The mischievously dark worlds of filmmaker Tim Burton, illustrator Edward Gorey and the humorously twisted “Fractured Fairy Tales” cartoons are influencing this fall’s Vanderbilt Opera Theatre production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s quite a change from the traditional, straightforward approach taken when the opera was performed a decade ago, and a change in how opera is integrated into the Blair curriculum.
Now the opera course, an elective open to voice majors of any year (as well as any Vanderbilt student), also fulfills an ensemble requirement for Blair students.
“It’s recognition that opera is a significant solo and ensemble experience within our new curriculum,” says Jonathan Retzlaff, chair of the voice department. As a result, some voice students will not participate in symphonic or chamber choir during the second half of the fall semester if they are cast in the opera. Retzlaff believes this new arrangement enhances both the choral and opera experiences for students.
For last season’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, for example, students began working with vocal and opera coach Jennifer McGuire—who also serves as VOT’s rehearsal pianist—even before production staging began.
Students are not required to take part in VOT, but it is considered to be an important part of the Blair experience.
“You can’t recruit if you don’t offer stage experience. You can’t have a performance degree in voice and not offer stage experience,” Retzlaff says. He directed the VOT for a year before Gayle Shay came to Blair as director in 1998.
“In Gayle we found a person who loves the entire process—the craft of developing the actors, of helping everybody create the characters and of creating a community within a cast,” Retzlaff says.
Producing a full-scale production with costumes and sets in one semester is not unusual, even in an undergraduate environment. But Blair’s program includes working with a live orchestra—comprised of Blair students under the direction of Robin Fountain—rather than piano accompaniment.
“Professor Fountain believes very strongly that instrumental students need to have the experience of playing in an opera pit,” Shay says. “I feel incredibly fortunate for that, because not only is the orchestra very fine, but Robin is also a tremendous collaborator and second set of eyes and ears in the rehearsal process.”
Shay says hers is a “dream” job. She realized a love of directing while in graduate school and was recruited to Blair by Dean Mark Wait in 1998 when, with a new wing of classrooms, studios and a state-of-the-art theater in the works, there was a desire to expand the VOT beyond students presenting opera scenes in Turner Recital Hall.
Amy Jarman, senior lecturer in voice, says the VOT offers students a look at how professional companies work, particularly given Shay’s meticulously organized rehearsals. “If we get to 5:15 p.m. and it’s time to move on to the next thing she’s scheduled, Gayle will say ‘I’m sorry. We’re going to have to stop now,’” Jarman explains.
Retzlaff, who along with Jarman has had roles in two VOT productions, feels giving students the opportunity to work alongside their professors allows students to see them as working professionals. “I hope they admire us and see that we are there to support and encourage them, to nurture them,” he says. “We also provide motivation when they need it. We set really high expectations for them.”
© 2017 Vanderbilt University | Photo credit: Neil Brake