Opera from a different angle: The Rhode Island College Opera Workshop, May 8

A baroque take on Caesar and Cleopatra, family intrigue in the Deep South, singing Carmelites, complicated love affairs that simultaneously perplex and delight, a Kafkaesque drama and more.

Opera Workshop co-directors Susan Rodgers, Edward Markward
But there is a method to this motley mix, which has been engineered by Ed Markward and Susan Rodgers for this year’s Opera Workshop presentation, which will take place on Sunday, May 8, at 7:30 p.m., in the Nazarian Center’s Sapinsley Hall on the Rhode Island College campus.

Besides giving local opera fans an eclectic evening of treats, the two members of RIC’s music faculty have selected the program to give aspiring opera stars experience with a wide range of operatic singing styles.

Markward said, “We’re teaching the students how to sing Mozart as opposed to singing Puccini, or how to sing Kurt Weill and what is different about that.”

“For the first time, we’re doing something from Marc Blitztein’s “Regina.” That’s a whole different kind of thing,” he added.

“Regina,” based on Lillian Hellman’s play “The Little Foxes,” is a work that combines opera with Broadway styles.

This year’s program strongly reflects the two directors’ preferences. Markward noted, “Susan and I both like contemporary things and we’re both Mozart fanatics. There are reasons for the Mozart. He is one of the greatest composers, but he is also an approachable composer for singers 22 and under.”

In fact, Mozart has three selections: from “Così fan tutte” and “Die Zauberflöte” as well as the entire second act of “Le nozze di Figaro,” which exclusively occupies second half of the concert.

Such a large slice of “Figaro” was chosen because “it has everything you could ask for” in Markward’s words: it has one of the greatest finales in the opera world, with everybody singing at the same time; three big arias; a duet; and a trio.

Contemporaries (or at least moderns) are represented by “Regina,” “Dialogues des Carmélites” by Poulenc, “Street Scene” by Weill and “The Consul” by Menotti.

The remaining scenes are from Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” Nicolai’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and Verdi’s “La Traviata.”

In making these selections, Markward emphasized that he and Rodgers chose material that will not overly tax young developing voices, so audiences won’t hear any Wagner or some of Verdi’s more weighty roles.

The opera workshop performances are an outgrowth of a two-semester course, which is taught primarily by Markward and Rodgers, but which also enlists talent from additional members of the Department of Music, Theatre, and Dance as well as other performance professionals.

Vocal instruction is provided through master classes with some of the top professionals in the field. Recent faculty have included John Mario DiCostanzo, a noted conductor and recitalist and a vocal coach in New York City; Diana McVey, who has sung at Carnegie Hall; Mary Phillips, a 1986 RIC graduate and Metropolitan Opera singer; and Maria Spacagna, who has performed with the New York City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and at La Scala.

Besides vocal instruction, the course covers such areas as acting, movement and stagecraft. For instance, Fred Sullivan Jr. of Trinity Rep teaches participants improvisation so that they can better understand character. Bill Wilson of the college’s Music, Theatre, and Dance Department has a component on stage combat. He also teaches dance movement as does another department faculty member, Angelica Vessella.

Accompaniment is provided by pianists Christina Breindel and Brandon Donahue.

Not all workshop participants are voice majors, but they must have strong vocal skills and pass an audition. In fact, the main tenor in the current class is a guitar major. A trombone major and a musical theatre major are also enrolled.

An important and developing aspect of the opera workshop is touring, for it gives students an opportunity to perform the pieces more that once and allows them to try their skills in an unfamiliar setting.

Markward recalled that the RIC workshop’s initial off-campus performance was about four years ago in a small church in Chepachet, and the schedule had been growing gradually, until this year, when it got a big boost from Up with School Arts, an organization advocating arts education in Little Compton, Tiverton and on Aquidneck Island.

This summer, from July 28-30, the Opera Workshop will participate in a three-day residency in Little Compton. That means Markward, Rodgers and their students will be housed there and will also receive a stipend, which they will use to help pay for costumes and for artists who will teaching in the Opera Workshop for the fall of 2011.

Markward plans to hold an open rehearsal for schoolchildren on Thursday, followed by two public performances, on Friday and Saturday.

“I am hopeful,” Markward said, “that this might become a Rhode Island College East, a summer engagement for other things beside the Opera Workshop. For instance, I would like to build a mini music festival there.”

So far in 2011 the Opera Workhop has appeared in Portsmouth, where it gave a concert for music students from Aquidneck-area high schools; at Weaver Public Library in East Providence, sponsored by the Opera Guild of Rhode Island; and at St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center in Woonsocket.

There will be another performance following the one at RIC, which will take place Monday, May 9, at 7:30 p.m. at St. Martin’s Church on the East Side of Providence.

An earlier incarnation of the Opera Workshop began at St. Martin’s some 20 years ago under the auspices of Rodgers and her husband. Markward was a guest instructor then, and Diana McVey was a student.

One of Markward’s wishes is that students who come to the workshop performances will be encouraged to apply to Rhode Island College as music majors.

Already opera study has made an inroad at one of the places he visited. A teacher in Portsmouth, where the RIC group has performed for a couple of years, was inspired to include a unit on opera in class.

Perhaps the unique combination of music and drama that characterizes opera is catchy.

It is something worth contemplating, even if you are too old for school. The Opera Workshop sounds like a good place to begin.

The Opera Workshop has a suggested donation of $10.