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Producing Opera: Staging the Human Condition 

Why opera? Because it is the first multi-media art form!

Opera offers us a means by which to consider the human condition and learn more about ourselves in the process. After all, opera is story telling with music. This course will examine the grandeur of opera, from its beginnings in 1603 to the productions of the present day. Not only will we consider the history of opera and musical theatre – we will also explore the elements that come together to produce a memorable performance, from what we see on the stage, including stage direction, costumes, lights, sets and props, to what happens backstage, from design through construction to performance. We will consider the musical elements of this spectacular genre: what are the technical demands of singing opera for the singer?
What is bel canto singing style? What musically distinguishes a Monteverdi opera from an opera by Mozart? Or Rossini? Or Puccini, Verdi, Wagner or Britten?

Students will encounter all aspects of opera performance and production, coming to learn that, in the final analysis, opera tells the story of the human condition: our joys, our fears, our loses, our triumphs, our catastrophic mistakes and our splendid achievements. Opera, through music, voice, instrumental color, and staging elements shows us who we are, at our best and at our worst, and causes us to examine life and love through the drama that plays out on the stage. 

Inside the Classroom

This class has three primary learning objectives:

  • to explore the human condition as rendered through the operatic genre;
  • to develop a working knowledge of the history of opera, of the barriers, both racial and economical, that opera crossed (often before other cultural forms) and of bel canto singing;
  • to have a working knowledge of stage productions from funding (art vs. commercialism), costume, lighting and set design, to stage direction and performance execution.

These learning objectives will be accomplished through critical reading and listening assignments, and through observing opera and musical theatre through video. We will also regularly discuss live and recorded opera and musical theatre performances from a wide variety of perspectives. There will be several production projects across the course of the fall semester which will involve set and costume design, along with character development. 

Outside the Classroom

Once we have established a baseline for the history of opera and a basic understanding of the multitude of elements that go into producing opera, we will attend productions of Virginia Opera (Richmond) and Washington Opera (Washington, DC) during the fall semester. Tenatively, we plan to travel to Berlin to not only attend opera and theatre events, but view other cultural connections: galleries, concert halls, etc., and will discuss how art is funded in Europe versus the United States. This trip will likely take place over winter break.

Research and Capstone Project

What better than to use the knowledge gained during the first semester to stage a production during the second semester? Students will work together to produce a 30-minute opera/musical theatre scenes program, completing all aspects of the production themselves: auditioning singers, casting, directing (stage and music directing), costume design and building, set design and building, lighting design and installation, promotional materials and finally, offering their production to the campus community. Faculty mentors will assist as needed, offering direction and guidance across the course of the semester. 

Course Fast Facts

Faculty:
Jennifer Cable, Ph.D.
Johann Stegmeir

Fall course:
MUS 138/THTR 312: Producing Opera (1 unit)
Tuesday/Thursday, 9–10:15 a.m. (Fall 2017)

Spring course:
IDST 290: Producing Opera Seminar (.5 unit)

Residence hall:
Gray Court (2017–18)

Group travel:
TBD (Tentative: Fall Break) 

Years Offered: 2017–18, 2019–20

Sample Course Readings

Making the Scene: A History of Stage Design and Technology in Europe and the United States, by Oscar G. Brockett and Margaret Mitchell

A Short History of Opera, by Donald Grout

Unsettling Opera: Staging Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Zemlinsky, by David J. Levin

Opera on Stage, by Lorenzo Bianconi, Giorgio Pestelli, Kate Singleton

Revolution in Fashion: European Clothing, 1715-1815, by Jean Starobinski

The Essentials of Beautiful Singing, by Karen Tillotson Bauer

Singing in Style, by Martha Elliott

Treatise on Vocal Performance and Ornamentation by Johann Adam Hiller 

Singing Bel Canto: Art and Science, by Patricia Collins and Michelle Nova

Sample Opera Performances