Students unite for countertenor opera

Deanna Wanner

Third term of last year Joe Nelson had an epiphany. He thought it would be highly unlikely that the Lawrence voice faculty would pick an opera with a countertenor role, so he decided to produce his own show so he could have a lead role to sing. Not many modern operas have countertenors, but Baroque literature is full of countertenor roles that were played by castrati. Nelson picked the opera Rinaldo by Handel because it is one of the most performed Baroque operas.

Nelson feels that Baroque opera is perfect for young voices. He says, “The range isn’t too extreme, yet it’s still musically worth listening to. There are moments in Handel that are just as gorgeous as modern opera. It’s all about singing beautifully.”

Baroque music is a genre of music that doesn’t get much exposure at Lawrence. The only music ensemble at Lawrence that sings a lot of Baroque is Collegium Musicum. Nelson’s production gives students another chance to experience the genre.

Not only does Rinaldo give students exposure to Baroque music, but it also gives them the chance to experience a show in another language: Italian. All of Lawrence’s productions are done in English except opera scenes. Rinaldo gives students a chance to perform not only a scene but a major staged show in its original language.

The audience will have a translation, but the language barrier is still a challenge to the singers, who must work on making the Italian understandable through their emotions and actions, especially during the recitatives.

Once Nelson decided to go through with his idea, it took an enormous amount of work to make it a reality. Luckily, he already had some business skills. Organizing a show gave him an outlet to use some of his business training.

The money for the production was funded by the Alyssa Paul Maria Fund for student activities, and also by alumni through SOUP. Nelson said it was more expensive than he expected to get the rights for the show, but finally after lengthy negotiations the publisher shipped the parts.

Nelson decided not to hold auditions. Instead, he personally asked the singers that he wanted to work with to learn their roles over the summer. Nelson decided to do only Act II of Rinaldo because it had the most dramatic movement in the plot. He felt the full opera would be too long and too big of a production.

Nelson has been able to play a part in every aspect of the show, but he has also had a lot of help. He asked Laura Guilli to direct the pit, which she sees as a very good opportunity because she wants to study conducting in graduate school. It’s her first time conducting an orchestra and she says she’s had a lot of challenges with the Baroque style, especially with the recitatives.

Kathy Privatt is the stage director for the opera, and Patrice Michaels, Nelson’s voice teacher, is the musical coach.

The set for Rinaldo is minimal and the staging is a little out of the norm to make the show as lively, real, and understandable as possible.

“Rinaldo” is opera seria, so the plot is melodramatic, but the story is complex. Nelson believes if people give it a chance they could get a lot out of it.

The plot involves a lot of kidnapping and love triangles. The opera is set back in the time of the Crusades and involves a witch and a hero. Rinaldo is a legendary warrior who decides whether the Christians should win against their enemy.

To learn more about the plot, come see the show in Cloak Theater on Wednesday, Nov. 20, at 9:15 p.m.; Thursday, Nov. 21, at 9:45 p.m.; or Friday, Nov. 22, at 9:15 p.m.

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