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


Backstage, students assemble parts for the upcoming opera.


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.


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 Art 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!

Dr. Yin Zheng, piano, kicks off spring “Journey” Series with Mozart

For classical music artists, mastering the work of a favorite composer is not only a lifelong goal, but an opportunity to understand the composer’s inspiration and thought process intimately. Usually, getting any closer, beyond the written work of long-deceased classical music composers, is an impossibility.

Although Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has been dead for 223 years, Dr. Yin Zheng found herself closer to him than most modern musicians will ever get to experience. In July, Dr. Yin Zheng recorded the complete Sonatas for Piano and Violin by Wolfgang A. Mozart with violinist Bin Huang, Gold Medalist of the prestigious Paganini and Munich ARD International Violin Competitions.

“It’s an incredibly visceral experience to play on Mozart’s own instruments, to have his manuscripts and letters right in front of us, and to walk every street he once set his foot on,” Dr. Zheng said.

“From the artist stand point, it is an extremely immersive experience and ambitious undertaking to record all 16 mature sonatas for Piano and Violin by Mozart,” said Dr. Zheng. “It took us multiple trips to Salzburg where we had the privilege to study and research on the topic at the Bibliotheca Mozartiana.

As if recording 16 sonatas wasn’t enough, Dr. Zheng gained a new appreciation for Mozart and his work. “We have gained much more insightful understanding of the compositional process and performance practice after studying and comparing his facsimiles and first editions. I have also discovered, apart from some of the popular sonatas, some lesser-known gems in this collection and am excited to introduce them to my students,” Dr. Zheng said.

Journey with Mozart begins the first of several “Journey” concerts. The second, Journey to Eastern Europe, will take place at VCU in April. Dr. Zheng will be performing alongside two of Richmond Symphony’s talented musicians.

Journey with Mozart: Dr. Yin Zheng, piano with Bin Huang, violin

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 at 8 p.m. Free admission. No tickets required.

Journey to Eastern Europe: Dr. Yin Zheng, piano with Daisuke Yamamoto, violin and Ralph Skiano, clarinet of the Richmond Symphony

Thursday, April 10, 2014 at 8 p.m. Free admission. No tickets required.

Violinist Leila Josefowicz replaces string trio for April 12 Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Music Concert

Two MacArthur Foundation Fellows take over Spring Rennolds Series concerts

A recent change to VCU Music’s Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Music Series concert brings two back-to-back performances by MacArthur Foundation Fellows this Spring. Alisa Weilerstein (cello) will perform in the March 29 Rennolds Series concert and a new addition to the series, Leila Josefowicz (violin), will perform in the April 12 Rennolds Series concert. Josefowicz, a world-renowned violinist and former Artist-in-Residence for The Philadelphia Orchestra, will bring her “supple technique” (New York Times) and “fantastic talent” (Gramophone) to Richmond.

Josefowicz has graciously agreed to perform that evening after the Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Music Series program featuring Pamela Frank (violin), Nobuko Imai (viola), and Clemens Hagen (cello) scheduled for Saturday, April 12 at 8:00 p.m. was cancelled. Due to an unforeseen medical situation, Mr. Hagen is unable to tour.

Tickets already issued for the “Pamela Frank, Nobuko Imai, and Clemens Hagen” concert will be honored by the VCU Music Box Office for the Leila Josefowicz concert. No exchanges are needed.

Click here for information on the Alisa Weilerstein Rennolds concert

Click here for information on the Leila Josefowicz concert

Journalists and media professionals, visit the VCU Music Press Room for the Program Change press release.

January-February 2014: Christopher Mastromarino

Christopher Mastromarino, affectionately called “Mr. M” by the students he is leading at Matoaca Middle School in Chesterfield County, is a current undergraduate student in the Music Education program.

His musical journey began with the same tools that many others may remember fondly. The familiar story involves a second-hand piano and childhood music lessons. “When I was young,” Mastromarino reflected, “my father bought me a full-size piano.” The piano, perhaps found with the help of the local newspaper’s classified section, didn’t make lessons any easier for Mastromarino. But Elton John tunes played by ear kept his interest in piano fresh.

