Behind the scenes of Opera CNU’s two performances this week: Paterson’s ‘The Whole Truth’ and Puccini’s ‘Gianni Schicchi’
By Kristen Ziccarelli
In the minds of many college students, opera lies far way in a centuries-old, removed land home to screechy sopranos, long rambling plot lines and confusing classical languages. But seeing and hearing the CNU community themselves take the stage for this week’s opera performances might be the perfect opportunity to correct that mindset.
On Thursday and Saturday nights, Opera CNU will showcase their talent in comic operas from the 19th and 20th century. Performing modern American composer Robert Paterson’s The Whole Truth and Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, there is sure to be a laugh for everyone. CNU undergraduates, faculty and a few guest artists comprise the cast and orchestra.
First performed in 2016, The Whole Truth features the split soul of a married women named Megan, who is dually obsessed with hiding and confronting the truth. In twenty-five minutes divided into seven scenes, the opera takes only a few characters to convey a dramatic turn of events.
A 1918 Italian libretto with no less drama is Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Originally part of a triptych including two other one act operas, Il tabarro and Suor Angelica, Gianni Schicchi is the story of a Florentine that outsmarts an entire family by drawing up a will while impersonating the deceased Buoso Donati. Audience members may recognize one of Puccini’s most famous soprano arias, “Oh Mio Babbino Caro.”
Although both characteristically comic and dramatic, one might wonder what brought these two operas to the same stage. Opera Director Dr. John McGuire chose both operas partially because of a specific shared feature.
“They both revolve around a bed, so I’m kind of keeping the same set,” McGuire said. “Its two completely different sets with furniture but the main big pieces like the bed stays in the same spot for both shows.”
Both operas relate similar relationship and social issues, uncovering bare human nature in response to conflict or death.
“They also both revolve around life issues,” McGuire said. “It’s not great, but marriages have trouble and when people die … it happens.”
The performances may be short, but the production itself is a significant time commitment. Right before finals week, cast members audition and learn their lines over the summer, rehearsing regularly in the Fall until the November show. Most of the work falls on McGuire, along with CNU Professors J. Lynn Thompson and Dr. Benjamin Corbin.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” McGuire said. “Opera is really hard because everything has to be memorized, you have to sing, walk, sometimes dance and of course act and perform.”
The decision to perform Gianni Schicchi in Italian adds to the complexity of this year’s performance.
The language barrier will be supplemented with surtitles projected in the theater. With effects on both the audience and cast, such a decision is a change from the past four years of opera performed in English.
“The music speaks for itself because it’s very beautiful and its Puccini so that is different,” McGuire said.
For the cast, the decision provides a unique learning experience, adding a useful application to required Italian language classes for some music students.
“I just went for the whole thing, and with Puccini I think you have to do in Italian,” McGuire said. “Plus, if you’re going to be an opera singer, you are going to have to sing in Italian, German and French, so it’s a good experience for [the cast].”
The cast is mostly comprised of CNU students, many of whom are majoring in a music or theater discipline. In recruiting talent, opera requires strong singing and acting skills for success.
“We try to build on all talents, whatever [the students] bring to it,” McGuire said. “That is the challenge – to get outside yourself because being on stage and singing on stage is tough.”
According to McGuire, one of the most rewarding experiences is the growth of all students, regardless of major. One of the leads is a musical theater major, another is a graduate student studying computer science and two others study choral education. With the opera, they have made “leaps and bounds in their musicianship,” alongside the music majors themselves.
Considering actor development is also key in McGuire’s choice of opera show each year.
“This year I picked [Gianni Schicchi] in particular because the students are on stage the whole time, and it makes them develop their acting,” McGuire said.