Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity      April 2001 • Volume XXIV, Number 1


The Reasons
for the Seasons
By Kathleen Mills

Photo © Rich Remsberg

In Goethe’s Faust, an aging doctor sells his soul to the devil in exchange for renewed youth. No doubt there were times when the director, conductor, singers, technicians, and musicians involved in the IU Opera Theater production of Gounod’s demanding Faust might have offered up their souls to Mephistopheles, too, in exchange for a smooth ride from first rehearsal to closing night.

But instead, the hundreds of people who work at a level the Chicago Tribune calls “a consistently professional standard of which any opera house in the world could be proud” take a more mortal path to perfection: they rely on hard work.

Since it began in 1948, IU Opera Theater has presented more than 1,000 performances of 250 operas. Premieres include the collegiate premiere of Parsifal in 1949, the 1981 American premiere (in the Metropolitan Opera House) of Bohuslav Martinu’s The Greek Passion, and the Midwest premiere by an academic institution of John Adams’s Nixon in China in 1995.

IU Opera Theater stages the standard Mozart four—The Marriage of Figaro, Così fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute—with great aplomb. Indeed, few of the standard operas are not in the theater’s repertoire, but it also offers less-often performed productions such as Mozart’s Idomeneo. In fact, IU Opera Theater regularly stages productions few student companies would try: Faust in French, Rigoletto in Italian, or challenging modern works such as Bolcom’s McTeague and Corigliano’s Ghost of Versailles.

Planning an opera season at IU, says Vincent Liotta, IU Bloomington professor of music and stage director, is akin to constructing a large jigsaw puzzle. “Sometimes,” he says, “you get it just right.”

Stage director and Professor of Music Vincent Liotta checks on materials in the costume shop at the IU Musical Arts Center.
Photo © Tyagan Miller

IU seasons feature six productions each academic year; three in the fall and three in the spring. A committee of more than twenty people from all areas of opera production choose the works. The season is planned eighteen to twenty-four months in advance. The dean of the School of Music, who serves as general manager of IU Opera Theater, heads the committee.

In choosing a season, the committee strives to strike the right balance between operas that are light and comic and those that are more substantive. They also look to feature a variety of periods. Costly productions (for which new sets and new costumes will have to be constructed) must be balanced against less expensive ones.

IU Opera Theater personnel must also consider the voices available for a season in the planning stages. Do they have someone suited for the lead in Susannah or Faust, for instance?

Ask that question about almost any opera, and the answer is yes. U.S. News & World Report ranks IU’s master’s program in voice No. 1 in the country. School of Music graduates include Sylvia McNair, Timothy Noble, Kevin Langan, Sally Wolf, William Burden, and the late Bruce Hubbard. The Metropolitan Opera roster includes eighteen IU graduates this season alone.

IU School of Music graduate Sylvia McNair has won two Grammy Awards and regularly performs with opera hourses throughout Europe and the United States.
Photo courtesy IU School of Music

IU Opera Theater benefits from a large talent pool. The School of Music has some 1,600 students—among them, there are nearly 500 voice majors. Auditions for opera roles are held in both the spring and the fall. Fall auditions usually draw about 200 candidates, while spring auditions attract around 150 people.

“At most places, they get about twenty to thirty. That’s why we can do what we do,” Liotta says.

Of course, opera involves more than just vocal skills. Students at IU take courses in postural alignment, drama, and advanced opera skills. In the latter course, guest directors such as Herbert Kellner and Tito Capobianco teach four-week intensive sessions. In January, Dale Girard, guest director for Faust, brought an army of swords to Bloomington to teach stage combat.

A large number of dancers are also involved in IU Opera Theater production. In the spring 2000 semester, dancers participated in Rigoletto and Faust, for instance. “Most of the opera in the nineteenth century has ballet in it,” Liotta explains.

