It may be hard for you to believe gentle readers, knowing the kind of classy, cultured gal that I am (anyone wondering about my classy credentials can catch up with my post about being a “Williston 10” HERE), but I don’t have much experience with opera. A few years ago Carmike Cinemas showed a series of filmed operas from the San Francisco Opera and I went to Samson & Delilah; other than that, I’ve heard the snippets that were included in Pretty Woman and Philadelphia. Not a lot to go on. So I was a little nervous when Anne Christopherson invited me to come and review the UND Music Department’s Opera Double Bill of Dr. Miracle and Trial By Jury. I’ve been reviewing theatre for a while now, and I’m never one to turn down a free invitation, but I wasn’t sure that my limited exposure to opera would suffice for writing a competent review. But then I remembered that I write articles about makeup and I usually leave the house looking like a dime store hooker, so I felt a little bit better about my life and RSVPed in the affirmative.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried as the opera program was designed for people like me who are new to the genre: the pieces were short and funny, sung in English, and thoroughly entertaining. Both pieces were operettas, designed to be lighter than traditional opera in terms of both music and subject matter and represent a transition point between opera and the development of musical theatre as we now know it (Thanks Wikipedia!). Both pieces were cheeky, slapstick comedies which relied as much on the physicality of the performers as it did on their impressive vocal talents.
Dr. Miracle, directed by Dr. Royce Blackburn and featuring David Henrickson on piano, revolves around Laurette (Jacy Thibert) and her lover, the soldier Silvio (Ryan Olien), whose relationship is thwarted at every turn by her meddling father, the Mayor (Ryan King). Through a series of disguises (including one truly awful hairpiece that even Stan Zbornack wouldn’t have deigned to wear) Silvio enters the Mayor’s household as bumbling servant Pasquin and prepares an omelet for the family which he later convinces the Mayor has been poisoned, and then returns in the guise of Dr. Miracle to provide a cure for the poison in exchange for Laurette’s hand in marriage. As you might expect, the Mayor is undone and love wins out. Dr. Miracle was composed by Georges Bizet of Carmen fame, and fans of that work will be pleasantly surprised by Bizet’s flair for the ridiculously comedic – the family sings an ode to Pasquin’s omelette that is sustained far longer than one might think is necessary or plausible, only to return to the subject after eating it and finding the taste absolutely deplorable. The physicality of the show is entertaining if not entirely realistic, played more in grand, almost cartoonish gestures and the actors do a fine job of interpreting the frothy story. Kaylee Lackman, who plays the Mayor’s new young wife Veronica, was a special treat, imbuing the character with a conniving nymphette quality that played well against Thibert’s starry-eyed young ingénue.
Trial By Jury, a piece by acclaimed musical team Gilbert and Sullivan that was directed by Wesley Lawrence and featured Farren Rowan on the piano, is just as funny if a bit more biting in its social commentary. Angelina (Sara Otteman Bray) has summoned her lover Edwin (Jace Erickson) before the court, presided over by a lecherous Judge (Christian Feldmann) and his cranky Usher (Kaitlyn Holleman), to accuse him of “breach of promise,” an antiquated legal challenge wherein a woman can sue a man who has withdrawn a proposal of marriage. Edwin’s defense is shaky at best, claiming merely that he has grown bored with Angelina and enamored of another, but he hopes to find sympathy among the men of the jury (Michael McGurran, David Holler, Josh Klemen, Michael Lenselink, RJ Morin, and Joshua Sthrehlo) or the ladies in the audience (Laura Allensworth, Jill Ames, Hannah Andrist, Rachel Iiams, Rachelle Ismond, Morgan Nunberg, and Miranda Reinbold); the Counsel for the Plaintiff (Lynneah Thimpson, looking somewhat out of place in khakis and a blazer next to the parade of period clothes worn by the ensemble) is determined to see that this doesn’t happen. The court as a whole is stacked against poor Edwin from the start: the Usher instructs the Jury to act without prejudice but in the next breath advises them to ignore whatever reasons the Defendant may give, and though the men of the jury reflect on their younger days as womanizing cads, they make it clear the those days are well in the past. Edwin’s fate seems sealed when Angelina enters the courtroom and enthralls all the gathered men with her fair beauty.
Gilbert and Sullivan are known for their social satires, and the symbols of authority in Trial By Jury, especially the “Learned Judge,” are easy targets for criticism. Before the proceedings begin, he tells those assembled the story of how he got his job: by marrying the old, ugly daughter of a powerful judge who “could pass for 43 at dusk with the light behind her.” After he gained enough wealth and influence to maintain his position, he ditched her – and with this declaration, he opens the proceedings against Edwin.
The ensemble element of Trial By Jury gave it a vocal complexity that I highly enjoyed; one of my favorite parts of any musical is when the ensemble comes together for a layering of sound (think “Christmas Bells” from RENT). Again, there was a lot of physicality to accentuate the humor in the piece, and Holleman’s Usher was the highlight of the show, barking orders and curling up for a nap when the proceedings become tedious.
This double bill was the Music Department’s first opera presentation in what one hopes will become a regular feature. The shows were quick and funny, and though they were sung in English, lyrics were projected onto a screen above the actor’s heads for those who had trouble understanding the phrasing. These two operettas were an easy and accessible introduction for people new to opera, and fans of musicals should feel quite comfortable in branching out. So what distinguishes an opera from a musical? Again, I’m no expert, but using this presentation as a guide, musicals are a bit more theatrical: the singing is part of the larger theatrical experience created with story, costuming, set design, and characterization. For opera, the music is the primary feature, and all of the other theatrical elements, though certainly well done in this instance, are secondary to the vocal acrobatics of the performers. In other words, you might say that a musical is a performance by actors who also sing, and an opera is a performance by singers who also act.
I had a wonderful time stepping out of the familiar and into the world of these sparkling operatic confections. I hope that this becomes a regular attraction on the UND campus, allowing more people to experience the genre of opera as well as take in some great performances by immensely talented singers. For those looking to experience more opera locally, the 2nd Annual Opera Gala, directed by Dr. Alejandro Drago, will be held on Friday, May 2 at 8pm at the Masonic Center on Bruce Ave.
And while attending an opera may not help you achieve Williston 10 status, it will allow you to feel a bit more cultured, and this may in turn help you attract a better pedigree of gentlemen callers (or gentlewomen, depending on your personal tastes). Not that it would ever stop me from picking up oilfield workers, of course; that’s just the kind of classy lady I am.
Tags: Bizet, Christian Feldmann, Comedic Opera, David Henrickson, David Holler, Dr. Miracle, Farren Rowan, Georges Bizet, Gilbert and Sullivan, Hannah AAndrist, Jace Erickson, Jacy Thibert, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jill Ames, Josh Klemen, Joshua Strehlo, Kaitlyn Hollman, Kaylee Lackman, Laura Allensworth, Lynneah Thompson, Michael Lenselink, Michael McGurran, Miranda Reinbold, Miss Jaye, Morgan Nunberg, Musical, Musical Theater, Musical Theatre, Opera, Operetta, Rachel Iiams, Rachelle Ismond, RJ Morin, Royce Blackburn, Ryan King, Ryan Olien, Sara Otteman Bray, Slapstick Comedy, theater, theatre, Trial By Jury, UND Music, UND Music Department, Wesley Lawrence