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Various MSU Departments Collaborate For MSU Opera Theatre's "Gatsby Soiree"

(Poster design courtesy MSU Opera Theatre)

The Missouri State University Opera Theatre and the MSU Meyer Library will transform the Crystal Ballroom at MSU’s Kentwood Hall into a 1920s-style speakeasy, when they present their “Gatsby Soiree” on Friday March 6 from 7 to 9pm. The evening will include a performance of a new chamber opera by Evan Mack, “Ghosts of Gatsby,” which deals with the relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. It’s a fundraiser for the MSU Opera Theatre. Joining us on “Arts News” to talk about it, and about the multi-departmental collaboration that made it possible, were Dr. Ann Marie Daehn, MSU Associate Professor of Voice, and Dr. Jim Baumlin, Distinguished Professor of English at MSU.                                       

Dr. Daehn attended the National Opera Association convention last year and heard an excerpt from Evan Mack’s opera And as soon as I saw it, I couldn't wait to text Jim (Baumlin) because I knew he would get really excited. He's always been a huge supporter of the opera—and the literary tie-in was just too much to pass up. It's a great work.” “Ghosts of Gatsby” won the “New Composition” award in the Domenic Argento Chamber Opera Competition. Dr. Daehn described it as “kind of a micro-opera,” and felt it lent itself well to a sort of dinner-theater “speakeasy” presentation. “’Gatsby’ was the one that really, really caught my ear.”

There are two sides to “Ghosts of Gatsby”, said Dr. Daehn: the 1920s “speakeasy” aspect, “fun music, living, loving, carefree life. And then there’s a very serious kind of psychological drama where we get to know Scott and Zelda.” We first meet Zelda Fitzgerald at age 24. “And then her 18-year-old self appears to her—and her 48-year-old self appears to her. And this is the moment in her life where she has that psychological break.” (Zelda was diagnosed with schizophrenia and confined to various institutions until her sudden death in 1940.) Zelda is confronted by voices from her past and future about the life decisions she has made: the 18-year-old Zelda was convinced that marrying Scott Fitzgerald was “the perfect decision…and then the 48-year-old self looking back and saying, ‘you don't understand how bad this is going to get.’ And it's it's really wonderfully, wonderfully composed. And it's been a delicious challenge for the students to do such meaty material.”

Once he heard that Dr. Daehn wanted to produce an opera based on the “Gatsby” period and the Fitztgeralds, Dr. Jim Baumlin in the MSU English Department was thrilled. “As soon as Ann Marie told me that she was contemplating having that opera, I immediately asked my department head to give me a class in which I could teach ‘The Great Gatsby.’ And so I did. I am currently reading it with students in a writing class, a ‘Criticism Of’ class in which they take different (analytical) approaches to the book. They'll do a historical analysis of it as well.”

Dr. Baumlin agrees with Dr. Daehn that “The Great Gatsby” is “not just a reflection of the roaring 20s and of America in the roaring 20s—and considered, rightfully, to be arguably the great American novel. It is also not just a novel, but it contains a great deal of the life and personalities of Scott and Zelda (Fitzgerald). The fact is that they lived in many ways within that culture that Fitzgerald is both fascinated by and critical of. It's a fascinating book in its complexity and the way that (Dr. Daehn) described it psychologically, from Zelda's perspective, is reflected in the characters of the novel.” Dr. Baumlin strongly suggested anyone planning to attend the “Gatsby Soiree” on March 6 should actually read the novel first. “It's not a long book. It's a quick read. And it will tell you a great deal about America in the (19)20s. But I would suggest that much of what it says about American culture still holds for today, 100 years later.”

The text for “Ghosts of Gatsby” comes straight from the Fitzgeralds’ own journals and other writings, said Dr. Daehn. “She (Zelda) says at one point to him, ‘you plagiarized me!’ And, you know, he did. He took things right out of her journals and put them in his own works.”

Dr. Baumlin put a great deal of emphasis on the sense of collaboration that helped bring about this evening. Specifically, he gave credit to Tom Peters, Dean of MSU Meyer Library and Director of the Ozark Studies Institute, who got involved as soon as he heard about the project. “He said, ‘yes, this is what we do. We bring people together and and we join forces’. And it's just so fantastic to have someone kind of outside of our College of Arts and Letters takes such an interest.

“And I think that that's a reflection of the great theme of this conversation, which is collaboration. But also (it is) a marker that we are in a new era, I think, of the role that libraries will play, not just as archiving materials, but as also producing and supporting and creating venues for the cultural productions that will mark us as being citizens in the Ozarks and having a history, and having a culture, and wanting to produce as well as consume that culture.

One of the major elements of the “Soiree” will be a silent auction, and Baumlin was excited about the items that will be included. “The silent auction is the means by which students of mine can participate in this event. And the silent auction turns this into a broader college collaboration.” “The artwork is beautiful,” added Dr. Daehn. “We are fortunate in the College of Arts and Letters, continued Dr. Baumlin, “to have not just great artists, but generous ones as well, that are willing to give us pieces of fine art. And anyone who comes to the Soiree will have an opportunity to buy some very fine pieces of some digital lithography, some pen-and-ink materials. I think, frankly, it's the best silent auction that I've been involved in, in terms of the quality and the quantity of materials. And it includes people from Communication and Biology, as well as from Art and Design.

“But I'd like to just make a shout-out to my colleagues to say that this is what makes collaborating with people like Anne-Marie so much fun, is belonging to a college where we are all interested in the interrelation of the arts. ‘The Ghosts of Gatsby’ is music that my literature students need to know and the people who are doing the art that is reflective of specific periods in years and styles. We all come together. We're all doing the same thing. We are we are not just consuming culture, but we're producing it.”

One of the special elements of the “Gatsby Soiree” is the venue chosen to host it: the Crystal Room in MSU’s Kentwood Hall, formerly the Kentwood Arms Hotel.  Dr. Baumlin said “it feeds into what we are trying to achieve by this moment. Kenwood Hall was built in the 1920s. The Crystal Room was a dance hall. That was the venue of the first professional radio broadcasts in Springfield, which makes for a wonderful synchronicity, So we are essentially being as historical as possible by holding it there.”

Masters of ceremony for the evening will be Terri and Eric Spires. The event includes a full catered dinner including appetizers and dessert. Doors will open at 6:00 for appetizers and pre-show entertainment featuring various songs from the 1920s.

Tickets are $75 per person, or $515 for sponsored tables of seven. Dr. Daehn asked prospective attendees to order tickets as early as possible, so they will have an accurate count for the catered meal.  Attendees are also invited to dress in 1920s attire, as there will be a “Best-Dressed Daisy and Gatsby” contest as well.

To order tickets, call 836-6011, or visit Missouri State Opera Theatre's Facebook page or their Twitter account.

Randy Stewart joined the full-time KSMU staff in June 1978 after working part-time as a student announcer/producer for two years. His job has evolved from Music Director in the early days to encompassing production of a wide range of arts-related programming and features for KSMU, including the online and Friday morning Arts News. Stewart assists volunteer producers John Darkhorse (Route 66 Blues Express), Lee Worman (The Gold Ring), and Emily Higgins (The Mulberry Tree) with the production of their programs. He's also become the de facto "Voice of KSMU" in recent years due to the many hours per day he’s heard doing local station breaks. Stewart’s record of service on behalf of the Springfield arts community earned him the Springfield Regional Arts Council's Ozzie Award in 2006.