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Arts and Entertainment

Two Local Opera Projects Coming In September And October

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(Courtesy Missouri State University)
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Live performances of opera return to the Springfield area during the next two months.  Dr. Ann Marie Daehn, Associate Professor of Voice and Opera at Missouri State University, is involved in both projects, and joined us on “Arts News” to talk about them.  (Due to a technical issue of my own making [who else?], I ended up recording myself off-mike during the entire interview—those who listened live Friday morning could hear me just fine, but I had to re-record some of my questions for this web posting, and boost the levels of others.  Dr. Daehn can be heard loud and clear throughout.)                                                

“You know, we live to make art, and to make people laugh. And the whole point of art is to take us away from the stresses that we have in life.  And to just be able to laugh--with some beautiful singing to boot-- is just a joy."  Thus, Springfield Regional Opera is excited to announce two live performances at the Gillioz Theatre, 325 Park Central East, of Giovanni Pergolesi’s 18th-century comic opera "La Serva Padrona" featuring soprano Genevieve Fulks as Serpina and bass Chris Thompson as Uberto. Dr. Daehn directed the production, will can be seen live on the Gillioz stage Friday and Saturday, September 25 and 26 both at 7:30pm. Tickets range from $35 to $45, and are available at the Gillioz box office, online at https://www.gillioz.org or by phone at 863-9491 (Tues-Fri 10am-5pm). Like everything else, opera performances in the time of COVID-19 are going to be different. Audience members will be required to wear masks; concessions will NOT be available for these two performances; hand sanitizer will be widely available, and enhanced cleaning protocols in place--staff and volunteers will insure that lobby and restroom areas remain un-congested; and audiences will be dismissed by rows following the performances to avoid exit congestion.

Dr. Daehn said audiences will be in "very good hands" with Genevieve Fulks and Chris Thompson as the lead singers. "They're both such amazing voices, and they're hilarious.”  She then offered a synopsis of the action in  "La Serva Padrona.” “Uberto has been taking care of Serpina since he found her as a waif on the streets, and she's been working for him all of these years. And she's--I don't want to say manipulative, that's not kind of the direction we're going--but she knows what he's worth. And she knows him, and she has it in her mind that she'd like to become his wife. And so she moves the chess pieces just so. And so he also then realizes what a great idea that would be. And they have this fantastic other employee of Uberto, Despone... he never says a word, but what he does physically speaks volumes. And yeah, it's very silly!" she said with a laugh.

Anyone thinking, "that's a pretty typical late-18th/early 19th-century comic-opera plotline," would be correct, said Dr. Daehn. "We're not setting it exactly in that time period," she added. As she and the cast talked about the face masks we all have to wear to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, they decided to take a page out of the earlier "commedia dell'arte" tradition in setting this production. "Chris Thompson's mask is hilarious--the nose is just like a slide down at White Water! It's epic. We have three actors on stage, and we're really trying to make everybody take up as much space" onstage as possible (social distancing, you know!). "The costumes (are) big, the props (are) big."

In addition to the performances of "La Serva Padrona" live in the Gillioz, a video stream of the two performances will also be offered for those who choose to stay home. I asked Dr. Daehn to describe how that was going to work. "The Gillioz has been a fantastic partner in making sure that we're all set up for patrons to come in safely. You're going to have an enormous amount of space around you when you come. I feel like everybody who comes in person will feel like it's a personal show. And everyone who tunes in from their home, I mean, how fun is that, to have us come into your home, and you can make your own popcorn and pour your own glass of wine and enjoy the show”--a good point, considering that concessions won’t be available in the Gillioz. In fact, Dr. Daehn noted that she will be attending the performances virtually via the web stream. The online version can be ordered at https://www.sropera.org.

"The opera is a really short one too, so we don't have to worry about intermission. I think they technically call (La Serva Padrona) an 'intermezzo.' You know, it's this darling little package, and you get a full opera feel. But you're home by what would be... my bedtime! This is how I party--nice short opera."

