Thursday, November 19, 2009

UVA Opera Viva Presents “A Night of Opera”

Three friends from my a cappella group are very involved in the music department at the University of Virginia. They are involved in Opera Viva, which is “a student-run organization dedicated to producing and promoting opera in the UVA and Charlottesville communities” (Concert Program). Martha, Caitlin, and Leah are classically trained and knowledgeable in music theory, as they are music majors. Martha, a Soprano 1, aspires to be a professional opera singer someday. Opera Viva planned a gala entitled “A Night of Opera,” in which they performed a scene from six different operas. Though the actual gala on October 22 2009 was supposedly quite fancy and expensive, Opera Viva had an “open” dress rehearsal/run-though the night before their gala, on October 21, 2009. This evening dress rehearsal was open to friends and family, and only cost $3 to enter. Since I had never been to an opera performance of any kind before, I was interested to see how race and gender played a role in opera.

Firstly, at the beginning of each scene, a narrator would emerge and introduced the story behind each opera. However, it was difficult to follow each story as the songs were all in different languages, except for one – Papageno/Papagena Duet-Die Zaubeflote by Mozart. In “A Night of Opera,” each of the six scenes contained from anywhere from two to four featured soloists. It appeared that the cast of approximately twenty college students were all of Anglo-Caucasian descent, except two African-American females. Though each of the six opera scenes contained from anywhere from two to four featured soloists, I found it strange that the two African-American singers were featured in the same opera scene as lead soloists. Therefore, all soloists in the remaining five scenes were white. It would be interesting to go behind-the-scenes to find out exactly how the soloists were picked for each opera. Did the soloists choose what opera scene they wanted to participate in? Or did they audition, specifically for a scene or in general for a solo part?

The musicality of the opera performance displayed a unique presentation in regards to race as well. It was obvious that all of the performers were very trained in voice and music theory. Every singer used a great deal of vibrato, and sang with a lot of dynamics. They projected their voices over the piano accompaniment throughout the Newcomb Ballroom – so loudly it seemed almost unnecessary, and was not completely pleasant to listen to. Though I had never been to an opera performance before, the loud voice projection seemed quite stereotypical of what one would envision an opera singer to sound like. When my friend and featured Soprano Martha sang, it was almost reminiscent of Bessie Smith belting “The St. Louis Blues.” But, unlike Bessie Smith, Martha did not have to sing over a brass band – only a piano playing softly in the background.

Such strong female vocals were juxtaposed with the emotional victim role the female singers/actors played in the scene. The men were also very emotive in their facial expressions and body movements throughout the concert. The lyrics and themes of the music highlighted in “A Night of Opera” all surrounded love. All of the scenes were about human love and the interaction and feelings that arise from the bliss of love as well as the desperation of unrequited or betrayed love. It was interesting that the men were deemed as strong, masculine, and aggressive actors in the music even though they were lamenting about love, which is usually categorized as feminine. In the Opera Viva performance, portraying emotion through music was considered masculine. This play on hegemonic masculinity presents a new way of looking at gender through music.

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