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Opera in the Undergraduate Program

  Undergraduates Laura Virella and Richard Mosson in CANDIDE
Undergraduates Laura Virella and Richard Mosson in Candide
There is no separate program in Opera at the undergraduate level; it is but one of the many opportunities open to Voice majors, along with solo recitals, early music, vocal chamber music, and choral performance. Nonetheless, the Opera Department aims to provide sufficient classes and smaller performance opportunities to enable undergraduate singers to discover whether they are suited to opera, and to give them a solid foundation on which to build if they wish to do so. The majority of Voice undergraduates, in fact, do considerably more Opera than the minimum number of classes and performances which their program requires.

Although our major productions are cast by auditions open to all, it is not usual for undergraduates to come to Peabody and be given roles in full productions during their first year or so. This is not simply a matter of seniority. Opera places demands on the singer which cannot be met unless he or she has a secure technique; the first priority, therefore, is for the student to work with the teacher to build firm vocal foundations. On the other hand, there are several opera classes which can teach necessary stage techniques without making great vocal demands. The normal course is for students to take Movement for the Stage in their first year and Acting for Opera in their second; the latter class also includes performance segments which gradually increase in scale. Underclassmen may volunteer to sing chorus in the major productions; they quite frequently get cast in one of the smaller productions described below; and of course it is always possible that they might happen to fill a particular need in a major production of the Opera Theatre.

The Opera Department mounts about 8 productions each year, for a combined total of around 40 performances. The various names — Opera Workshop, Opera Outreach, Chamber Opera, and Opera Theatre — may sound confusing; they differ mainly in the size of the accompanying forces (from piano solo to full orchestra) and in the proportion of the budget that is spent upon costumes and decor:

Opera Workshop
Opera Potpourri scenes, and occasionally complete one-act operas, when presented with piano accompaniment in a simple staging without decor. All in the original language, and single-cast. Generally two programs per year, with one performance of each. The Opera Workshop also produces the Opera Études, which are described more fully elsewhere.
Opera Outreach
Although theoretically a part of Opera Workshop, in that these productions are also given with piano, they differ by being performed off-campus in multiple performances to a variety of audiences. We always have one production of a standard opera in condensed form — either Hansel and Gretel or The Magic Flute — which we take around grade schools. This has two casts, and sometimes even three, who give 8–10 performances each, spread out over the whole year. Some years, we also offer a musical theater cabaret for older audiences. Internally, the outreach program provides one of the best ways for intermediate students to build up performance experience in front of eager and responsive audiences.
Peabody Chamber Opera
The Chamber Opera presents complete productions of operas calling for smaller stage and instrumental forces than our mainstage productions. These productions are given with simple scenery and full costumes; they are sung in the original languages and accompanied by a small orchestra. They tend to fall into two categories: baroque and modern. The baroque programs have included double- or triple-bills of shorter pieces by composers such as Charpentier, Purcell, and Rameau, and occasionally full-evening works such as Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Cavalli’s Egisto (in our own scholarly edition), or — from a much earlier period — Hildegarde von Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum. More modern works have included Conrad Susa’s Transformations, Daniel Crozier’s With Blood, With Ink (a work originally developed at Peabody and now slated for performance by the New York City Opera), the Peter Brook adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen, and Udo Zimmermann’s Die Weisse Rose. These productions are often given in off-campus locations. All have multiple performances, and many roles are double-cast.
Peabody Opera Theatre
The Opera Theatre is the banner under which we present our largest productions, with full orchestra, scenery, costumes, and lighting, in our own hall. There is one production each semester. Inevitably, they take the largest share of the production budget. In order to provide as many roles as possible, we tend to select ensemble works rather than those which depend on one or two star roles. Accordingly, we have done a lot of Mozart and Britten, together with such landmark operas as Falstaff, Manon, Ariadne auf Naxos, The Cunning Little Vixen, and The Rake’s Progress. Most productions are sung in the original language. All are double-cast, with each cast giving two performances.

In all productions, preference in casting is given to full-time students in good academic standing.

Shannon Angelakis and Nimrod Weisbrod in COSI FAN TUTTE
Shannon Angelakis and Nimrod Weisbrod in Così fan tutte

Undergraduates may expect to have at least three performance assignments, and very often more, during the course of their time in the program. Most of these are performances with piano, but we always try to cast everybody in at least one production with orchestra (Opera Theatre or Chamber Opera) before they graduate, if possible. Admittedly, these may not be major roles, but there will always be exceptions: the two people passionately embracing in the photograph from Così fan tutte (Dorabella and Guglielmo) in the photograph above were a junior and freshman respectively at the time of the performance. Furthermore, all interested students get the possibility of taking part in at least one opera class each year. Assignments to most classes and all roles are made by means of Diagnostic Auditions held at the start of each year.

Backstage photograph by Jesse Hellman,
taken during FALSTAFF performance, 1996
All pictures by JESSE HELLMAN
An impromptu photo opportunity backstage during Falstaff

Undergraduates who develop an unusual aptitude for opera may apply to be accepted into the Opera Performance Certificate track in their junior year; check the link for further information.

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