It should be emphasized that it is the first live-performance event for Springfield Regional Opera since the pandemic hit in March.  The company had planned a production of "Pagliacci" in the spring, featuring SRO Artistic Director, tenor Michael Spyres, in his worldwide role debut as Canio. But that had to be postponed due to COVID-19. "We're looking forward to the re-scheduling of that,” said Dr. Daehn. “And oh, my goodness, having been in those rehearsals, I can tell you it was really riveting--absolutely riveting." She said the "Pagliacci" production, as well as Puccini's "Turandot," are rescheduled for the 2021-22 season. "Michael, fortunately, is back at work doing projects. (His) recording projects are still going forth. It's very lucky for all, that we get a record of our local star."

And that’s not the only live opera returning to Springfield. Dr. Daehn is Director of the Opera Theatre program at Missouri State University, “and we have all these fantastic students who are ready to go--and need something to do! And we need art. So I put my thinking cap on over the summer, because I had a lot of time. And we have some wonderful (outdoor) amphitheaters on campus," including one outdoor space near Plaster Student Union and Baker Bookstore. "And I have reserved that (space) for four performances and one rain date. And our first one is next Friday (Sept. 25th). They're all free (and open to the public). I'm calling it our 'Brown Bag Lunch Series'. So we'll start at 11:30am.  And I chose a bunch of  'micro-operas.' This has been a really fantastic, for us, trend. Our shortest opera is five minutes long, and the longest one is closer to 20. Most are right around 10 to 14 minutes. And you get an entire opera in that amount of time."

They're all contemporary works, Dr. Daehn said. "They're all hot off the presses, and the composers have been wonderful, and very involved. You know, it's great to be able to call somebody personally and say, 'I understand you wrote this opera--I'd love to do it.' And they're very excited."

One of the composers involved is Leanna Kirchoff at the University of Denver--MSU performed her chamber opera "The Clever Artifice of Harriet and Margaret" a few years ago "and won some awards for it, so I was anxious to revisit her works, said Dr. Daehn. “It's called 'Scrapbookers.' It's two sisters who are getting together to create a scrapbook for their parents' 50th wedding anniversary." (Who would've thought? An opera about scrapbooking....) "I know," said Dr. Daehn, "but it's great! And as I accumulate the props for it, I'm like, 'Ooh, this is going to make a great scrapbook someday!'”

Composer J. Wesley Flynn, from the University of Minnesota-Morris, “holds the honor of having written the smallest (opera), which is five minutes in length, called 'Bedtime Story.' I don't want to give away the ending. It's this tiny little vignette, kind of a little whodunnit." 

Also represented is Michael Ching, whose opera "Speed Dating Tonight" the MSU Opera program produced several years ago. "He actually, during the quarantine, received a call from a company in Singapore who was supposed to do 'Speed Dating Tonight'. And they said, 'Will you write us something we can do from our homes?' So he wrote something called 'All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go.' The production that this company (in Singapore) did was just darling, and I saw that and I thought, this is fantastic. My favorite song is 'An Ode to Wearing Sweatpants', and all of us will be singing that as we walk out the door."

MSU Opera Theatre will also produce a micro-opera by Philip Seward (from Columbia College Chicago), called "Juliet," an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" which is actually a conversation between the Nurse and Lady Capulet. And Dr. Daehn mentioned another short comic opera, "No Ladies in the Lady's Book" by Lisa DeSpain and librettist Rachel J. Peters. "It's about two gentlemen at a lady's magazine run completely by men, who are writing an article about how the railroad was created without the help of one single woman... and then our female characters come out and start to list all of the incredible inventions and innovations that women contributed to the railroad, to set them straight."

Following the first "Brown Bag Lunch" micro-opera series performance on Sept. 25 at 11:30am, three more will take place Oct. 2nd, 16th and 23rd, with a rain date of November 6th. Each performance will include a couple of micro-operas. Dr. Daehn said they wouldn't announce in advance which operas will be performed on which date "because we're trying to be really nimble in terms of student health and availability... and there's an element of surprise." She also mentioned that several of her MSU Music Department faculty colleagues would bring their ensembles to play during the performances, "so we might have some good string quartet music one week, or a trombone solo another. It'll be a fun time to sit down, eat your brown-bag lunch in the beautiful grass, and enjoy some art in a really safe, relaxing, free way."

For information visit MSU Opera Theater's Facebook page, at https://www.missouristate.edu/opera.