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Lindsay Brown, right, Karima Jibril, center, and Christina Santa Maria are three of the vocal/opera students who will present the first act and finale of Giuseppe Verdi's "Falstaff" and a scene from Douglas Moore’s “The Ballad of Baby Doe."
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Vocal students bring ‘Falstaff’ opera to the stage
December 3, 2014Tweet
For Willie Anthony Waters, Verdi’s “Falstaff” is the ideal fall opera production for the 22 vocal students in his “Stage Techniques” class.
“I wanted to choose something that was challenging for the singers,” the visiting associate professor said. “This is one of the ultimate challenges in terms of ensemble writing and ensemble execution. I thought the students should be exposed to ‘Falstaff’ because it is done so infrequently. It’s a great piece that gives us a chance to incorporate practically everyone in the class.”
The Music Department will present “Falstaff” at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, in the AC-Chamber Hall. Tickets are $10, general public; $7, faculty/staff/seniors/alumni; and $5, students. Performances for local school-aged students will be held at 10 a.m. and noon Friday, Dec. 5 (by reservation at 777-3004). The opera, which features Waters as musical director/conductor and David Carl Toulson ’97 as director, incorporates the first act and third-act finale of Verdi’s 1893 comedic masterpiece. A scene from Douglas Moore’s “The Ballad of Baby Doe” will precede “Falstaff.”
Based on William Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Falstaff” follows a rotund, old knight named Sir John Falstaff who concocts a scheme to acquire some much-needed money by wooing two wealthy, married women. Falstaff gets his comeuppance after the women and others learn of his plot.
The graduate and undergraduate students in the cast said that they have enjoyed developing the rich characters of “Falstaff.”
“I’m learning about my friends and colleagues, as well as the choices we make with these characters,” said Cody Caho, a first-year master’s student who plays Ford in the 1 p.m. show. “We have three (students) who play Nannetta in different ways. It’s interesting and exciting to see all of the energy that’s on stage at one time.”
“Falstaff” also enables the cast members to display some comedic skills.
“This is the first role I’ve played that has been funny,” said Lindsay Brown, a first-year master’s student who plays Dame Quickly. “Generally, I play moms or evil people or sad people. I never get to play the goofy character. This has been a cool, out-of-the-box experience for me. Putting my own personality into a character is something I’ve enjoyed doing.”
Comedy is not an easy genre, Waters said.
“There is a reason why television sitcoms are a half hour, as opposed to an hour or longer,” he said. “Any actor will tell you that. I thought it would be a good exercise for these young singers to do something that isn’t ‘slapsticky.’ A disciplined comedic experience is important for their development.”
That development has taken place over the course of the semester in the “Stage Techniques” class. Students have prepared for “Falstaff” both in the classroom and on the Chamber Hall stage since September. Toulson, who has directed at universities and for opera companies across the country, said the class is a vital component to the students’ growth.
“The fact that this class exists now is giving opportunities to students that they would not have had five years ago,” he said. “To have the opportunity to come out and sing is great. This class is important – and to have it in a theater is quite exciting.”
Jake Stamatis, who portrays Falstaff in the early show and Pistola in the late show, said he is grateful for the chance to perform “Falstaff” on stage. He called Pistola his “dream role.”
“And Falstaff is great, too,” he added with a laugh.
“I was excited to get the chance to start learning the piece because I’d love to do it again in the future,” said Stamatis, a second-year master’s student. “But it’s tough. You can’t do it all on your own. You have to get together with the rest of the ensemble. It’s been great for the cast to build that group effort.”
The students have not only built camaraderie in class and on stage, but on their own time, as well. Jenny Gac, a second-year master’s student who plays Alice Ford in the 1 p.m. show, said the cast members worked with assistant musical director and pianist John Isenberg to perfect the ensemble.
“We were excited,” she said. “It’s the most challenging music I’ve worked on so far, especially the ending.”
Waters noted that he has seen “tremendous growth” from the students during the semester.
“I was impressed with the level of students when I came here,” said Waters, who is in his first semester at Binghamton University. “My goal was to show them and let them see that there are other parts of this performing art besides learning the notes and the music. There is expression. There is interpretation. There is diction. When combined with stage movement, it’s an all-encompassing art form.”
Cast members said they are appreciative of what Waters, Toulson and the “Falstaff” experience have taught them.
“There’s a wonderful freedom to play after that foundation of being very prepared and knowing your notes,” said Daniela Rivera, a junior who plays Meg Page.
“Sing what’s on the page first before adding all of the (flourishes),” said Stacey Geyer, a first-year master’s student who plays Nannetta in the 4 p.m. show. “Both (Waters and Toulson) have been good about saying ‘No. That’s not right. Let’s do it again.’ If something can be better, it’s going to be better. We are going to make it better.”
“David has taught us how to discover our own characters,” Brown said. “He gives us feedback, but lets us make it our character instead of saying: ‘Go here. Move there. Smile.’”
Taking what he has learned in class and applying those lessons to the stage has helped Stamatis discover new things about his voice and himself.
“A role like Falstaff – I didn’t think it was possible for me, even earlier this year,” he said. “But the right teachers and the right people believed in me. The stars aligned and I’m getting the chance to do it. It happened by being placed on stage and someone saying ‘go.’”