In some operas, ballet dancers will assume small roles. In others, there is a full-scale collaboration between voice and dance. While singers and dancers are being chosen, set, costume, and lighting technicians are already at work. These crews work on their own schedules. So while the scene shop works its way through pieces for one opera, the costume shop may be finished with that opera and working on clothing for the next one. Somehow, it all comes together at the right time.

To save money and time, IU Opera Theater usually creates sets and costumes for just two or three new productions in a season. The sets for the February production of Faust, for instance, had been used before, and the costumes were rented. But that doesn’t mean the set and costume crews got time off. Each person in Faust had to be measured for his or her costume so the rental company, based in Toronto, knew what sizes to send to Bloomington. In December, the IU Opera Theater costume crew took some twenty measurements of each cast member. Those measurements were mailed off and once the costumes arrived in early January, costumers checked the fit and made minor modifications on each item.

Over at the scene shop, crew members brought the Faust set out of storage in mid-November. It could not go on stage until the semester break however, because of the early December Nutcracker production in the Musical Arts Center. As soon as crews unpacked the Faust set, they began checking it for damage. Repairs to the styrofoam and wood pieces and touch-ups to the paint are standard set repairs. Once the set was on stage, more adjustments are made.

The lighting design, created by a student, was in the works well before the set was unpacked. An average week during the heart of the academic year finds IU Opera Theater rehearsing two upcoming operas while another has just ended. It’s a dizzying pace, but surprisingly, few things go missing.

“Once we were ready to begin rehearsals, and there was no piano in the pit,” Liotta recalls. “Everyone thought someone else had taken care of it. That happens very rarely. Mercifully, we have few major crises.”

It is long-standing tradition at IU to double-cast the operas (one cast is called Cream, the other Crimson) and while that provides more opportunities for more students, it also doubles the number of logistical arrangements that must be made. Liotta, who has worked professionally at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Santa Fe Opera, among others, says managing two casts at once is a special technique. “You either learn how to do it, or you don’t survive,” he says.

Once shows are cast, singers start practicing their parts on their own, with their individual teachers, and with the Opera Theater’s on-staff coaches. A team of one faculty coach and two graduate coaches works on each opera.

“Singers generally start working as quickly as they can, because they have huge amounts to learn,” Liotta explains. Depending on what time of the year their show opens, singers will have a few weeks or several months to prepare their roles. Fall auditions are held during the first week of classes in September. Auditions for the summer productions and the following year’s opening fall productions are held during the spring semester. So, for instance, singers in Susannah, which ran in November, learned of their roles in September while singers in this season’s final production, Candide, had much of the spring semester to polish their parts. Meanwhile, musicians are learning their parts, working with their teachers and practicing in ensembles.

IUB’s opera company functions at the highest professional level. Yet, IU is a learning environment, and there are differences between producing opera at the Met and producing it on a university campus.

At IU Opera Theater, Liotta says, “everyone is doing it for the best reasons.” Teachers, coaches, conductors, and directors receive their reward in seeing students progress. “The ultimate validation is when you turn around and see people having careers or passing on knowledge, and you know you had a part in making them better practitioners,” Liotta says.

That is, if IU Opera Theater personnel have time to keep track of all their former students. Often, after an opera closes, there is only one day until rehearsals for the next opera begin. Still, opera personnel do take time to count the receipts and catalogue audience comments. Because IU Opera Theater is a nonprofit enterprise, it is not required to make money. Still, those involved in the productions work hard to make the season break even financially.

“Teaching people is an expensive luxury,” Liotta says. “No one at the professional level is hired to learn the work. They don’t hire amateurs. But it’s part of our mission.”

Perhaps because IU Opera Theater is staged in a university setting, audiences feel quite comfortable offering regular feedback about the performances.

“For the most part, they are very supportive,” Liotta says of IU opera patrons. “Every once in a while, you hear: ‘What were you thinking when you chose this?’ But they are generally supportive of new things. It depends on what you try.”

Whether audiences loved the opera or not, once the production has closed, it is time to tackle the next one. And so it goes, through six operas each year. The 2000–01 season ends with Candide—just as the 2001–02 season is announced.

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