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UM Alum Brings World Premiere of ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ Opera to Alma Mater

Photos courtesy University of Mississippi music department
Photos courtesy University of Mississippi music department

A University of Mississippi alum is doing something many female opera composers only dream of this weekend when the Ole Miss music department mounts the world premiere of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

NancyVandeVateDr. Nancy Van de Vate graduated from the university’s master’s program in 1958 and spent the next few decades hopping around the world before landing in Vienna, Austria, where she has spent the last few years. In 1990, the composer decided she would continue to pursue her dream of working in opera whether anyone performed her pieces or not.

Opera, one of many arts that is losing its pull with American audiences, is a tough business for any composer, but Ole Miss Alumni Hall of Fame inductee Van de Vate said the opera world is even tougher for female composers.

“It’s such an honor they’re doing it,” Van de Vate said. “There are only three women in the world who get their operas performed, and they all have major publishers. The Metropolitan (Opera House) has done one opera by a woman composer in its entire history and that was in 1906. They’ve never done an opera by an American woman. The Vienna State Opera has never done an opera composed by a woman.

“Most opera houses won’t even look at them, so I never even knew if I’d have any hope of having it performed. This is absolutely marvelous, I’m thrilled.”

Director Julia Aubrey working on a swordfight scene
Director Julia Aubrey working on a swordfight scene
Photo courtesy UM music department

The world premiere, directed by professor Julia Aubrey, uses a mixture of Ole Miss students, faculty and Oxford community members that will perform the opera twice: once in the Ford Center on Saturday and again about a month later in Prague, Czech Republic, with the Moravian Philharmonic under the baton of Petr Vronsky. This is the first time the department will take a grand opera abroad for a performance, marking yet another milestone with the production.

“The students are thrilled because it’s a huge opportunity just doing the world premiere, and also working with professionals makes a huge difference for them,” Aubrey said. “They run out and watch and they’re gaining a lot by being onstage with pros. Plus, the trip to Prague, it’s really something for them to get to go abroad and sing an opera. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of them.”

For Van de Vate, this performance is coming home on a new level since the Ford Center is on the same plot of land where she lived in faculty housing on campus during her time in Oxford. Two of her sons were also born in the town, and she said she is thrilled to see both Ole Miss and Oxford expanding beautifully to incorporate new things while holding the smalltown charm.

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Photo courtesy UM music department

Though the original text of Hamlet can run upward of six hours, Van de Vate, like most directors, cut some of William Shakespeare’s subplots that didn’t directly affect the personal tragedy of Hamlet.

“You don’t need a lot of staging. Shakespeare didn’t use much,” Van de Vate said. “If the opera depends entirely on the sets and the costumes, that’s not where my interest is.”

Van de Vate said she has seen a few rehearsals for the production since arriving in Oxford late last week and is proud of what the students and Aubrey have done with her work. While at the Ford Center, she noticed the poster for the Russian Ballet’s upcoming performance of Cinderella and couldn’t help but know she’d found the perfect spot for her world premiere.

“Hamlet was like Cinderella’s glass shoe,” Van de Vate said. “I wrote it hoping that someone would discover my glass shoe, and the University of Mississippi found it.”

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark takes the state in Oxford for one night only at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. General admission tickets are $30 and student tickets are $10. To purchase, visit the Ole Miss box office’s website or visit it on campus.

Amelia Camurati is editor of HottyToddy.com and can be reached at amelia.camurati@hottytoddy.com.

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