Opera for the Masses: Classic stories with a modern flair

Opera for the Masses: Classic stories with a modern flair

By Emma Schenkenberger

The Charles and Reta Ralph Opera Center is set to pull off two classic one-act operas this season with Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini, but not without adding their own retro spin. While both shows boast renowned scores and music, they could not be more different. Gianni Schicchi is a farce full of greed and scheming while Suor Angelica is an agonizing tragedy of love and sin, and CSU opera is staging them back to back.

These two operas were originally written as a trio along with Puccini’s Il Tabarro, but today, all three pieces are performed separately or in different combinations around the country. They are all verismo operas, a style of composition that is relatable and representative of everyday people at the time (verismo, meaning "realism", from Italian vero, meaning, "true.") To keep with Puccini’s intentions, Schicchi, which was originally set in 1400’s Florence, Italy, is set in 1970’s Florence, New Jersey for CSU’s production! Both Dr. Tiffany Blake, director of the Ralph Opera Center and the director of both shows, and her production team have worked to make Schicchi more relatable to audiences – an increasing trend in the opera community right now.

Across the country, small opera houses and collegiate opera programs have started to offer high-quality productions with reasonable ticket prices in settings that are more appealing to modern audiences. With mid-level seats at the Metropolitan Opera priced at upwards of $300, it has not always been an option for average Americans to attend an opera, not to mention students. In recent years, however, there has been an increase in less expensive options for opera performances. Programs like the Charles and Reta Ralph Opera Center at CSU help keep costs low in a collegiate setting while still putting on high quality productions.

Though this complex and compelling art form has been around for centuries, it has the ability to reach the masses today like never before. In the past, feeling obligated to dress up has deterred a large portion of the population from attending performances. By changing this outdated tradition, opera houses are incentivizing millennials and even younger generations to attend their productions. By sharing rehearsal videos and encouraging audiences to interact on social media after seeing a show, CSU continually attracts new patrons to the opera scene.

CSU’s opera program has not only kept ticket prices low, and the atmosphere casual, but it has also changed the stigma that surrounds opera with innovative design solutions. Maile Speetjens, costume and make-up designer for both operas, set out to make the shows more enjoyable for audiences by using influences from the 1970’s in her design for Schicchi. With jumpsuits, ascots, and platform shoes with goldfish in the heels, the fun costumes complement the show’s humorous tone. Speetjens used fashion images from the 1970’s to help in her design with nods to such inspirations as American Hustle. Creating this show in a world that is more relatable to students and younger generations through costumes, set, and props allows a show written in 1917 to be relevant in 2014. Assistant Scenic Designer Amy Garland used mobster films like The Godfather as her inspiration for the set of Schicchi. All of these elements put together create a fun and lively new world that all audiences will enjoy.

CSU’s double-bill production of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, directed by Tiffany Blake and conducted by Wes Kenney, runs Fridays, November 7 and 14 at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays, November 9 and 16 at 2 p.m. in the Griffin Concert Hall at the University Center for the Arts, 1400 Remington Street. With something for everyone, this is one double-header that no one will want to miss!

About the Charles and Reta Ralph Opera Center

The Ralph Opera Center, housed at the state-of-the-art University Center for the Arts, is named in honor of Charles and Reta Ralph in recognition of their generous and continuing support of opera at Colorado State University. The Ralph’s benevolence provides programmatic support and professional development opportunities, as well as a broad scholarship support system for students studying vocal performance. Auditions for the Ralph Opera Center are held at the beginning of each semester and are open to all CSU students. Read more.

The Ralph Opera Center performs two fully staged productions with orchestra each semester, as well as multiple opera scenes programs, spanning the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern eras. Past presentations include: Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, Benjamin Brittin’s The Rape of Lucretia, Verdi’s Falstaff, Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, Rossini’s La Cenerentola, Mozart’s Magic Flute, Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, Domenico Cimarosa’s Il segreto matrimonio, Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience, and Massenet’s Cendrillon.