Voicing the Baroque: Students bring opera to the stage


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Timothy Maguire stands center stage singing “Ombra mai fu,” a love song to a sycamore, from the opera Xerxes, by George Frederick Händel. Maguire’s performance includes vocal challenges that impress his peers and the members of the string ensemble accompanying the piece.

The second-year University of Iowa M.A. candidate in vocal performance is accustomed to singing alto in a choir, a pitch higher than most male vocalists. But this piece is written for a countertenor — a male singer who uses the falsetto part of his voice more than usual to include a wider range of high notes.

Maguire, 30, sings the love song without interruption during rehearsal with a pronounced piercing pitch. Following his performance, director Shari Rhoads pauses to ask the fellow musicians, “You all know how impressive that is, right?” and students and string players nod in admiration.

All of the students, including Maguire, are humble about the talent they share, and they hold themselves to a high standard.

“Opera is about the music, but it is also about the text,” said senior vocal-performance major Katie Galetti. “It’s about ancient culture and the things that are represented in that culture. Opera is the romantic view of the world.”

After a semester of training, the group of five performers in the Opera Workshop will showcase their talent in Baroque opera at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St. Admission is free.

The Baroque period in music extended from around 1600 to the mid-1700s, during which opera became into being. Baroque, a major part of the Western musical canon, includes such composers as Händel, Marcello, Durante, Fasolo, and Monteverdi, and selections from their works will be performed this weekend.

“There is a simplicity that isn’t big booming sound with the phrases and melodies,” said Galetti, 21. “It’s the foundation of opera, and [all opera is] built on this essential core.”

For most of the students, the workshop is the first time they have performed Baroque. The instruments accompanying the vocals, including harpsichord, lyre, and French horn, are different from the instrumentation in the other operas the singers have experienced, but they believe studying Baroque is an opportunity to return to opera’s historical base.

In one of Galetti’s pieces, she plays the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. The song, “Pianger la sorte mia” from Giulio Cesare, by Händel, is from a moment in the opera when the queen is thrown into jail after Julius Caesar’s death.

Galetti begins the piece lying on the floor in a long, black dress with her hands cuffed. Despite the restriction, her voice fills the ears of the audience. She performs with ease, revealing the emotion of her character.

“[This performance] is different because it is a lot more exposed,” she said. “There is a lot more that I have to do, without moving a whole lot. I have to show everything with my face and my voice.”

The workshop is a way for her and her peers to focus on developing their talents and experiment with their voices.

Casey Brant, a first-year M.A. student in vocal performance adorned with an ivy crown, stands center stage belting out the lyrics to “Va tacito nascosto” from Giulio Cesare. Playing Julius Caesar after he conquers Egypt, he acts the scene by donning a black trench coat and facemask and warning enemies of the danger he can bring them.

He sings about being a quiet and hidden hunter when he is after his prey, defensively moving about the stage, revealing objects in his coat, including a knife, whip, and choke chain. The piece concludes with the use of these weapons to kill unsuspecting characters in the background.

“It is difficult, because there are so many fewer words repeated,” said Brant, 25. “It makes it harder to memorize because I have to do different things with the same words, so I can’t associate words with actions.”

Although the simplicity of the language in Baroque opera is repetitive and sometime considered easier than other styles, it allows vocalists to add their own variations — which they call “ornamentations” to the music.

Soprano Darlene Gonzalez said the ornamentations are an interesting and challenging element of the performance. When she sings “Danza danza fanciulla,” by Fasolo, and “Cangia cangia la tue voglie,” by Durante, she adds her own rendition of the technical elements to the music.

“The pieces themselves are not hard if you look at them musically,” she said. “But they are pieces everyone knows, so everyone is expecting you to make a good interpretation of them that people will enjoy.”

Each student’s interpretation of the piece he or she performs is well-received by classmates and Rhoads.

“They are very supportive of each other,” Rhoads said. “It is a wonderful group of students who vary in experience on the stage, and it has been fun and a positive learning experience for them.”

Samantha Blickhan, a first-year graduate student in musicology, takes the stage as Cleopatra, dressed in a silver cape with gold, pink, purple, and blue decorative details. Her costume is complete with the addition of a gaudy gold crown for a performance of “Non disperar, chi sa?” from Giulio Cesare. She sings the piece in a light and sweet voice while confidently dancing around the stage.

After the performance, Blickhan, 23, seems frustrated, admitting to her colleagues that her voice is tired — but to an untrained ear, her performance does not match her negative perception.

Rhoads says the hard work of vocalists such as Blickhan is an attribute of the students in the workshop.

“Of all my years teaching, this is my best group of students, including all the cast of Traviata,” she said. “They work terrifically hard for me, always striving to improve and to learn.”

But as this weekend’s performances approach, students keep in mind that it is a workshop, not a professional production without any imperfections.

“We are working together, and [the performance] is a showcase of our process,” Galetti said. “We are just singers, working on what we do.”

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