Elixir of Love mixes music and language


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It’s a weeknight evening, and the clock reads about 7. The only sounds that can be heard are a piano and the powerful voices of a handful of opera singers.

The Music West-Interim Building — located in part of what used to be the Museum of Art — provides the venue for the rehearsal. Only a few props dot the stage — a wooden bench and table, a coffee mug, a hand bell. And in a couple days, the performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s comedic opera Elixir of Love will début.

With limited creative visual elements to convey the story, the language and style of the music become crucial elements.

“Opera is one of the only art forms that include really all of the arts — visual arts, acting, singing, and the orchestra,” conductor William LaRue Jones said. “Composers are really adding all of those elements, and it is one of the most important parts of telling the story.”

With only a month of rehearsal, the costumes, music, and acting will come together at 8 p.m. Friday in the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St. Performances will continue at 8 p.m. through Saturday and at 2 p.m. May 1. Admission is $5 for UI students with valid IDs, $10 for youth, $15 for senior citizens, and $20 for the general public.

Elixir of Love is directed by UI Associate Professor Emeritus William Theisen, who has led more than 100 productions across the country. The opera is the fourth he has directed at the university.

When he’s not in Iowa, he is the full-time artistic director of the Skylight Opera Theatre in Milwaukee.

Though he has a great deal of experience, this production is Theisen’s first time directing this particular show. He said he enjoys working through the process with the students rather than focusing on the final product.

Staging an opera

Presented by the University of Iowa Martha-Ellen Tye Opera Theater, Elixir of Love follows the story of Nemorino, a poor farmer.

When the kind-hearted and sweet Nemorino (UI senior Chaz’men Williams-Ali) falls in love with Adina (graduate student Jacqueline Lang), he is caught in a love triangle with Sergeant Belcore, a pompous character who is focused on getting her in bed. Because of this, Nemorino searches for the bottle of elixir that will make Adina focus her passion on him.

UI senior Ian Richardson (Sergeant Belcore) drew inspiration from his job at Kum & Go to learn his character.

“I watched how younger males acted toward their mothers,” he said. “They learn to put the smile on when they need to, but they are very manipulative at the same time.”

Not all cast members used personal experiences to get into character. For Lang, the moment came when she tried on her costume for the first time.

As she draped the Victorian-style gown over her shoulders and tightened the corset, she felt like a fashion icon from the 1900s — a perfect fit for her role.

“The way the fabric flows while the character is moving [on stage] gives me a great sense of excitement,” Lang said. “The set designs and costumes are fabulous, the production team has done a great job, and it’s really exciting to see it all come together.”

Theisen agreed.

“I think there are a lot of components at the university that are great assets to the opera,” he said as he wrote notes for the actors on stage. “Working with Shari Rhoads is a huge help and great experience, because she’s so good at what she does.”

Rhoads is the vocal coach for the opera, and with her help, the students have been able to conquer the classical style of the music featured in Elixir of Love.

Behind the music

Rhoads has worked with the principal actors since late March. Williams-Ali, Lang, and Richardson had to learn the music on their own at first, and the three didn’t practice together with Rhoads until after spring break.

Though it’s a short process for learning the music, the actors ran into problems when they had a different idea of what the tempo should be.

“[Rhoads] is a great bridge between you doing what you want to do and someone having a say-so to what goes on,” Williams-Ali said. “But it’s really nice when you get to hear what the whole thing sounds like.”

Not only do the singers have to worry about tempo, the orchestra does, too. Jones said his responsibility is to keep the orchestra moving but keep the performance in mind.

“If it’s just the orchestra on stage, you aren’t concerned about the young voices being able to carry themselves over the music,” he said. “[In the opera], I have to make sure certain tempos and volumes work for the singers.”

An interesting aspect of Elixir of Love is that the composer wrote each of the main roles’ vocal lines with the character’s personality in mind — which, Rhoads said, is unusual.

“Composer are different with their styles of composition, where they either concentrate on the story or the beauty of the voice,” she said. “But they don’t usually compose where their vocal line reflects a personality.”

The UI tends to go toward original-language operas, which are usually in Italian, but Theisen chose to do this particular opera in English — a challenge for the students.

“In an original-language opera, the librettist labors intensively over the sound of each syllable for the language,” Rhoads said. “This sets up a lot of diction issues for the students, but they have done a wonderful job with it.”

While the performers may have perfected singing in English, Williams-Ali said, it’s not easy as singing in another language.

“You have to sit down and figure out how it musically fits with the text, and while it is easier to interpret, it’s not easier on the voice,” he said. “Some things just don’t work, and in order to make a legit sentence, you have to do a really weird grammar setup.”

Though the orchestra and vocalists have been rehearsing for a month and a half, this week was the first time the two have come together. But Jones said he isn’t worried about the short amount of time — things tend to work out.

“There is always potential things [that could go wrong],” he said. “But usually it’s not something that stops the show.”

Opening night

As the curtains open and the performers take their places on stage, the mixture of music, language, and personalities come together. One element is no more important than the others — they work together to create the comedic opera. After a week of rehearsing with the orchestra, the actors are skilled enough to know not to push the musicians and to get their tempos where they need to be.

“You go from being supported by one person to being supported by a bunch of people,” Lang said. “There is a lot more energy, and it’s a very neat experience.”

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