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Gender-benders take the stage at Peabody opera

By NATALIE BERKMAN | February 25, 2009

On Saturday night, the Peabody Chamber Opera and the Peabody Opera Workshop performed several scenes from famous operas in unique and unexpected ways in "Opera Potpourri."

Today, opera can seem very foreign to the uneducated listener; actors are on a stage in period costumes, singing in other languages to music that sounds antiquated. Even with subtitles, the words can be bland and the stories can be too complex and melodramatic. However, this is not the case for Peabody students who study opera and will one day perform at great opera houses around the world. How did they learn to appreciate this art form?

There are several aspects in opera that, when not overlooked, can appeal to more than just classical music afficionados. For example, in the Opera Buffa (the Italian comic opera), there are more humorous elements. Additionally, plots are taken from some of the classic and familiar tales of literature and mythology.

Finally, study of the music reveals that the music still holds the same power and beauty in modern times. But one does not need to be a student at Peabody to appreciate opera. In fact, just attending a performance at Peabody can make opera more accessible.

The night began with the Peabody Chamber Opera performing selected scenes from La Calisto, an opera based on mythology.

The story focused on the character Giove (freshman David Diehl), who wants to seduce a woman named Calisto (played by both first-year MM student Nola Richardson and second-year GPD student Carolyn Pelley). However, she, like the goddess Diana, wishes to remain a virgin. Mercurio (sophomore Po-Ching Chen) then tells Giove to take on the appearance of Diana in order to trick Calisto. The plot thickens when the real Diana (junior Elizabeth Hungerford) shows up and banishes Calisto.

To make the already exciting opera even more enjoyable, the Peabody Chamber Opera performed with a more modern, different setting, According to the program, "The opera begins in heaven, which we imagine as an Italian restaurant, headquarters of the heavenly mob family."

The Godfather-esque atmosphere added greatly to the humor, as the opera was Italian. Although the opera was in Italian, it was not a deterrent for anyone because there were English subtitles on top of the stage. The subtitles were easy to see while still watching the performance.

The opera already had mistaken identities that involved gender-switching (Giove transforming into Diana), but they also expanded on cross-dressing in order to add to the humor. For example, Calisto's older friend, Linfea, was played by freshman Tyler Lee, who sang about how "she" did not want to die a virgin. Additionally, Satirino, a teenage boy (first-year MM student Maggie Finnegan), overhears Linfea's problems and "attempts to get lucky." The orchestra also helped add to the humor of the evening. When the house lights dimmed, the stage was empty, save for a student sleeping. The orchestra members walked on, woke him up, and they all sat down at their seats.

The orchestra was composed of some interesting instruments, including harpsichords, Theorbo's (a long-necked lute) and recorders. The instrumentalists also came equipped with a sign that read "Suoniamo per mangia," or "will play to eat," which the actors generously noticed at the end.

After the presentation of La Calisto, the Peabody Opera Workshop performed scenes from various Italian operas. Several of them did not seem foreign at all. Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage) portrayed a tale that would be relatable for anyone with a sibling.

In the scene, the older sister Elisetta (first-year MM student Shanna Babbidge), has been engaged to a Count by her younger sister Carolina's secret husband. This is done with the intentions of revealing the secret marriage.

However, because Carolina (first-year MM student Liliana Castelblanco), kept the orchestration of the engagement a secret, Elisetta begins to act like royalty, and sibling rivalry ensues. Eventually, their aunt Fidalma (first-year MM student Alana Kolb) has to tear them apart.

The workshop also performed scenes from Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Romeo and Juliet), and La Cenerentola (Cinderella). Most people have already heard the famous Figaro number, performed by an energetic Andrew Sauvageau (first-year GPD student) and can find his antics with Rosina (senior BM student Yun Kyong Lee) funny.

Of course, Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, are the most accesible as far as operas are concerned, because nearly everyone is familiar with the famous plots. However, to make La Cenerentola more interesting, the scene was set in a college dorm room with Cinderella (first-year MM student Jennifer Hamilton), her calculus tutor Alidoro (second-year GPD student Hirotaka Kato) and her two roommates (first-year MM student Juliana Marin and junior Marisa Del Campo). In this modern take of Cinderella, a Skype message even made an appearance.

All the performances were very impressive. In the second half, the cross-dressing jokes became a little tiresome; there didn't seem to be any real reason why Orfeo in Orfeo ed Euridice should be played by a girl. Short-haired Madelyn Wanner (senior) had a wonderful voice, but the scene was so serious that the role should have been played by someone with the proper gender. The same complaint holds true for Romeo and Juliet. Obviously, Megan Ihnen (second-year MM student), though vocally sound, is not gender-qualified to play Romeo.

Overall, this was a performance for anyone who believed in the stereotype that opera is outdated and lacking in anything humorous or modern. The Peabody students have found the fun in opera and going to one of their concerts is sure to change anyone's mind about what opera is all about.

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