieces, which require adjustments in order to match everyone else and also make learning them on one’s own time nearly counter-productive.
However, Fuerstman commented, the group work has been a fun part of the challenge of preparing for this performance. “Drew always says,” she wrote, “if everyone upstages each other, then we have a show. It’s not just opera, it’s ‘over-the-top-era.’”
Both Minter and Charney also emphasized the differences between acting and performing opera, namely that opera singers not only receive a script to follow, but must also conform to a text set to music. “[A]n opera singer’s timing and pitch are created concretely by the music itself,” Minter explained. “The only parameter that an opera singer has control over is volume.” Charney concurred, saying, “I always like to talk about deconstructing the piece: Why did the composer set this particular text this way?”
The learning experience of examining first-hand the intricacies of opera is crucial for students, like Pollis, who are pursuing opera after Vassar in graduate programs and/or professionally. “[Opera] is the only way to make money in the vocal world…” explained Charney. “Everybody wants to do it, and it’s also become a lot sexier in the last few years.” In fact, Charney went on, approximately 80 percent of operas written in the last 100 or so years were written since 1950 and many of these were written by composers in the United States.
This relevance in the present day may be unexpected, but opera continues to bring audiences out in droves. This year’s performance, which will take place during the study period, can serve as a great study break, a temporary trip to another world where drama runs high and beauty is key. “A lot of people think opera is elitist and impossible to understand,” remarked Fuerstman, “but at the end of the day, [it’s] just stories, sometimes in another language, about human emotions set to music … That’s what opera is really about—storytelling.”