Teaching the basics of opera

BY BEN EVANS | DECEMBER 10, 2009 7:30 AM

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Vikings in helmets and braids belting out Wagner at the top of their lungs to please the wealthy masses.

Yes, it’s opera.

To the common catechumen, this archaic art form sits somewhere close to intense manual labor on the entertainment scale, a reality the UI Division of Performing Arts strives to conquer with its latest show, Opera Without Elephants.

The work will open at the Englert Theater, 221 E. Washington St., at 7:30 p.m. Friday with an additional performance Saturday at 1 p.m. Admission is free.

Opera Without Elephants, a mosaic of operatic history, will showcase the genre’s greatest moments, along with its modern obscurities. The show aims to demonstrate the art’s tenacious technicalities and the singing actor’s difficult duty while performing onstage.

Gary Briggle, a UI visiting associate professor of music, said the performance is a chance for students to become acquainted with opera as an art form and to separate it from the stereotypical view.

“Opera reflects the human condition on a grand scale,” the Minnesota native said. “It is the most collaborative of the performing arts because it incorporates both vocal and instrumental music, it incorporates poetic texts, and design and sets, and even choreography.”

Briggle also pointed out that the show provides an opportunity for students to see the work that their colleagues have put into their passions. Opera Without Elephants features a wide range of singing talent, including freshmen to graduate students, all showcasing the skills necessary to be successful in the art form.

“This is an opportunity to show to the public what it takes to become a singing actor, what the fundamental skills are, and what they look like when they are being applied,” Briggle said.

The director attributes some of the success of this show to the Englert, which “was kind enough to offer a facility” for the Division of Performing Arts.

“[The Englert] allowed me to take what is basically a classroom presentation and bring it to the public venue and invite the public in to see the kind of work we’re doing in training young actors,” Briggle said.

Englert CEO Sean Fredericks said that despite the connotations the word “opera” carries, it has a definite fan base in Iowa City. This is evident, he said, through screenings of the Metropolitan Opera at Sycamore Mall and the UI’s operatic performances. This is one of the unique aspects of the culture of Iowa City, he said.

“Even though we’re a small Midwestern town, there is a lot of interest in arts and culture that you might at first think you could only find in a larger city,” Fredericks said.

This appreciation is exactly the reason Briggle is happy to share this experience with Iowa City audiences. The performance is about learning, for both the people listening and the students onstage and the bond that is cultivated between the two, he said.

“Anytime you appreciate what goes into a work of art, you have a greater appreciation for the work itself.”

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