By William Aramacost
Though perhaps not the first thought that comes to mind when considering the local arts scene, enthusiasts should be pleased to know that opera has a steady presence in Northwest Arkansas in the form of the University of Arkansas Opera Theater.
This month, the public will have the opportunity to see the company perform an English language version of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.
Staged in the University’s Stella Boyle Smith Concert Hall, three matinees – two specifically for children and free of charge – and three evening performances will showcase the talent of University of Arkansas opera program students, the Classical Ballet Academy of Rogers, choir singers from MDA Central Casting of Fayetteville and guest Musical Director Jennifer Peterson.
Founded in 1955, the University’s opera program naturally focuses on teaching craft and technique and on molding skills, most of which takes place out of the public eye. The importance of providing students with experience in large-scale productions, however, allows for the creation of art that can be shared with a wider audience. But producing an opera is no small task.
At the helm is artistic director and principle coach Chris Lacy. A visiting assistant professor of music since 2000, Lacy has maintained an annual enrollment of 15 to 20 students, developed a post-graduate degree in opera, and advanced a non-traditional repertoire, including two Arkansas premiers, Britten’s Turn of the Screw in 2002 and Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine in 2005.
Lacy is supported by stage manager Kate Frank, a recent recipient of a master of fine arts in directing from the University of Arkansas and a guest instructor of drama and music.
The production process begins nearly a year in advance. By the time the spring production has ended, Lacy has already begun considering possible operas for the next year’s performance. Primarily the talent pool expected to be available determines the decision. Issues such as the accompying music, set demands and costumes do not even factor into the equation.
When all goes as planned, a location for the performance is secured by August and casting begins in the fall. Rehearsals follow in January. Lacy and Frank work with the students for two months prior to the first performance.
As stage manager, it is Frank’s responsibility, as well as her passion, to delve into the piece, “… to discover it anew.” As she puts it, “I see it and then I try to create it.”
Though provided a rough guideline by the opera itself, it is up to Frank to help express the proper mood and to fine-tune all on-stage action. The successful implementation of her artistic vision is vital to creating theater, rather than just a recital.
Besides teaching and coaching, Lacy keeps busy behind the scene. He is not only the chief administrator; he also handles much of the daily minutia needed to keep any project moving.
The product of a relatively small program, the University of Arkansas Opera Theater does not have the luxury of drawing upon extensive resources. It does not even have a guaranteed performance space. Thanks to dedication and creativity, these issues do not stand in the way.
“There has never been really enough budget or space to produce what we want, but we’ve done very well nevertheless,” said Steve Gates, chair of the UA Music Department.
Lacy jokingly refers to the Opera Theater as, “Chris Lacy and friends produce opera.”
“This ‘negative’ is actually a ‘positive’ because it forces me to seek out community groups and individuals that would otherwise not get exposed to opera,” Lacy said.
In fact, of the nearly 75 current members of the company, the vast majority are not UA students. Both the wardrobe and sets for Hansel and Gretel are in the hands of private individuals. Of course, having so many members from outside of the university does raise the cost of productions.
Helping to defray the nearly $10,000 needed to mount a production are the Associated Student Government backed Friends of the Opera and the recently established John Harrison Opera Foundation. The latter is currently acting as co-sponsor for Peterson’s residency. Without such assistance, securing a significant talent the likes of Peterson – she has worked with many well-known opera companies – would be far more difficult.
The Opera Theater’s veritable homelessness is another double-edged sword. “The architecture of the space you perform in dictates everything,” Frank said.
Often working in a new location from year to year, as well as sharing that space with others, requires added skill and imagination. Lacy likens it to, “…trying to cook a meal in the middle of the interstate.” Little is constant. Lighting, sets, even performers, must be shuffled about to accommodate the surroundings.
By performing in numerous venues, many off campus – operas have been staged at the Dickson Theater and St Paul’s Episcopal Church – the Opera Theater has doubtless widened its own exposure while simultaneously bringing its art form to new audiences.
This spring’s performance, as mentioned before, is Hansel and Gretel. It is by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century German composer Engelbert Humperdinck.
Based on the Grimm’s fairy tale, Humperdinck composed the music at the request of his sister, who had written a theatrical version for her children. Originally sung in German, the opera has traditionally been preformed in English here in the United States.
For those unfamiliar with the tale, Hansel and his sister Gretel become lost in the woods when sent from their home by their mother. After a night in the forest, they awaken to find a gingerbread house. While eating from the house they are taken captive by the witch who lives within. The witch means to eat Hansel as soon as she fattens him up. With the aid of the witch’s poor eyesight, the siblings trick her into thinking that Hansel is not gaining weight by presenting her with a twig rather than Hansel’s finger. Finally, when the opportunity arises, Hansel and Gretel are able to push the witch into her own oven. The gingerbread house then comes to pieces and all of the children the witch has baked into its walls are freed. With the arrival of Hansel and Gretel’s parents, the story comes to an end.
The double cast features among others, Emily High and Sarah Mesko as Hansel, Ember Lanuti and Leanne Scaggs as Gretel, and Ashley Baker and Idra Green as the witch. Jennifer Peterson provides the piano accompaniment.
Tickets are available at the door only. For information call 575-4701.