NACOGDOCHES, Texas – Providing opportunities for voice students to perform on stage and preparing artist educators entering the teaching field are goals of the opera theater program at Stephen F. Austin State University.
The 2022 SFA Opera Theater will feature two one-act operas, “Gallantry: A Soap Opera” by Douglas Moore and “Gianni Schicchi” by Giacomo Puccini, along with the scene “Stomp Your Foot” from Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land.”
A number of factors affect the choice of operas and/or scenes each year, according to Dr. Deborah Dalton, associate professor of voice in the SFA School of Music and opera stage director. In addition to the student voices being a consideration, the performance venue has also been more of a factor in recent years. With construction and renovation underway in Griffith Fine Arts Building on campus, the opera has been limited to performances in Cole Concert Hall instead of the larger, more versatile Turner Auditorium.
“A large factor in my choice of operas is the Cole Concert Hall venue,” Dalton said. “We’re very limited as to scenic and lighting design because we’re not in a theater. Nothing can be flown in, nailed to the floor, or attached to the white shells. There is also no orchestra pit, so until the renovated Griffith Fine Arts Building opens in Fall 2023, the ‘orchestra’ (for the opera) will be piano.”
But those physical limitations do not affect the enthusiasm or talent of the students, and “Gallantry” and “Gianni Schicchi” provide numerous strong roles.
“We’re fortunate to have two baritones, Will Murphy and Logan Dooley (as Gianni Schicchi), and two tenors, Cole Jones and Corbin Mason (as Rinuccio), with the range and skills to sing these demanding roles,” Dalton said. “‘Gianni Schicchi’ has an additional 10 featured roles. With 90% of all roles double cast, 24 voice students have roles. The run time of ‘Schicchi’ is less than an hour, so we needed to find another short opera to fill the evening.
“SFA vocal area has a plethora of talented students,” she said. “After casting ‘Schicchi,’ there were several more strong singers that we wanted to showcase. ‘Gallantry’ has a quartet of leading roles – soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone. With a half-hour running time, ‘Gallantry’ fit our needs quite well.”
Above all, SFA Opera Theater is a class with the goal of training students to perform onstage – preparing a role both musically and dramatically, acting, following a conductor while moving, interacting with others onstage, and, of course, “singing beautifully,” Dalton explained.
“This must be experienced over time as a student grows into their role vocally and dramatically,” she said. “As these artist educators enter the teaching field, this experience aids them as they lead their choirs in various types of performances, such as musicals, choir shows, elementary programs, etc. And, we need to provide stage experience for the younger singers so that they may be the leading roles in the future. Most large operas feature a large chorus that sings glorious music. Since we are currently limited to smaller pieces, we decided to add a chorus scene from ‘The Tender Land’ to the program so students may acquire this necessary experience.”
In “Gianni Schicchi,” old Buoso Donati has died and is surrounded by his greedy relatives. They are hoping Buoso left them part of his great wealth, but they find that Buoso left everything to a monastery. Gianni Schicchi, a clever and cunning peasant, is summoned to find a way around the will. He offers to pose as Buoso and dictate a new will that favors the relatives to the lawyer. When the lawyer arrives, Schicchi has another scheme up his sleeve.
“Gallantry” is a parody centering on a television soap opera set in an operating room. A surgeon has fallen in love with the anesthetist, who in turn loves the patient on the table. Critical moments are interrupted by commercials.
In “The Tender Land” scene, it’s spring harvest time at the Moss farm. At young Laurie’s high school graduation party, spirits are high and the dancing begins with the call, “Stomp your foot!”
Other directors include Professor Nita Hudson, instructor of voice, who serves as production stage manager as well as assistant director/stage manager and occasionally as choreographer for every spring opera production. Hudson schedules all rehearsals and costume fittings while trying to navigate students’ work schedules. She also musically conducts each rehearsal until two weeks before opening night when she is backstage running the show as stage manager.
Additionally, Dr. Greg Grabowsky, director of orchestral activities, conducts the spring productions. He prepares each score, consults with Hudson about tempi and specific cues, and conducts every rehearsal through the run of the show. Dr. Tod Fish, associate director of choral activities, serves as chorus master and prepares the chorus. Staff collaborative pianist Dr. Maria Lyapkova and graduate assistant in collaborative piano Bora Cho prepare all three shows and serve as rehearsal and show pianists.
“It will be an evening of comedy, great storytelling, gorgeous singing and beautiful music,” Dalton said. “After all, one of them is Puccini!”
Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, March 31 through April 2, in Cole Concert Hall. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and $8 for students and youth. For tickets or more information, visit finearts.sfasu.edu or call the SFA Fine Arts Box Office at (936) 468-6407. For more information about the School of Music, call (936) 468-4602.