UND students ease into opera with double-bill comic performance
Many operas are known for their death and drama, but there won’t be any bloodshed when the UND Department of Music presents its double-bill performance of comic operas, “Dr. Miracle” and “Trial by Jury” at 7 tonight and Saturday at the Josephine Campbell Recital Hall.
It’s the first time in many years that UND has put on a full opera performance, and directors Royce Blackburn and Wesley Lawrence said they wanted to ease their students (and their audience) into the old performance art to get them excited about the genre.
“For people who are unfamiliar with opera, this is a great one to start on because they’re short, they’re fun and they’re in English,” Lawrence said.
Both operas are operettas, which means they were written during a period of crossover between opera and musical theater.
“(The) songs are not quite as formal as you might find in an opera. They might not be as dramatic and as bombastic,” Blackburn said. “But, they’re very tuneful, and they stretch the imagination. They’re very easy and fun to listen to.”
For many of the students involved, this is their first time performing a full opera. And, Lawrence said the choice in shorter comic operas has allowed them to dip their toes in the water and get a feel for the genre.
“With both of these shows, we’re able to really delve in and work with the students and get them to really fall in love with the craft, the music and the characters,” Lawrence said.
Blackburn added that these particular shows work well because they are not as vocally demanding as the big operas.
“This is a great way for us to get them introduced to the genre and get them introduced to performing,” he said. “For a great many of our students, this is the most singing on stage they’ve done at one time.”
And, for some students, it’s their first time acting.
Ryan Olien, UND music education and vocal performance senior, said this is his first time acting. He wasn’t involved in high school drama and hasn’t performed any full-length shows.
“I took one acting class and worked my way through three short acts, and now I’m on stage for a half hour,” he said. “I’ve been singing forever, but you got to be able to do both in the business.”
And, Olien isn’t just dipping his toe in the water with this one; he’s diving head first with his role as Captain Silvio in “Dr. Miracle.”
The show revolves around Silvio’s quest to marry his true love, the mayor’s daughter. But, to win her father’s approval, he must first disguise himself as a French servant who makes a poisonous omelet for the mayor. Then, he goes in disguise as Dr. Miracle, who saves the day.
“It’s very difficult,” Olien said. “I have a French accent sometimes, and I have a nasal doctor accent, and then I have a tough gruff soldier …. so I have three different accents. And, half of my lines are in Latin.”
Kaylee Lackman, UND music education junior, is facing her own challenges.
She plays the supporting role of Veronica, the mayor’s wife. Although it’s not her first role in an opera — she gained some experience performing in last year’s gala — she said she isn’t much of an actor, so it can be challenging.
“If it’s in your head, it doesn’t always translate to the audience, so you have to make sure your actions are bigger than what you think they are,” she said.
Blackburn said the comedy borders on slapstick and teaching his students that physical comic style has been a challenge.
“If this is a style you’re not familiar with, it’s really hard to get the timing and the gestures down,” he said. But, he added that his students have come a long way.
‘Trial by Jury’
“Trial by Jury” has a similar comic style. But, Lawrence said the most challenging part for him is making the characters feel real in the absurd situation.
“It’s a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, and all Gilbert and Sullivan operas are about turn-of-the-century British aristocracy, so like ridiculous people, usually really wealthy, being really arrogant,” said Jace Erickson, UND vocal performance and music education sophomore.
In “Trial by Jury,” Erickson plays Edwin, who is taken to court by his ex-fiancé, Angelina.
“I’m the defendant, and apparently, I left her just as we were about to get married and that’s the premise for the trial,” he said. “And, everyone’s really ridiculous.”
UND graduate student Sara Bray plays Angelina who she said receives a lot of positive attention from the entire jury, which results in an unfair trial for Edwin.
“Everything about it is absurd and stupid,” Lawrence said. “And we want to keep that because that’s where the comedy is coming from.”
The challenge is putting some reality into the situation with real interactions and connections between the characters, he said.
“If we don’t believe that these are actual people, then the show just doesn’t ring true and the show just isn’t as funny,” he said.
Another challenge “Trial by Jury” presents is the large cast of 18, who must all be engaged on stage throughout the entirety of the show.
“It’s 35 minutes of singular focus, which is not an easy thing to do,” Lawrence said. “We’re used to switching focus every six to seven seconds, and we can’t do that (during the opera).”
A love for the opera
Despite the many challenges, the students are getting excited about the genre.
“It’s tough learning the music, and it’s a very difficult show, and there’s a lot of weird intervals, and it doesn’t always make sense, but now that we have a good handle on it, it’s really fun,” Olien said.
“I would have never imagined myself doing opera, but it’s really fun when you get into it,” she said.
Bray, who has performed in several operas, said her emphasis is choral conducting, but she has always thought she should work equally on singing, and opera allowed her to do so.
“I love working with other people in that kind of environment,” she said. “It’s so much fun to be with all these students who are so enthusiastic about opera, and we all just come together and it’s a process.”
Blackburn and Lawrence are excited to see the students come together for opera as well. They have each performed in many operas and gained a love for the art many years ago.
“There’s so much intensity built into the music itself…It gives such depth to everything happening on stage,” Lawrence said.
Blackburn added: “Opera is life bigger than life. You see these situations where people are in incredibly intense emotional situations and everything plays … to reveal to you what’s going on with these characters.”
Blackburn and Lawrence said they hope their love for the art comes across in their directing and that students will become passionate about the opera.
“We’re just really hoping that this is the start of many years of an annual opera production,” Lawrence said. “It’s really exciting to see opera taking off in the community and … we’re hoping to build on that.”
Along the double-bill performance this weekend, the Department of Music will hold its second annual opera gala May 2.
If you go:
What: The UND Department of Music presents a double-bill performance of operas, Doctor Miracle and Trial by Jury.
When: 7 tonight and Saturday.
Where: Josephine Campbell Recital Hall, Hughes Fine Arts Building at UND at 3350 Campus Road, Grand Forks.
Cost: $6 for adults; $3 for students and seniors; $12 for a family pass, which includes two adults and two students. Tickets available only at the door.