Opera from a different angle: The Rhode Island College Opera Workshop May 9

Opera fans who are looking for a different kind of opera experience should check out the Rhode Island College Opera Workshop in its annual performance on Sunday, May 9, at 7:30 p.m. in the Nazarian Center’s Sapinsley Hall.

For instance, there will be an excerpt from “Too Many Sopranos” by Edwin Penhorwood, whose cast includes characters such as Madame Pompous, Dame Doleful, Enrico Carouser, Miss Titmouse and the Unnamed Bass.

The Opera Workshop, however, offers more essential differences from the typical evening at the opera, which normally revolves around a single full-length staple of the repertoire.

Opera Workshop co-directors Susan Rodgers, Edward Markward
Edward Markward and Susan Rodgers, who have been co-directing the workshop for the past three years, have come up with a cross section of several such evenings by presenting scenes from classic operas, along with complete performances of two short works: “The Medium,” a two-act tragedy by Gian Carlo Menotti and “A Hand of Bridge,” a witty10-minute piece by Samuel Barber, whose birth centenary is this year.

Markward describes the Barber piece in this way: “It’s a chance for four people to sing an aria, each one having nothing to do with the other, but displaying a bit of their own personalities.”

In addition, the program will feature scenes from Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus,” Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale,” Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel,” and Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and “The Magic Flute.”

For an audience, watching these scenes in the workshop context may be likened to rereading a passage from a favorite book and uncovering details that become clearer in isolation.

Discussing the workshop in his Sapinsley Hall office, Markward emphasized that the May 9 performance is just one aspect of the Opera Workshop. It is actually the culmination of a two-semester course, which currently enrolls 21 students.

“The first semester,” he said, “we concentrate on the skills part of the program, and then the second focuses on getting the scenes ready for production.

“Susan and I sit down over the break in January and spend a great deal of time trying to figure out what operas these 21 students can do and what scenes we can put them in. They all usually get to be in two or three scenes.”

Above and below are photos from previous Opera Workshop performances.
As for the skills part of the program, the students receive comprehensive training in singing techniques and in the theatrical aspects of opera. Rodgers, for instance, presents a session on stage movement and Markward one on recitative, a singing style is used to advance the plot of a work as opposed to the reflective aria.

Workshop students find the Opera Workshop invaluable.

Soprano Stacey Geer, who has taken the course for four consecutive years, said, “The Opera Workshop teaches you how to put it all together on stage. It teaches you everything – physical improvisation, acting, dancing, as well as singing. The scene approach, instead of one large piece, gives you more opportunities to try out good roles.”

Geer, who has had stage experience, graduated from the college with a theatre degree in 1991. She returned as music major in voice to refine her vocal skills and to enhance her acting and teaching endeavors. She will be appearing in “A Hand of Bridge” and in “Too Many Sopranos” as Madame Pompous.

Baritone and senior Jason Linden remarked, “It is the only opportunity at RIC to experience what a career in opera would be like. It is essential for those who want to go into opera once they graduate.

“It also gives students a chance to bond with each other on a level they may not experience otherwise.”

Linden has a role in “The Medium” and will be performing in a trio from “Don Pasquale.”

For students, the workshop performance in not just a one-shot deal. They get to sing at several venues in the area, including Portsmouth High School (April 15), Little Compton Community Center (April 16), Weaver Library in East Providence (April 26) and St. Martin’s Church on Providence’s East Side (May 10).

Faculty and technical support for the program come from all areas of the Department of Music, Theatre, and Dance, and from prominent places in the opera world.

Among the college’s faculty are Christopher Abernathy, lighting; Angelica Vessella, dance; and Bill Wilson, musical theatre. Costumes are provided by the theatre program’s costume shop. Adjunct faculty member Christina Breindel and student John Henry Burns serve as accompanists.

Master classes have been conducted by visiting artist Maria Spacagna, who has sung with the New York City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and at La Scala, where she made her debut in the title role of Madame Butterfly, the first American ever to perform the role there.

John Relyea, a regular on the Metropolitan Opera’s roster and winner of the fourth annual Beverly Sills Award, is another recognized artist on the guest faculty.

In addition, Trinity Rep’s Fred Sullivan, who is currently playing Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple, has brought his wide-ranging experience in acting and directing to the workshop.

John DiCostanzo, a 1984 graduate of the college who acts as a vocal coach at the Met, has also taught for Markward and Rodgers as has former RIC student Diana McVey, a soprano who has sung around the country.

And there are some other former RIC students finding solid success in the world of classical music.

Sisters Lori and Mary Philips, who together graduated in 1986, have both sung at the Met. Mary has been a featured soloist with the New York Philharmonic and has recorded songs by Charles Ives on Naxos. Lori appeared on the Naxos recording of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” and on Telarc CD of Paul Dukas’ opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleue (Ariane and Blue Beard).

A 1985 alumna, Diane Alexander has performed with the Washington National Opera and Houston Grand opera, and at the request of noted American opera composer Carlisle Floyd, created the role of Mary Willis Tweedy for the world premiere of his opera Cold Sassy Tree. Alexander also appeared on the original cast recording of the work in 2005.

From familiar scenes of the past to modern rarities – and perhaps a glimpse at future star performers – the Rhode Island College Opera Workshop covers some promising territory, and is bound to provide an enjoyable and informative evening.

The Opera Workshop has a suggested donation of $5. For more information call (401) 456-8144.