Opera for everyone

Thursday, April 1, 2004

Opera does not have to be intimidating, at least that is what those involved with Southeast Missouri State University's latest opera production are trying to get across.

"Opera has an uphill climb from the get go," said voice professor Christopher Goeke. "I'm hoping to get the word out that it's accessible."

To that end, the university's productions of Puccini's one-act operas "Gianni Schicchi" and "Suor Angelica" do not last three hours, and nobody sings in a language you do not understand.

The first test of the production's success was Wednesday, when nearly 500 schoolchildren from Cape Girardeau County watched the comedy "Gianni Schicchi" in Academic Auditorium.

That's right, comedy and opera can go together. What is more, the setting for this opera is modern day Cape Girardeau.

"By modernizing, it makes it more accessible," Goeke said. The original setting makes the opera seem more like a museum piece to most people, especially those who are new to opera, he said.

"We're not dumbing it down. We're giving it a little twist."

"Gianni Schicchi," with the artistic liberties taken by its directors, is about a wealthy Italian emigrant, Buoso Donati, residing in Cape Girardeau who has recently died and left most of his money to the university.

Donati's family starts fighting over the missed inheritance and enlists the help of Gianni Schicchi to impersonate the late Donati in order to change the will.

"It's a very funny opera with great music," said Barb Herbert, the host of KRCU's "Sunday Night at the Opera" radio show. As for the updating of this classic, Herbert said it lends itself better to the idea than most other operas because it is a comedy and it centers on love and greed.

"It's a timeless story," she said.

The opera also features a very famous aria, "O Mio Babbino Caro," whose name might not ring a bell but is instantly recognizable upon its performance.

"Hopefully our presentation today will show that operas are pretty cool," Goeke told the children before the start of the production.

Central Middle School teachers Debbie Gattis and Laura Green said they never had any worries about their students not liking or understanding the opera.

"I knew they would like it," Green said. "Our music teacher exposes them to all types of music."

Students from Central Middle School went to the opera as part of their music curriculum.

"It's just another type of music to expose them to," said Gattis, who was experiencing an opera for the first time herself. "This is a good thing for me, too."

Several fifth-grade students from West Lane Elementary said they enjoyed the opera.

"It was awesome," said Brooklyn Lunsford. Fellow student Meghan Rush also said she liked it, although at first she thought she would be bored.

Touch of tragedy

Whether they would like the other one act opera as much is questionable.

"Suor Angelica" is a tragedy set in a 17th century Italian convent, where Sister Angelica has been sent following an out-of-wedlock birth. Angelica waits seven years for news from her family, but hears nothing until her aunt, the Principessa, arrives. Of course, this being a tragedy, the Principessa does not come bearing good news.

For this particular opera, Goeke said it made little sense to make any changes except for translating the Italian into English.

"I wanted to do a real opera, something that was meaty and substantial," Goeke said of "Suor Angelica."

It also served as a challenge for the students, said Leslie Jones, a voice professor and a performer in both operas.

Goeke and Jones also direct the university's opera and music theater workshop, which is the reason behind this production. The workshop is a class students are admitted into by audition.

Each semester the workshop presents a different musical performance, whether it is on a large scale like this semester's, or like the operatic arias undertaken last fall.

The workshop students have been practicing "Suor Angelica" and "Gianni Schicchi" since the end of September, although they did not get a chance to practice in Academic Auditorium as often as they would have liked.

"This is really more difficult than a musical," Goeke said.

Part of the difficulties have come from getting the students use to performing in the auditorium, where they have to work hard to project their voices and the acoustics are not very good, Jones said.

Another challenge for the vocalists was singing with the orchestra accompaniment.

"You have to really know the music," said Erika Beasley, who appears in both operas.

As for the update of "Gianni Schicchi," Beasley said she thought it was a good idea.

"Having it set in Cape Girardeau gives everyone something to relate to, it makes it more fun," she said. "I think a lot of people have the wrong idea about opera because it can be so cool."


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