'Our Town' Opera gives Shepherd School students unique opportunity, obstacles

March 22, 2011

By: Jessica Stark
Originally published by The Rice University Shepherd School of Music

In his cool Southern drawl, Tyson Miller talked about his wide-ranging opportunities during his first year in Rice's Shepherd School of Music. A slight Texas twang hung onto his words as he discussed his lyric tenor role in scenes from "La Boheme," a leggiero tenor role in scenes from the "Barber of Seville" and a character tenor role in "The Coronation of Poppea." The latter role was his first in a fully staged opera performed in its original Italian.

"Obviously, it can be a challenge to perform and sing in a language you don't speak every day," said Miller, a graduate student in the voice program. "But, as I'm finding out, it can be just as challenging to perform in your native tongue."

Miller stars as the stage manager in the Shepherd School's spring opera "Our Town," which opens March 17. It's the Houston premiere of the opera. Unlike his other roles, this one calls for him to sing in a low, conversational tone and serve as a narrator for the audience.

"I love the diversity of roles I've had at Rice - they've been different vocally and dramatically and allowed me to tap into different parts of myself," Miller said. "What I really love about this role is that I get to interact with the audience."

"Because this show is set in New Hampshire, I had to work out a lot of my native Texas-isms," Miller said. "I have to become more neutral and sing like someone from up North. I have to watch my diction and delivery and make the conscious effort not to say things like 'y'all.'"

It's a challenge faced by even veteran classical singers because it requires them to take apart their own language and what comes naturally to them.

"Many classical singers don't pay that close attention to their diction when performing in their native language," said Richard Bado, director of the Opera Studies Program. "So while it can be much easier for them to listen, react and express in their own language, they have to actively think about and remove any regional dialects from their singing."

Leading lady Chelsea Morris found that to be true.

"I've really enjoyed singing in English," said Morris, a graduate student. "It's easier in the sense that you understand the nuance of the meaning of the words, and you can really listen to the other singers."

Emotion in the everyday

Adapted from the Thorton Wilder play of the same name, "Our Town" is a three-act opera by composer Ned Rorem and librettist J.D. McClatchy. It tells the story of people in an average town in the early 20th century and focuses on George Gibbs, a doctor's son, and Emily Webb, the daughter of the town's newspaper editor and George's future wife.

"What's really interesting about this opera is that it's about normal life," said Morris, who is portraying Emily. "There are operatic moments, but the story doesn't have your typical love triangles, betrayals or mistaken identities. But there's still so much emotion."

That's what has created Morris' biggest challenge in a scene where, after her death, Emily revisits the memory of her 13th birthday.

"It's very emotional, but I can't completely give into that emotion because I still have to be able to sing," she said.

She also can't give into the nostalgia she feels with the performance. "Our Town" will be her final opera at the Shepherd School as she completes her degree this spring.

"I have grown so much since my first opera scenes," Morris said. "I am much more aware of my abilities and am able to be much more expressive with my voice. I'm so grateful for the opportunities I've had at Rice - the Shepherd School has created an environment where it feels safe to take risks and realize that you're capable of more than you even thought."

Engaging imaginations
In last fall's opera, Morris portrayed Poppea, a manipulative, ungrateful and mean woman who "couldn't be more different" from her current character, Emily. The roles are also different musically with the "Coronation of Poppea" being a Baroque opera written in 1643 and "Our Town" being an American opera written in 2005.

Because "Our Town" is a relatively new opera, Bado said, it offered fantastic training for the cast because they couldn't prepare for their roles by seeing a DVD or renting a recording.

"It engages their imaginations," Bado said. "I've seen this opera a couple of times in the past few years and knew immediately that I wanted to perform this program at Rice. The story is timeless and the characters are all so rich. I saw it as an opportunity for lots of roles for our singers and for them to find honest characters to play."

A character-driven opera, "Our Town" has basically no sets, a bare stage and limited props.

"It's a great opportunity to present the art of music and show people what can be done," Miller said. "It really gives the audience the opportunity to engage in the performance because they too have to be imaginative - it allows them to use their imagination to really build the story for themselves."

"This opera doesn't need an elaborate set," Bado said. "The story and libretto for this opera is fantastic. It forces everyone - me included - to examine their thoughts and beliefs. Great art will always do this."

"Our Town" will be presented in Alice Pratt Brown Hall's Wortham Opera Theater March 17, 19, 21 and 23. All performances will be at 7:30 p.m.

Bado is the conductor, and Mary Duncan is the stage director.

Tickets are $12 for general seating and $10 for students and senior citizens. For tickets, call 713-348-8000.

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