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Friday, January 04, 2013 - Is it Opera or is it Musical Theatre?

by Gillian Ellis

Is opera the grandmother of musical theatre? Is nineteenth century “light opera” an evolutionary step between the two? Or are the two art forms unrelated? This is a topic of hot debate on the web and elsewhere.

Whatever your belief about the origins of musical theatre, you probably know the ways in which the two art forms are different. Musical theatre productions are usually performed in the language of the audience and they often (though not always) have spoken dialogue and dancing. In contrast, in the U.S. opera is most often performed in the language in which it was originally written. And while opera houses usually project translated English supertitles above the stage, many audience members prefer to familiarize themselves with the storyline ahead of time so they can follow the plot and then concentrate on enjoying the music and the voices, which are the real glory of the opera.

And of course, operas are usually sung through, meaning there is no spoken dialogue, and only rarely is there any dancing of significance. This means that opera performers are most definitely singers. Their voices fill the largest of theatres without the use of microphones and what appears to be the mystery of their art, is really the result of many years of arduous vocal training.

Historically, opera singers were not required to have acting or dancing skills in their arsenals, but Nicolette Book, who is appearing in the title role of the OU opera Suor Angelica, says, “These days you have to know how to act. You won’t have a career if you don’t.” Nicolette is a senior vocal performance major whose teacher is Edie Diggory. Puccini’s Suor Angelica is not a long opera, but the title character is onstage the whole time and Nicolette says she will be singing for about three quarters of the performance. She says, “The music is phenomenal but it is a beast of an opera and vocally very challenging.” The high notes she must hit are all sang prayerfully and must all be expressed with gentle force. Nicolette says that technically this is harder than producing a high powerful note.

Suor Angelica is set in a convent and the story falls firmly into the category of traditional operatic drama without the happy ending! But OU Opera is offering a Puccini double bill this year and the comic opera Gianni Schicchi will also be performed. This offering will be sung in English so that the humor can be fully understood and appreciated, as it was at a “sneak peek” student showcase performance on September 27, 2012 when the audience was bewitched by the combination of mirth and dazzling vocal technique. Vocal performance major Constantine Novotny will sing Gianni.

Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica will offer two performances in mid-January in Varner Recital Hall, in a typical limited engagement opera run. At the end of the month, Legally Blonde will open in Varner Studio Theatre. As archetypal an example of musical theatre as it is possible to be, Legally Blonde will require acting, dancing and singing of its cast. Musical theatre performers are often referred to as “triple threats.” While some of the finest theatrical singers have highly trained voices, musical theatre shows often run for months, night after night, and performances are amplified.

Playing the lead role of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde and demonstrating her acting, dancing and singing skills, as well as her comedic timing, is Melissa Perry, a junior musical theatre major whose voice teacher is Alta Dantzler.

Melissa began her academic career as a music education major but transferred to OU when she realized that she really wanted to perform. Comparing herself to Elle she says, “This is much harder than I thought it would be. I am blonde and perky and I used to be in a sorority, but the music is challenging, so I’m having to work hard, which means I’m growing!” So Elle!

Legally Blonde
will be staged by guest director Dave Campbell, but the large cast began work on choreography and the musical numbers with faculty members Fred Love, Alissa Hetzner and Ali Woerner in the fall semester. Another faculty member closely involved in the production is Jeremy Barnett, who has designed a very large and spectacular set, which will bring the audience very close to the action on stage.

Melissa says that in Legally Blonde the action is carried forward by the songs, so their flawless execution is critical to the show’s success. Jeanne Bourget, who has completed her course work for a M.M. in vocal pedagogy, is working on a dissertation about the relationship between opera and musical theatre. Despite the differences Jeanne writes, “There are certain things regarding vocal technique that span both styles – proper body alignment, appropriate breathing for singing, articulation and proper diction, intonation – done correctly, all of these enhance a singer’s ability to express emotion and communicate with the listener. Whether one is singing Verdi, Puccini, Sondheim or Steven Schwartz of Wicked fame, I believe that singing is the most expressive means of communication for the human voice, and can evoke a broad range of feelings in the listening audience. As my voice teacher Dr. Edie Diggory Mellow says, ‘Good technique will never undermine musical intent. It will only enhance it.’”

If it is your intent to come and see one of these productions, we urge you to consider the relationship between the two art forms and perhaps buy tickets for both. If you are an opera lover who has never enjoyed musical theatre, you should know that Legally Blonde is irresistible fun. If you love musical theatre but have never been to the opera, this is your chance to see and hear two works by one of the masters of the genre, which together represent both the light and the dark aspects of the art … and of life.

Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica, Varner Recital Hall
Thursday, January 17, at 6 pm. Pay What You Wish
Saturday, January 1, at 8 pm. $18 General, $10 Students

Legally Blonde, Varner Studio Theatre
Thursday, January 31 at 8 pm; Friday, February 1 at 10 am and 8 pm; Saturday, February 2 at 8 pm; Sunday, February 3 at 2 pm; Wednesday, February 6 at 8 pm; Thursday, February 7 at 8 pm; Friday, February 8 at 8 pm; Saturday, February 9 at 2 pm and 8 pm; Sunday, February 10 at 2 pm.
$18 General, $10 Students and 10 am matinee.

Photo: Nicolette Book (left) and Melissa Perry. Photo by Gillian Ellis
Opera poster designed by Drake Dantzler
Legally Blonde poster designed by Jeremy Barnett