|MU Opera Moves Audience to Laughter, Tears
The Manchester Department of Music hosted its annual Opera Workshop in three shows of "Two Romantic One-Act Operas" by Composer Giacomo Puccini on Feb. 10–11. These were chosen and directed by Shelley Ploss, a director who is new to Manchester's music department, and Debra Lynn, associate professor of music and director of the Choral Program.
The one-act operas are held annually at Manchester. This "Opera Workshop" is special to the directors, cast and community because everyone who auditions is given a role. It is considered a class so learning is put before performing, and several members of the cast are not college students, "so it truly is a community production" said the directors in the "A Note from the Directors" portion of the event program.
The first opera presented was "Suor Angelica" (pronounced swar Angelica). Ploss directed this tragedy that is set in a convent in the late 17th century. A nun, Sister Angelica, who is a former princess, is visited by her sister whom she has not seen in seven years. Angelica's sister also brings her news that Angelica's child died two years before. The nun is then forced by her sister and the Abbess, who is the leading nun, to sign her assets away. Soon after, she commits suicide through a potion made from poisonous flowers, but her son returns to her as an angel and she dies in his arms.
Although the first opera ended with the audience in tears, the second was a comedy. "We won't leave you with a sad ending," said Jeremiah Sanders who had the lead role in the humorous "Gianni Schicchi" (Johnny Skikki). Lynn directed this opera, which was about a wealthy landowner who dies and leaves all of his money to the church. His family grieved more for the loss of the wealth than for their family member and hired Gianni Schicchi to pretend to be their dead uncle in order to change the will. Schicchi distributes the assets like planned but reserves a large portion for himself.
One challenge during the performance was staying upright, as falling was a common problem on the Wine Recital Hall stage. "People fell a lot in Schicchi" said Emilie Hunt, who played Sister Dolcina in "Suor Angelica," "Kelly (Iler) fell down the stairs and Jeremiah (Sanders) fell in the last opera when he was shooing the family out." They also had a problem with trellises falling in "Suor Angelica."
Ploss's previous success with directing Puccini's operas in graduate school made choosing the operas easy. "We were throwing around ideas and I brought up Puccini,” she said. “Debra agreed and that was it." She said that her previous experience with "Suor Angelica" and "Gianni Schicci" really helped her and Lynn with guiding the casts and bringing this production together.
Auditions were held and roles were chosen in November. Cast members studied their music over winter break and began practicing at the beginning of January. Dress rehearsals lasted an entire week before the actual performance, and the cast rehearsed so much that, according to Hunt, "[e]verybody knew everybody's lines by the end."
"I'm incredibly proud of the girls who were in my show," Ploss said. "They were willing to work hard and willing to listen to changes."