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A “work” of art: VCU Opera & VCU Symphony present The Merry Widow

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Backstage, students assemble parts for the upcoming opera.

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Students practice care measuring and cutting parts for The Merry Widow’s scenery.

It’s no surprise that the origin of the word “opera” in Italian is “work.” Planning a full-scale opera production for VCU Music is, in fact, a lot of “work.” Melanie Day and Kenneth Wood, Co-Directors of VCU Opera, face considerable challenges that could easily keep opera from being part of VCU’s artistic heritage. But each year, the directors prevail. For two days, the Sonia Vlahcevic Concert Hall is transformed into a Richmond opera house where undergraduate instrumentalists and singers move into the spotlight as virtuosos, charming audiences with delightful drama and music.

Unlike some institutions, many students come to VCU Music with no previous exposure to opera. To audiences and aspiring performers, the art form can be a mystery with its ascending arias, complex costumes, and showy scenery. Opera’s origins are traced back to great composers like Mozart, Rossini, and Strauss who wrote for professional performers of the time. “Opera was not written for amateurs,” quipped Kenneth Wood. As a result, vocal students must undergo a theatrical journey learning stage movements, advancing their acting skills, and refining their own singing abilities.

Students in the orchestra must quickly adapt to “life in the pit” and challenge themselves to follow a series of dramatic, vocal, and conducting cues while carefully counting measures as Daniel Myssyk, Director of VCU Symphony, conducts for both the orchestra and singers on stage. Even those who aren’t performing in the opera are challenged, assisting with demanding behind-the-scenes roles including scenery design, set building, lighting, choreography, costuming, makeup and hair application, and stage management. For all students involved, their “opera journey” comes in tandem with learning music for other ensembles and recitals, and balancing classes and jobs.

“That’s one of the reasons our students aren’t divas,” Day said. From being involved in all aspects of the more than 60 year-old opera company, students have learned to respect the hard work it takes to put together such a monumental production. “[VCU Opera] has tremendously enhanced their understanding of what it takes to put it all together,” Day continued.

So, why The Merry Widow? Franz Lehar’s hit take on a rich widow inspired seductive corsets, glamorous hats – even cocktails and cigarettes. As the 20th century’s most famous widow, Hollywood made three films about the lead Sonia Glawari and Broadway couldn’t get enough. Flirtation, glamour, and high finance are featured as Prince Danilo is ordered to marry the rich young widow or risk the country’s bankruptcy. Audiences will enjoy as the ever-familiar plot, For love or money?, is tested.

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Quiet contemplation. A student reads a score during the first day of “Tech Week.”

In taking consideration of students’ vocal range, Day noticed the puzzle pieces of a perfect production fitting together in her search of this year’s opera. “Our singers had the vocal range available to sing these parts. [There were] a lot of a medium-sized parts,” she said, allowing many students to share the spotlight. Day also pointed out that an opera like The Merry Widow “gives singers the chance to learn how to do dialogue,” offering a specific type of training for the ambitious performer. In the case of this spring’s opera, The Merry Widow, students must stretch their usual performance boundaries, learning dance moves like the Viennese waltz and the Can Can!

About eight years ago, members of VCU Opera performed The Merry Widow in Rome as part of Operafestival di Roma, a nonprofit summer opera program in Italy, where Day served as Principal Coach and Artistic Director. Because of that, many of the costumes were available in VCU Opera’s extensive collection. Luck prevailed and the Department already had access to orchestral parts, cutting one of the many fees. Between the basics of royalty and costuming fees, financing an opera is expensive.

Not mentioned yet are the technical, stage demands of the show. As many know, VCU Music’s concert space, the Sonia Vlahcevic Concert Hall is technically not a theatre. Switching from an embassy ball to a garden party to a ballroom might be “par for the course” for an opera or theatre company, but these maneuvers push VCU Opera to its limits. Simply building on campus can be difficult because of storage, sound, and space issues. Technical Director Roland Karnatz has to envision building scenery in small, storable components that can be put together in one day with minimal access to tools. Whew!

With all these pieces in mind, the research process is lengthy. Day and Wood spend the summer researching all of these financial aspects and considering the “big picture” of VCU Opera. “A lot of schools select the show they’re going to do the spring before,” Day said. Day and Wood elect to do their process differently, allowing many students a chance to be involved and holding auditions in the fall.

“We go through all types of effort to do our best,” said Day. And audiences are glad they do. The Merry Widow opens Friday, April 25, with a second performance on Sunday, April 27.

VCU Opera and VCU Symphony present The Merry Widow

Friday, April 25 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 27 at 4 p.m.

General admission tickets are $10 in advance and $15 on the day of the performance. VCU students with ID are free.

View more backstage photos on our Facebook page!