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Taking the Stage in Opera Workshop

Written by Alexandra Evans

Tom Lehman '10 performs the role of the Pilot in "The Little Prince"

Ever dream of taking the stage at the Met? Love listening to recordings of Pavarotti or Maria Callas? Can’t get enough of La Boheme or Madame Butterfly? Then you’ll be interested in Opera Workshop, a two-credit course offered by the School of Music that introduces students to the field of opera in today’s society -- and to the hard work it takes to meet the standards for entering the professional opera business.

Students hone their skills in singing, acting, and stage movement and gain training in audition technique and scene study. Starting with the first rehearsal, students are expected to bring their best work to class.

But don’t bother looking for a used textbook or trying to borrow notes from someone who’s already taken the course. The curriculum changes completely every time.

“I still have yet to find that magical recipe for what Opera Workshop should be, and I don’t think it exists,” says music performance professor Brian DeMaris, one of the instructors of the class. “It’s different for every student, and thus the course is different every semester.”

There are no prerequisites, though DeMaris recommends taking Acting and Movement for Singers before auditioning for Opera Workshop, and the class is open only to juniors and seniors. The competition is fierce from the beginning, with 50 to 60 students vying for about 25 spots.

DeMaris evaluates the class as a whole before deciding on a theme and choosing which operatic pieces the students will prepare for an end-of-the-semester showcase. In the spring 2009 class, the women performed the one-act Puccini opera Suor Angelica while the men created their own one-act opera, a parody of The Three Tenors. Most recently, the spring 2010 class focused on repertoire from 17th-century Italy’s bel canto period.

To really immerse themselves in the chosen theme, students conduct group research projects on any aspect of the designated opera or artist, such as the history of the piece, the composer’s life, or the art, architecture, society, or politics of the period.

But forget PowerPoint -- students must come up with a creative way to present their project, like through a skit or performance or a piece of artwork.

“Opera is not just about having the gas to sing, project, and be big,” says DeMaris. “There are so many more dimensions of it to learn. The objective of Opera Workshop is to gain self-awareness and to learn about a character while also learning about yourself.”

In addition, DeMaris teaches his students relevant lessons that pertain to the modern-day opera industry such as tax preparation for the opera singer. “You can deduct things like your stage makeup and tips and recordings,” he says.

Because Opera Workshop is a completely different experience each time it’s offered, students can take the course more than once. In fact, vocal performance majors are expected to take it at least twice.

Tom Lehman ’10 has taken it every semester since becoming eligible, and he recently landed the role of the Pilot in the College’s spring 2010 main-stage production of the opera The Little Prince.

“Op Shop helped me prepare for the role by challenging me to learn a lot of music in a short amount of time,” says Lehman. “We often were assigned music to learn over a weekend, and often in other languages.”

The hard work pays off when the Opera Workshop students take the stage for the showcase they’ve been preparing all semester. DeMaris says the audience -- full of underclassmen music majors looking forward to their turn in the spotlight -- “hoots and hollers” for the singers.

But the students get a lot more than a round of applause -- they also gain experience that will help them stand out in the pool of aspiring professional opera performers.



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