Nine University of Lynchburg students will take the stage with professional performers this weekend when Opera on the James opens a 1960s-themed rendition of the Mozart opera “Don Giovanni.”
The students make up the majority of the show’s chorus, directed Lynchburg music faculty member Jeremy Craft ’12 MEd, ’16 MA. This summer, Craft became chorus master for Opera on the James, reestablishing a partnership with the opera house.
“We’re so happy to have them and deeply grateful for Jeremy reconnecting with the Opera and strengthening the company’s ties with University of Lynchburg,” Cecelia Schieve, the Opera’s general director, said, adding that she “absolutely hopes [the Opera] will continue … to have access to the talent of the students and continue to see what we can provide” to the College.
Craft said he is excited about the opportunities that the partnership can give to voice students. “Our students will now have the ability to perform in these productions whenever a chorus is needed,” he said.
Each year, Opera on the James recruits opera singers from across the U.S. for its performance season, which runs from November through March. It gives local artists, including area college students, the opportunity to work with professional opera singers and world-renowned conductors.
Conductor Peter Leonard, for example, has led operas and orchestras throughout Europe and North America, among them the New York Philharmonic. Schieve said it’s a “tremendous opportunity” for the students to work with Leonard and the professional opera singers and compared the experience to attending a master class.
“Seeing professionals [and] working with them on a consistent basis,” Schieve said. “Seeing how they change and adapt and how they sing at such a high level over the rehearsals. The advantage to work under the truly masterful opera conductor … who has had and continues to have a wonderful, international career. Being able to work under a conductor at that level — I find it so inspiring and educational, and I hope they do, too.”
Each of the season’s shows has a tight production schedule — about a month — which makes learning the music before formal rehearsals begin imperative. Along with selecting chorus members, Craft said, the chorus master “prepares the music ahead of time, so that when the chorus shows up at their first rehearsal they can jump right in with the rest of the stuff, the blocking, the acting.”
While chorus members might not have named roles — they might be townspeople, for example — they’re on-stage with the principle characters. They’ll be singing, acting and, because this production of the 200-year-old opera will be set in the swinging 1960s, doing the mashed potato and other popular dances of the decade.
“There’s a really interesting twist on this show that I wasn’t expecting,” said Cassi Robertson ’20, a member of the chorus. “It’s going to be really exciting. … It’s going to be really interesting and I’m excited about working with that theme.”
As one might expect, “Don Giovanni” will be sung in Italian with English subtitles, but that hasn’t presented any problems for the students.
“Part of my job is actually to be able to teach music in a variety of foreign languages,” Craft said. “A vast majority of choral music, as well as solo literature, is in foreign languages. The students are comfortable singing in other languages, but there is always a bit of work to get it to sound Italian.”
While she didn’t have much experience with opera, per se, Robertson, a biomedical science major and music performance minor, has sung solo pieces in Italian and said she enjoys the challenge.
“It really requires a singer to understand the musicality and phrasing of the music itself, so he or she may portray the emotions to an audience that may not understand the language,” she said. “I feel more connected with a piece in Italian, or any foreign language for that matter, as I have to do more research and practicing to grasp the meaning of it.”
“Don Giovanni” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday, November 10, and 3 p.m. Sunday, November 12, at the Joy and Lynch Christian Warehouse Theatre, located at the Academy Center of the Arts on Commerce Street in Lynchburg.
For more information, visit www.operaonthejames.org.
The following Lynchburg students will be performing in the chorus:
Hattie Bays ‘18
Cassi Robertson ‘20
Madison Wares ’19
Alison Horton ’21
Lauren Harris ’20
Sara Severens ’18
Chris Young ’20
Darian Geddis ’20
Mark Wilson ’21