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Hands-on Opera Workshop Class Debuts Professor's New Work

Written by Emily Hull

The Wolf by the Ears starred Zachary James '05 as Thomas Jefferson and Cherisse Williams '17 as Sally Hemings. Photo by Durst Breneiser '15

As the lights went down in Ford Hall on April 8, a swell of string music welcomed a ballet dancer to a blue-lit center stage. Her dance was soon joined by the beats of an African drum and a traditional dancer as the screen above projected a faded American flag with black ink script writing out the words “The Wolf by the Ears.”

This performance was the world premiere of the opera composed by Ithaca College professor Dana Wilson and was produced through a unique in-class experience offered by Ithaca College’s School of Music.

Opera Workshop, a two-credit elective course taught by Brian DeMaris ’02, offers students of vocal performance an in-depth look at the art, the craft, and the field of opera in today’s world.

“It’s really for students of singing to learn how to move, act, embody a character, multitask and learn about the operatic field and repertoire,” DeMaris said. “They not only perform operatic scenes, they also have some sort of backstage responsibility like doing supertitles, working on the programs or marketing, helping with costumes.”

The class also focuses on technique for auditions, physical and vocal improvisations, and movement. DeMaris said Opera Workshop is unique because it challenges students to look beyond what the text says in front of them.

“We are singing repertoire that requires them to step into another character,” he said. “They have to know where they are, why they’re singing, to whom their singing, what they want, what’s in their way, and what they are risking—all important dramatic additives to the music-making process.”

This spring, the class decided to tackle a fully staged rendition of “The Wolf by the Ears,” a project Wilson has been working on for nearly 10 years.

Wilson had long been interested in Thomas Jefferson as a political figure and his complexity as a human being. In 1998, a DNA test revealed Jefferson’s DNA in the descendants of an enslaved woman, Sally Hemings. Wilson said he had always wanted to write an opera, and this story was important to him sociologically, psychologically, and emotionally. He said this production has been able to capture these feelings.

“This is a very special class, with very special faculty,” Wilson said. “If someone were to tell me they were going to put this together in a class, I would think it’s highly unlikely because it’s so complicated and takes so much time. But the nature of the course is so hands-on; it’s phenomenal.”

Wilson commended DeMaris for committing to such an intensive project, noting that not many colleges and universities have this type of experience for singers.

“Brian takes on big chunks,” he said. “I doubt that there are many places, even the big programs, that take on the kind of projects that he does. Every one of his Opera Workshops is a real production.”

Cherisse Williams starred in the role of Sally Hemings in the opera. As a second-year graduate student, she said she has gained a tremendous amount of performance experience from this production.

“Not only are you learning about opera, you are a part of it,” Williams said. “It’s important for performers because sometimes when you just do scenes, you put in a lot of work, but so much more is put into an actual role when you do it in its entirety.”  

DeMaris said what he likes most about Opera Workshop is being able to see his students connect with the text and music they are performing.

“There’s a lot of self discovery in this course,” he said. “I enjoy helping students discover who they are, what opera is and how their lives intersect with it.”



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