A native of Sterling, VA, Mastromarino’s family moved to Arundel, MD during his teenage years. Mastromarino remembers that the school’s music program was a stark cry from what he was used to in Northern Virginia. In Virginia, he was a member of several choruses and ensembles throughout the years. His new environment in Maryland, though, didn’t have as many diverse musical opportunities. As a result, students like Mastromarino took on new roles and responsibilities, even assisting with ensembles and music courses.

Read more »

“A Dream Concert”: Rex and Friends at the RSO

February 8, 2014 at 8:00 p.m.
Richmond CenterStage: Carpenter Theatre

VCU alumni and professors are gearing up for an exciting night of jazz at Richmond CenterStage in February. The performance, headed by VCU Music associate professor and world-renowned trumpeter Rex Richardson, will pay homage to the likes of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

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Quick Q&A: Jon Murphy, Assistant Director,”Peppas”

By now you’ve probably heard of VCU Men’s Basketballs’ electrifying and fast-paced defensive style known as HAVOC. If so, then you’ve certainly heard the Peppas, VCU’s resident Athletic and Pep Band, known for its unapologetically intense musical antics during the games. Headed by director Ryan Kopasci, the Peppas are every bit a part of the action as the players on the court.

Jon Murphy, VCU Music student and newly appointed Assistant Director of the band, finds this to be their crowing achievement.

“We like to think of ourselves as ‘The Sixth Man,’” he stated. “We cheer loud. All of the time.”

Their presence has not gone unnoticed. A recent video of the band’s performance of Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” during a home game against George Mason University has quickly gone viral. According to reports, the free-throw distraction attempt proved successful, as GMU only shot at 56 percent accuracy.

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Kudos: January – February 2014

During this January’s celebrations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and National Mentoring Month, it is only natural to reflect on “service.” VCU Music works to serve the Richmond community and beyond.

Last month, the Department held its 27th Holiday Gala, an annual fundraising concert for Richmond’s Hospital Hospitality House. VCU Music faculty, staff, alumni, and community supporters lent their talents to present an event full of holiday cheer. The concert raised nearly $4,200 for the organization whose goal is to provide lodging and non-medicalservices to families and individuals in medical crisis.

In addition to our many entertainment events featuring guest artists, faculty, and students spanning classical to jazz music, the Department sponsors a number of educational events that not only engage students at VCU, but those throughout the Richmond community and beyond. From Greater Richmond Bands to Jazz Day and the many instrument-specific festivals, summer camps, and master classes the Department Presents, VCU Music helps aspiring musicians develop their craft. Click to read more on how the Department is serving (and being acknowledged for its service)in this month’s Kudos. Read more »

VCU faculty | November 2013: Percussionist plays and an author of etudes.

In addition to commuting from Northern Virginia to work with students at VCU, William Messerschmidt, Instructor of Percussion, continues a full schedule of performances. Recently, he has performed with several groups, including with Cathedral Brass for the opening of the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, with the Lynchburg Symphony Orchestra on a program including Grieg and Stravinsky, and at Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

Associate Professor of Trumpet, Rex Richardson, co-authored the Yamaha Etude and Exercise Book for Trumpet (The Secrets of Eight Master Artists and Teachers), a collection of practice philosophies, tips, and tricks designed to provide a fresh look on solo trumpet playing. The book is now available on Amazon.

VCU alumni | November 2013: After Midnight and Graduate Study.

Alvester Garnett (BA ‘93), recently performed for the President and First Lady at the White House as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars in After Midnight, a Broadway musical that serves partly as a tribute to Duke Ellington and transcends the history Harlem’s Golden Age of jazz and reinvents it. Garnett is part of a handpicked 17-piece orchestra. The show boasts Grammy and Tony award winning artists and is already being considered the “most explosive new musical on Broadway” (The Examiner).  After Midnight officially opens on Broadway on November 3rd.

Keyara Fleece (BM ’13) was awarded a Graduate Assistantship at Old Dominion University and is pursuing her Master’s degree there.

Wallis Williams-Vore (BM ’00) recently received her Doctorate of Musical Arts in Clarinet Performance at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.