Opera brings Shakespeare to the stage

Amelia Perron

There will be hijinks in Stansbury this weekend — pranks, mischief, deception, elves, and some very good singing. In other words, the weekend will see the premiere of Lawrence’s production of Nicolai’s opera “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” directed by John Gates, with musical preparation by Bonnie Koestner and Brian DeMaris, and conducted by David Becker.The opera, based on the work of Shakespeare, is a light-hearted romp with a suggestion of serious undertones. The leading ladies, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page, offended by the graceless advances of the portly drinker and womanizer Falstaff, decide to punish both he and the jealous Mr. Ford in an elaborate scheme.

Meanwhile, for contrast, and to make sure that the comedy ends with a marriage, there’s the earnest tale of true love: Anne and Fenton, two lovers who are destined to be kept apart by her unsympathetic parents — but only for awhile.

According to Gates, the opera all about love. “It’s about the vulnerability of human beings to the powers of love,” he explained. “These passions make us do things that are sublime or ridiculous.” In his interpretation, the love story of Anne and Fenton is not a side note at all, but part of the vital skeleton of the work. “Everyone has screwed up relationships except them. They show the beauty of love when everything else is trivial or when passions get twisted.”

But Gates’ staging choices show that he doesn’t wish to take the story too seriously. In fact, he’s actually trying to go over the top. “I don’t care for subtlety in theatre,” Gates said. “We can’t compete with other media like film. This is an art form — we’re not trying to be realistic.”

In fact, for Gates’ style of exaggerated theatricality and awareness of the audience, “the level of artistry is the level of the abstract or artificial.”
The production, structured around an open-concept (i.e. sparsely furnished) set and period costumes, won’t seem too odd until “the disintegration of the set,” noted Gates, “after which it will become more and more abstract.”

But don’t worry. This opera won’t heavy-handed, conceptual, or inaccessible. Quite the contrary.

“This music is extremely tuneful and charming,” said Koestner. “It should be an enjoyable, entertaining, uplifting and fun time. You don’t need to have preconceived notions or study before seeing it.”

It will also be sung in English instead of the original German, to help the (relatively) young singers navigate the long work, and to remove a barrier between the performance and the audience.

The opera, while offering plenty for the audience, was selected with educational reasons in mind. “It’s a good piece that is also doable for undergraduates,” Koestner said, explaining that even the voices of great singers simply aren’t physically mature enough at age 20 to sing more taxing roles. “This piece also uses a lot of people in the cast,” she said, which is a plus for a school with a lot of good singers.

“What’s remarkable,” Koestner concluded, referring to the double casting, “is that we have two really strong casts.”

The opera runs March 6-8, at 8 p.m. and March 9 at 3 p.m., with different casts on Thursday-Saturday and Friday-Sunday. Tickets, available through the box office, are $10 for adults, $5 for seniors and students, and free for Lawrence students.