Night at the opera
The lights dim at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center, the music rises and the performers step out on the stage. Associate Professor Stella Markou has a hard time breathing and beads of sweat form on her skin.
The University of Missouri–St. Louis Opera Theatre’s annual production is about to begin, and she’s spent months directing casting, choreography, costume design and even making sure that the performers’ lipstick is sparkly enough.
“When the show starts is the only time I start to worry that this isn’t going to work,” she says. “Failure’s not an option. The music’s too great, the story’s too great and we’ve worked too hard.”
But as her students start to sing, everything becomes right again, and all that hard work has earned the UMSL Opera Theatre national attention. The University of Missouri-St. Louis is the only St. Louis university doing full opera productions.
“I believe in my students,” she says. “I believe in our work, and I believe in our process. Our process is grueling, and our process is intense, but that’s how you make great art.”
Markou leads the program as UMSL’s director of vocal studies and director of the opera theatre. When she arrived at UMSL, Markou started producing performances of scenes from select operas, before expanding to full productions such as “Elixir of Love” and “Die Fledermaus.”
Validation for the program came when the 2014 production of “The Mikado” earned second place in the Opera Production Competition from the National Opera Association. The award typically goes to larger opera programs. A year earlier, her alma mater, Oberlin Conservatory in Oberlin, Ohio was in the same slot.
“We want to be nationally competitive,” she says. “This award has basically said we’re playing with the big boys, which is very satisfying.”
Opera performance teaches vocal music students to sing while developing important theatrical skills, says Jim Henry, music department chair. Without the opera program, students might sing operatic pieces in their voice lessons, but they would lose the opportunity to develop characters and learn about staging and blocking.
“It’s a huge part of their education,” Henry says. “If they were to graduate from here without having any experience of that theatrical side of the musical art, they would be ill-prepared to go on to graduate
school or even any performance venue.”
Singing in an operatic style requires a performer to use a greater range of his or her voice, rather than blending with others, Henry says. That’s something Stephanie Crawford values while developing a performance career. Crawford graduated from UMSL in May 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in music and performed in several UMSL operas. She’s now a cantor and section leader at the Cathedral Basilica and performs as a concert soloist as well.
“With opera you’re singing solo a lot of the time and you’re very exposed,” Crawford says. “Most of the opera repertoire is a lot more challenging than singing in a choir setting. It helped me to become a better musician.”
Most opera participants arrive at UMSL with little to no exposure to opera. They may have years of choir or theater experience, but no involvement or knowledge of the art form itself. Many are quickly pulled in by the elaborate combination of music, singing and drama it offers.
“There’s a lot more to it than pop culture offers,” says junior music education major Andrea Lair. “There’s so much creativity. It can also be very modern. It’s a cherished tradition, and there’s something really special to that.”
Lair was the Mother in this year’s production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.” She was so inspired after studying opera that she spent last summer working as an usher with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. She hopes to continue singing even once she starts working as a music educator.
Like the previous year’s production, “Hansel and Gretel” was intended to dazzle audiences with stunning visuals. The traditional Christmas setting was switched to Easter due to the opera’s spring timing. UMSL Opera Theatre created a stage that resembled a wonderland complete with giant Peeps.
“This was a very interactive show where people allowed their imaginations and their inner child to come out and play,” Markou says. “I hoped to capture the childlike wonderment of the story through the beauty of the music and magnifying the archetypes of my heroes and heroines.”
In addition to producing top performers, the UMSL Opera Theatre’s productions are noteworthy for Markou’s ability to stretch limited resources. The program receives funding from the music department and the UMSL student government, and Markou stretches the resources to produce costumes and sets that dazzle the audiences.
“She’s extremely passionate about it, and she gets what she wants done,” says junior theater major Thomas Wiggand, who was Hansel. “It’s impressive to see what she puts together.”
This story was originally published in the spring 2015 issue of UMSL Magazine.
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