Saturday, September 25, 2021

UM Opera Theatre Presents Fresh Approaches to Two Classics

UM Opera Theatre director Julia Aubrey (right) addresses student performers during a rehearsal in the Ford Center. Photo by Jiaxuan Zhu

“From the Met to Broadway and Back Again” is more than just an invitation. It is an opportunity for anyone craving a unique and unexpected live music and theater experience.

For the first time, the University of Mississippi Opera Theatre’s annual spring production will consist of condensed versions of two popular operas, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and “The Abduction from the Seraglio.” It also will feature a retelling of the Cinderella story with original dialogue and well-known selections from opera and musical theater, including Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” and Massenet’s “Cendrillon.” 

The production of “From the Met to Broadway and Back Again” will feature different hourlong programs each day. It is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday (April 17) and 3 p.m. Sunday (April 18) in the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts. 

Julia Aubrey, associate professor of music and the director of the UM Opera Theatre, is passionate about integrating opera and musical theater. This spring, she has taken a fresh approach that gives audiences a rare opportunity to see two operas and a mash-up of popular scenes from musical theater and opera.

“I have often combined pieces of operas and musicals with similar stories to create what I call a pastiche, but this is the first time that I’ve done that with these Mozart operas,” she said. 

Abi Thomas, a freshman from Madison, is playing the role of Cinderella in Aubrey’s “Cinderella Story” pastiche. Learning her first role during a pandemic has been challenging, but Thomas said she is excited about performing a pastiche in front of a live audience.

“It’s hard working with other people onstage, considering that we have to socially distance ourselves,” Thomas said. “But I am really looking forward to performing and entertaining an even larger audience than before. 

“If we can enjoy the stories that we’re telling this semester, then I’m certain the audience will enjoy them just as much – potentially more!”

“The Cinderella Story” will be featured on Saturday, along with Aubrey’s condensed version of “The Magic Flute.” The Sunday show will feature Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio.”

Performing in a full-length production is crucial in the development of a student artist, so under normal circumstances, UM Opera Theatre produces one full-length operatic production each spring. But with COVID protocols requiring the ensemble to take health measures, Aubrey was inspired to produce two condensed operas. 

“I wanted to satisfy our need to create whole pieces with continuity since we couldn’t do a full production this year,” she said, explaining that interpreting a character across a story arc is an important skill for developing singers.

“I wanted to offer students a chance to perform very traditional works, just treated in a different way.”

Like her pastiche, Aubrey constructed the condensed operas by selecting popular scenes, then adding spoken English dialogue to link the scenes and help tell each story. 

Jiaxuan Zhu, a graduate student from China playing the role of Papageno in “The Magic Flute,” explained what makes each condensed Mozart production so unique. 

“‘Abduction’ is more like a complete story, while each individual scene of ‘The Magic Flute’ is a story within itself,” he said.

Zhu sees this program as a chance to leave audiences coming back for more: “If you want to see a movie, do you watch a trailer first? That’s what these little operas are.” 

He hopes the condensed operas will ignite a spark that encourages audiences to watch the full-length productions one day.

Both shows also include selected scenes for solo singers. 

“These are some of my favorite scenes in musical theater and opera,” said Aubrey, who chose pieces that fit well with the abilities and personalities of the singers, and that allowed performers to maintain appropriate distancing onstage.

Noting that audiences are sometimes put off by the language barrier or avoid watching opera because of lengthy shows and complicated plots, Aubrey strives to make the experience as accessible as possible, noting that she believes that opera is for everyone. Supertitles translate all the foreign-language scenes, for example, and the condensed length delivers all the important plot and character information in much less time. 

“This is a great introduction to someone who doesn’t know opera and doesn’t think that they will be able to follow,” she said. “We get to prove that, yes, you can, just take a chance and come!”

Tickets are $5 and are available at the Ole Miss Box Office, online at https://olemissboxoffice.com/ or phone 662-915-7411. Social distancing will be observed and masks are required for entry. 


By Maddi Jolley

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