Opera provides learning firsts for music students

Though it may be a comedic opera by nature, the dedication, skill and artistic integrity poured into the University of Alberta Department of Music's Opera Workshop production of Handel's Serse is no laughing matter.

Megan Dart - 25 February 2010

(Edmonton) Though it may be a comedic opera by nature, the dedication, skill and artistic integrity poured into the University of Alberta Department of Music's Opera Workshop production of Handel's Serse is no laughing matter.

A fully staged production of the baroque classic, Serse, opening this Thursday in the Timms Centre, is a true test of student skill.

"Students are facing many firsts in learning this production," explained production director and associate voice professor Brian McIntosh. "Not only are they singing in Italian-some for the first time-many of them are also singing with an orchestra for the first time, learning to move as actors in costumes on stage for the first time, balancing a heavy rehearsal schedule with school work, personal lives and part-time jobs.

"It really is a sincere but worthwhile challenge for students."

Many students are also learning to master the art of the recitative for the first time, an operatic form which imitates rapid speech, links arias and choruses and serves to advance the plot.

"Recitative is almost like talking and singing at the same time," explained McIntosh. "It's very speech-like, is not extremely melodic and can be a tough challenge to master."

But this series of first-time challenges provide students the opportunity to flex their operatic muscles and prepares them for the competitive opera world after graduation.

"Once students leave the safety of the school setting, they must navigate their way through a very competitive, very demanding opera world," said McIntosh of the Canadian opera scene. "By helping them to test their skill as an opera singer within the learning environment, we really are providing students the experience necessary to thrive after graduation."

According to Elizabeth Turnbull, a Department of Music voice instructor and professional opera singer who is lending her input on the production, performing a fully staged opera serves both a need and a niche.

"An opera such as Serse provides students the opportunity to develop their voice through focused training, something students will rely on once they enter the professional world," said Turnbull. "There is a niche here within the music department, within the university and within the Edmonton community that needs to be filled.

"Opera truly is one of the oldest forms of entertainment and engages the senses unlike other art forms."

Opera combines the dramatic flair of theatre, the intensity and co-ordination of an orchestra and the skill of classical singing, incorporating a variety of different art forms into one production.

"As a singer, it's a sincere challenge to get up in front of an audience and perform the role of a character," said Turnbull. "Students are asked to undertake the journey of a character with whom they may not necessarily have much in common with. It's an emotional, physical and intellectual exploration that, unlike other forms of musical performance, uses your imagination to understand how and why a character makes the decisions he or she does."

Negotiating the world of the character is only the beginning; singers must also learn to communicate with the orchestra conductor during a performance to ensure proper co-ordination with the music.

"The conductor really steers the performance in an opera," said McIntosh. "During their performance, the student singers must learn to navigate through the sounds of multiple instruments while making their musical intentions clear to the conductor. It's a balancing act."

With a lighter quality sound than later operas, Serse is Handel's most popular opera. Offering a twisted, comedic take on the traditional love triangle, Serse explores the notion of nobility asserting its power over romance.

"Think of it as hearing baroque music interwoven with the romantic complexity of a soap opera," says McIntosh, who is the director of the U of A's Opera Workshop.

The audience, he said, will be treated to a truly rare occasion to take in a baroque opera, student-driven production.

"The entire production is cast with student singers supported by a student orchestra," explained McIntosh. "With more than 50 student performers, this production provides a great chance for audiences to experience the level of musical talent being developed at the U of A."

Serse opens Thursday, Feb. 25 at the Timms Centre for the Arts and closes Sunday, Feb. 28. Tickets available through InfoLink, 780-492-4212, or at the door. For showtime information, go to www.music.ualberta.ca.

This article originally appeared in the University of Alberta's ExpressNews