Music OperaDecember 05, 2017


From politics to business to the entertainment industry, we are living in an extraordinary, historical moment. Those who were once voiceless and powerless have become powerful Silence Breakers. Even the opera world – one that I bet you rarely think about and which NEVER rises to the top of the news cycle – found itself the subject of breaking news alerts and the top story on the national evening news this week.

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So it seems especially timely that on Saturday, December 9 at 8:00 p.m., Montclair State University presentsCrime—and Punishment?” a workshop performance by students featuring opera excerpts.

Directed by MSU’s Cali School of Music Professor Jeffrey Gall, the workshop performance includes portions from four seemingly very different operas: Ned Rorem’s “Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters” (written in 1968, based on the Gertrude Stein play), Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” (1885), Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride” (1779) and Benjamin Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia” (1946). Murder mystery, comedic operetta, tragic classic and modern chamber opera don’t, at first thought, seem to go together on the same program.

While musically disparate, however, there are thematic similarities. Director Jeffrey Gall tells me that he likes to program these workshop performances around a particular theme that he chooses – different every time. In this case, he’s selected works that all deal with acts of murder, sexual violence and suicide. (Here, of course, is our “crime” portion of the evening.) But as is often the case in opera plots, punishment (for the right characters) is rarely guaranteed.

For two hours, twice a week since mid-September, 24 MSU music students have been grappling with these challenges. The students have been researching the roles, contributing to props and staging, working on the characters and acting, and developing their performances.

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It’s been exciting work, Gall tells me. Through their research and character development, Gall has been impressed with the students’ capacity to discuss — with great sophistication — aggressiveness, transgression and retribution in our own culture today and then translate that experience into different opera styles.

And that’s the point behind these workshops, Gall says. They are meant to simulate real performance challenges and situations, providing these students with invaluable stage craft experience. The students involved in the Workshop class represent a range of experiences – undergraduate and graduate alike. This is another reason for assembling a program of varying styles, says Gall. With students of varying experience and with a range of voice types, it allows him to program works that both suit and challenge them.

The singers in the “Crime—and Punishment?” workshop will be accompanied by piano. And if you’re worried about whether you’ll enjoy an evening of excerpts from operas that you likely haven’t seen before, don’t be – Saturday’s Workshop performance is only about an hour long, although there’s no intermission.

But I’m betting you WILL like the performance. One of the central excerpts on the program is the final scene from “The Rape of Lucretia” by Benjamin Britten, the British composer of such seminal works as “Peter Grimes,” “Billy Budd,” “Rejoice in the Lamb” (OK, maybe not seminal but truly one of my personal favorite choral works), “War Requiem” and “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” And Britten’s importance in the opera world ISN’T just because he’s by far the most important opera composer England has produced since Henry Purcell died in 1695. (Go ahead: Name me another English opera composer from any point in the following 230-odd years. I’ll wait.) Britten’s works – ranging from grand to chamber opera, choral songs reminiscent of Purcell, children’s works that are simultaneously sophisticated and charming, and potent symphonic pieces – are as powerful as they are musical.

And should “The Rape of Lucretia” excerpt whet your appetite for more, you’re in luck. This “Crime—and Punishment?” workshop is also in preparation for MSU’s full production of Britten’s “Rape of Lucretia” taking place on January 27 and 28. The students performing the excerpt on Saturday will return to these roles in the January production, although you might have trouble recognizing them. On Saturday, the excerpt will be performed in modern dress, while the January production, Gall tells me, will be in a “’Game of Thrones’/quasi-medieval environment.”

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And although Saturday’s “Crime—and Punishment?” workshop is a one-night only thing, it is part of an ongoing series with a different theme and program each time. The next workshop takes place on April 30, and the theme has not yet been chosen.

The MSU Opera Workshop performances are part of the Peak Performances program, which was founded by Montclair State University’s Office of Arts and Cultural Programming in 2005. It brings a wide range of internationally acclaimed artists and productions to the Alexander Kasser Theater from many art forms. Of course, Peak Performances also presents numerous works by MSU music, theater and dance students – the next generation of artists.

The Details

Montclair State University’s Opera Workshop: “Crime—and Punishment?” takes place on Saturday, December 9, 2017 at 8:00 p.m. at the Alexander Kasser Theater, located at 1 Normal Avenue, Montclair, NJ. Tickets are $15; free for Montclair State University undergraduates. For more information, visit peakperformances.org.

The Details: BONUS EDITION!

(Because I know you want to go see MSU’s production of “The Rape of Lucretia” after this, too.)

Montclair State University Opera presents Benjamin Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia” on Saturday, January 27, 2018 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, January 28 at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $15; free for Montclair State University undergraduates. For more information, visit peakperformances.org.

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About Author

Patricia K. Johnson
Patricia K. Johnson

Patricia, Jersey born and bred, is a lifelong arts lover, arts patron, performer and artist. One of the very few people who actually cheers when The Dreaded Opera Category shows up on Jeopardy, Patricia is also an avid Yankee fan (from birth) and is learning to become an Eagles fan (from marriage).