By Grace Peck ’18
“Opera is like playing a sport: it’s big, bad and ugly.”
–Overheard at opera practice
Through my time here at Simpson, I’ve been in eight operas, and this weekend I will be in the last one as an undergraduate. My last time on stage with my friends who have become my family for the past four past years, and my last time with directors who have watched me grow from a chorus member to having lead roles.
I came to Simpson was for its music program – specifically, it’s opera program. While double majoring and having other experiences (such as this writing internship) have been important and have helped form who I am after these past four years, music is my anchor, what keeps me going and motivates me every day.
Everyone should be well rounded and have background in some kind of art, whether that is, theatre, music, physical art, dance, etc. You need something that forces you to get in touch with your emotions and pushes you out of your comfort zone. Having limited interests is detrimental to a person’s ability to grow and explore the world we live in.
With Simpson’s upcoming opera, Little Women, being pushed doesn’t even describe the extent of growth that has taken place for the students. This is the hardest music I have ever learned, and combined with an orchestra and a new conductor, it has been a novel experience, to say the least.
With our regular director on sabbatical, our department brought in Laurie Rogers, the Head of Music Staff at Opera Saratoga, a young artist program in New York. Working with a new musical director was refreshing, and every student could go in to rehearsals with her knowing she had no pre-perceptions of them, or knew anything about their past work.
Although many people on Simpson’s campus don’t know it, Simpson College is a well-known music undergraduate program throughout the country, not just in the Midwest. Undergrads are given way more opportunities due to the size and the fact that students aren’t competing with graduate students for roles. When first starting my college search, I even heard Simpson’s music program called “a gem in the Midwest” by music teachers and conductors.
As for the process of casting- we do an audition at the beginning of the fall semester. The fall show is usually cast in the summer, so this audition is really for first years to be selected for the chorus, and for upperclassmen to demonstrate any growth they’ve made over the summer.
Then we wait for the cast list to come out for the spring opera at the end of fall semester. It’s an agonizing time, filled with gossip and guessing who will get which role. When the cast list does finally come out, there is usually damaged egos, crying or just confusion.
As usual, the Little Women casting was another guessing game. I received my final role, Meg, the eldest of the March Sisters, which I had been hoping for. I am typically cast as young male roles because of my voice type (if you care about what I’m talking about and want to know more, Google ‘Breeches roles in opera.’) so I was excited to get to wear a dress for once.
Scores are bought right away, followed by the excitement of learning the new music, excitement that quickly fades as you realize how difficult it is. You realize your anticipated relaxing winter/summer break is not going to be so relaxing. Simpson opera students have to buy their own music. Scores can range from $30 to $60, not including shipping.
Preparing the music is definitely the most tedious task. When you get your score, it’s either finals week or the middle of the summer, so you are unable to put work in until you have time, and access to a piano. You want to spend the end of your summer having fun or the start of your winter break enjoying time with your family, but I at least would try and spend two-three hours a day or every other day learning my new role.
When you can finally do it, you have to study your score first, highlight your part, dynamics, accents, tempo markings, key changes, and anything else. How you learn your music when your first have it will greatly affect how it does when you finally get it off book, so the more work you put in at the beginning, the easier it will be to memorize it.
I find fear to be a great motivator. The time you put into your music shows in staging rehearsals especially. Some students are ready, some are not. Most get it in time for the performance, but for those that don’t, they are cut from the performance.
If it’s so stressful, then why do we do it? I find that most performers (at least in my limited experience) have a love-hate relationship with performing. We love the process — learning the music, working with a coach, exploring the character and bringing that character to life.
As young singers, we are vulnerable. Our voices aren’t fully developed yet, so when you sing with an orchestra you don’t always hear us. Our voices are changing, as we are still young and growing. We are full time students with other desires and thoughts and obligations outside of music, and in a world that forces you to choose what you love or what your career will be, this is stressful. We are still learning how to move on stage, how to watch a conductor and also act, while doing what sometimes feels like screaming.
I know I have, but my friends and cast mates have put so much work, as we always do, into making the opera come to life. We are young and don’t always know what we are doing, but we put our trust into each other and our professors and most importantly ourselves, to go onto that stage and give our all.
And that is why you should go see Little Women, because it’s performed by little women who are going through the same questions these beloved characters struggle with: What will the next chapter of our lives hold, and what will change?
For me, four years and eight operas later, a lot has changed, about my future and my friendships and anything else. But what has remained constant is music. This weekend is my last opera, and probably the role I’ve connected with emotionally the most in my time here, and I hope everyone in this modern audience, like the main characters, walk away with a feeling of peace and resolution about their own lives, knowing that things change, and that’s okay.