This past weekend, students of the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music performed the opera masterwork “The Beggar’s Opera” at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center’s Kimberly-Clark Theater. The opera was written by satirist John Gay and arranged by composer Benjamin Britten. There were four performances—Thursday, Feb. 25 through Saturday, Feb. 27 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 28 at 3 p.m.—which were the culmination of numerous hours of careful planning, individual practice and group rehearsal by the cast, orchestra, production staff and directors.
This vaudevillian ballad opera consisted of three acts with a pre-concert show and two ten-minute act breaks by the local band Holy Sheboygan!—which features Liam O’Brien ’10, Ben DeCorsey ’10, Jeff Edenberg ’10 and Julia Blair ’11—who performed their own arrangements of Gay’s original texts. With their unique style and instrumentation, Holy Sheboygan! provided a savory musical flavor that contrasted nicely with the opera.
True to the ballad opera format, “The Beggar’s Opera” included just as much acting and speaking as singing. What sets it apart from a typical musical is the satire that it conveys. In 1728, Gay crafted the opera in order to expose and openly mock the rampant corruption of his time, during which many law-enforcement officials partnered up with thieves in order to exploit the legal and justice systems and profit from crime. However, by utilizing the ballad opera format and incorporating raunchy and comical lines, Gay also mocks the more austere operatic style that was stereotypical at the time. Thus, The New York Times fittingly refers to “The Beggar’s Opera” as an “anti-opera,” and the Lawrence University students performed it as such.
“The Beggar’s Opera” chronicles the tale of the Peachums, a couple who make their living by partnering with criminals to game the system for monetary gain, whose daughter Polly falls in love with and marries one of their most lucrative criminal customers, Captain Macheath. From there, the tale spirals into a whirlwind of debauchery and depravity as the Peachums attempt to save face and fortune by plotting to murder Macheath, and Polly attempts to retain his love after discovering he is already married to another woman. The opera ends abruptly by acquitting Macheath before his execution, whereupon he promptly announces to the audience that Polly is his one and only love.
The opera featured two casts, with the first group performing on Thursday and Saturday and the second group performing on Friday and Sunday. The Saturday evening showing that I attended was excellent, and I am sure that the other showings were of a similar caliber.
The opera was accompanied by a pit orchestra, comprised of twelve Lawrence University students and directed by guest conductor Hal France, who played for the duration of the opera with a few exceptions, all while dressed in costuming befitting the time period, which called for wigs and coats. The superb music complemented the performance of the actors and singers onstage very well.
The stage for the opera, which the program notes called a “raised thrust platform,” was remarkably simple in its construct—just a platform sitting in the middle of the Kimberly-Clark Theater with one trap door situated towards the front and one situated towards the back. Consequently, the opera relied mostly on the elaborate costumes and the dramatic presence of the characters onstage, which were more than satisfactory, to create the scenes.
Screens behind and on both sides of the stage displayed the words that were being sung so that the audience could more readily decipher the Old English text. Almost every stanza that was sung was repeated and the screens turned off for the repetitions, which allowed for the audience to take in the meaning of the words in the songs the first time around and then watch the stage for the full effect of the music and the acting the second time around.
Overall, the opera was well acted and pleasing to both the eye and the ear. Each of the cast members on the Saturday showing did a remarkable job of accentuating the witty jibes present in Gay’s text, eliciting much laughter from the audience on a few occasions. As Director of Opera Studies Copeland Woodruff put it in the program notes, “The Beggar’s Opera” does a wonderful job of “peering into our own dichotomies and contradictions” as human beings. The opera included the age-old struggles of love—the unreasonable, the unrequited and the unapproved; the wickedness of the heart at its most selfish and disgusting; and human nature at its most paradoxical –ridiculous and somehow forgivable. The opera ended with a song that was sung by all members of the cast where the key lyric was “The wretch of today may be happy tomorrow,” thus celebrating the present moment while acknowledging the unpredictability of life. I possess a lot of admiration for all of the students and faculty for giving four performances in one weekend of an approximately three-hour work with dignity, grace and devotion and for satisfactorily portraying one of the most well performed operas of all time.