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‘Light in the Piazza’ Gives Students ‘Full Professional Experience’

By Lynn Adams Wilkins

University of Mississippi Communications

Young Fabrizio Nacarelli, played by Isaiah Traylor (right), returns a hat to Clara Johnson, played by Emma Johnson (center), in the ultimate meet cute, while Clara’s mother, Margaret, portrayed by Mary Donnelly Haskell, looks on with concern in a scene from ‘The Light in the Piazza.’ The production, adapted from a novella by Mississippi author Elizabeth Spencer, is the fall production by the University of Mississippi Opera Theatre. Photo by Logan Kirkland/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

The upcoming University of Mississippi Opera Theatre production of “The Light in the Piazza” does not take the stage at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts until mid-November, but it’s already full steam ahead for the cast and production team.

“We are right in the middle of the excitement at the moment,” said Blake McIver Ewing, the Opera Theatre’s artist-in-residence and director for the production. “The cast is going between dedicated music and staging rehearsals as we begin to put all the pieces together. This is one of my favorite parts of the process!

“And one of the luxuries of creating this production over the course of the entire semester is that we have had time to really dive into the character work of the piece.”

A rich, emotional score makes “The Light in the Piazza”  notable among recent Broadway musicals. Unapologetically lyrical and romantic, it transports the audience to the 1950s world of Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara, Americans abroad in Florence. 

When a fateful gust of wind introduces Clara to handsome young Italian Fabrizio Nacarelli, it’s love at first sight.

But Clara isn’t quite what she appears, and this story of how Clara, Margaret, Fabrizio and Signor Nacarelli negotiate emotion, love, hope and clashing cultures – and the acclaimed musical score that underpins their journey – won the show six Tony awards, including Best Original Score.

The Broadway production, based on Mississippi author Elizabeth Spencer’s novella, also won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music. The Ole Miss production of the show also observes what would have been the author’s 100th birthday this past summer.

Isaiah Traylor, a senior vocal performance major from Tupelo, is performing in the role of Fabrizio, the production’s main male character. 

“Preparation, for me, includes research, time in the practice room ensuring that pitches and rhythms are accurate, while simultaneously synthesizing the accent of the character into the text,” he said.

Traylor’s castmate Emma Johnson, a senior vocal performance major from Paducah, Kentucky, plays the role of Clara, the female lead. Neither actor minds the heavy workload that comes with such big roles. 

“I usually have two-to-four musical coachings a week and then a couple rehearsals with Mr. Ewing for staging or character work,” she said. “I’ve also done a lot of individual character work. I usually spend at least an hour every day working on the music in my own time. I spend a lot of time in the practice rooms downstairs. 

“It’s busy, but it’s so exciting to finally be able to put on a show, and such an amazing show at that.”

Collaborating with Ewing and Mary Donnelly Haskell, who plays Clara’s mother, Margaret, gives students an opportunity to work alongside and learn from talented performers who have deep experience in professional theater, said Nancy Maria Balach, voice professor and chair of the Department of Music.

Johnson said this opportunity is one she’s dreamed of. 

“Clara is one of my dream roles, so I was over the moon when I found out UM Opera Theatre was doing ‘The Light in the Piazza’ this semester,” she said. “On top of being cast in one of my dream roles, getting to work with such talented and established individuals like Mr. Ewing and Mrs. Haskell has been such a wonderful experience and I am learning so much from them.”

Ewing wants to help students get the feel of putting on a professional-level production.

“My hope is that the student cast will walk away from this experience feeling like they got a full professional production experience,” he said. “We are taking the time to really examine what it means to be a working professional, and with the phenomenal Mary Haskell at the helm of this dynamic cast, they are being exposed constantly to her incredible experience and work ethic.”

Haskell played Margaret in a 2009 production of “The Light in the Piazza” in Los Angeles, in which Ewing also performed the role of Fabrizio.

“This rehearsal process has been like putting on a favorite pair of shoes that I just haven’t worn for a while,” Haskell said. “Working with (Opera Theatre music director) Amanda Johnston to reawaken the comfort and beauty of the music – and all the reasons why the role resonated with me in the first place – it comes back together so naturally.

“And of course, sharing this experience with Blake after having performed Piazza with him in L.A., is especially exciting, as it feels like we are bringing Elizabeth Spencer and her beloved characters back home to Mississippi!”

Traylor and Johnson said they are soaking up every moment. 

“This show is one of my favorite things I’ve ever been a part of, and I can only imagine how magical it will be when we’re performing it on the Ford Center stage,” Johnson said.

This production of “The Light in the Piazza,” composed by Adam Guettel, is the centerpiece of a larger celebration of Spencer’s 100th birthday, Balach said. 

“We’re working with partners across campus to celebrate one of our state’s great writers, and the fact that this celebration translates into such a formative learning experience for our students is thrilling for our department,” she said.

In collaboration with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and other partners, the Department of Music will host Guettel in a Nov. 3-5 residency of public programming. Guettel will be the featured speaker in a SouthTalks lecture at the Southern studies center, will give a master class in Nutt Auditorium and will be a guest on Living Music Resource’s “LMR Live” online program.

Tickets to “The Light in the Piazza”are on sale through the UM Box Office at 662-915-7411 or online. Click here to purchase tickets to the 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19 or the 3 p.m. Nov. 21 performances. 

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