If you heard a strange whooshing sound tonight around 8:35, that was me heavily exhaling with relief as tonight’s opera recital finished up. From a distance, I probably seemed like the same easy-going, happy-to-be-me guy, but Kathy will tell you that from her vantage point I’ve been a nervous wreck, scarcely thinking of anything else all day except this performance. (As I would drift off to sleep, I would be singing “Cara Sposa” from Rinaldo in my head – and as I would awaken the next morning, I would be thinking “Where e’er Your Walk” from Semele. If one is going to obsess about something, I guess it might as well be something as wonderful as the music of Handel!)
The opera program we presented could have focused on just about anything, but I decided that we would focus on Georg Frideric Handel because this is the 250th anniversary of his death and it seemed like an appropriate occasion to remember him. So I put together a program in which each of the students would be preparing an aria by Handel – and then we would top of the evening with several duets that would give the audience at least a little hint of where opera went after Handel’s death. And I have to say that one of my favorite moments all semester was in the middle of a special evening rehearsal of the Carthage Choir. As I sat there at the piano, listening to Maestro Garcia-Novelli explaining some exquisite details that he wanted them to do, I suddenly came up with the perfect name for our recital: Handel. . . with Care. I was so excited that I actually slipped into the back row of the choir to whisper my idea to a couple of the guys in the class – I just couldn’t keep it to myself!
But of course the biggest fun has been in working with the students and seeing them come to terms with music that was for most of them new and uncharted territory. About half of the students had never sung Handel before- and some had never ever sung opera of any kind before- and I’m pretty sure that a couple of them walked through the door with rather low expectations that they were going to like it at all. (After all, this is part of musical theater workshop – and opera tends not to offer up the same visceral excitement and accessibility that “Wicked” or “Rent” does for people this age.) But I’m pretty sure that everyone ended up more excited at the end of the experience than they were at the outset- and I figure that I’ve done something right if things work out that way.
The program actually opened up with a funny little number I concocted that the students sang together. The melody was “He shall feed His Flock” from Handel’s Messiah, but sung to these words:
And his number one:
“Messiah” has been done
maybe ten thousand times!
But Handel would be sore
if we choose to ignore
the many treasures that are found
in Handel’s opera scores.
We know you won’t be bored.
So join us as we sore
through Handel’s opera scores.
From there, the students performed arias from “Agrippina,” “Rinaldo,” “Alcina,” “Xerxes,” “Berenice,” “Samson,” “Theodora,” and “Semele” – with spoken commentary that the students did. . . but which I wrote. (If I were a bit more evolved, I would have had the students write their own introductions, but I just couldn’t bring myself to entrust that responsibility to them. Maybe next time. Maybe.) And at the end of the evening, there were duets from “Cosi fan Tutte” (Mozart) “Faust” (Gounod) and “The Gondoliers” (Gilbert and Sullivan) that gave the evening a bit more texture and variety.
One of the students, Alex Campea, woke up this morning with basically no voice at all, so he sent me an e-mail saying that there was no way he was going to be able to sing his aria “Total Eclipse” – but he would try to get through the Gondoliers duet so as not to let his partner, Wes Anderson, down. As soon as I got Alex’s news, I emailed my voice student Andrew Johnson and asked him to prepare the aria for tonight’s performance. And Andrew was delighted to be able to help out – and took a couple of hours to really polish the aria and make it performance ready. (I was having him hold the score.) But then, in a turn of events that some would call miraculous, Alex found himself at 6:30 tonight suddenly feeling like he could sing again. But what to do with Andrew, who had worked so hard to prepare the aria. I was thinking that we owed Andrew something and suggested to Alex that we offer several scenarios which would allow both Andrew and Alex to sing the aria. But bless his heart, Andrew was delighted to hand the aria back to Alex – since Alex had been working on it over the last couple of months. That was very gracious of Andrew. . .who sat in the audience beaming as Alex sang “Total Eclipse.” But then right before Alex began introducing the next piece, he paused to pay public tribute to Andrew and his selflessness, and those remarks earned one of the biggest ovations of the night.
Anyway, it was a wonderful night of music-making. . .but beyond the pretty singing, there were also some moments of profound expressiveness and eloquence. In many ways, that’s what made me prouder than anything – to see these young singers really getting into it and really having something to say, from their gut! I believe strongly that a singer who learns how to perform a piece like “lascia chio pianga” – a piece from another time, and in another language – and learns to sing it expressively is going to be just that much further ahead when it comes to being expressive in a contemporary show like “Wicked” or “Into the Woods.” You build your expressive muscles – you widen your palette of colors – you deepen the well from which you draw – when you learn to be expressive in other languages and in styles that are far removed from our own popular music. I’m quite sure the vast majority of these particular students have little or no interest in pursuing opera very seriously – but I firmly believe that they will sing “Wicked” that much better for having learned to be expressive in an aria by Handel.
My congratulations go to the students who performed tonight: Kaylee Annable, Kathryn Zutter, Amanda Soos, Rachel Lee, Jillian Swanson, Rikka Nelson, Chris Shanafelt, Alex Campea, Brittany Daniels, Andrew Johnson, Stephanie Drymalski.
Pictured above: the singers are in the midst of performing the first song of the night – “Everybody knows Handel’s Oratorios.”