UMSL Opera Theatre pushes boundaries with ‘The Medium’

by | Apr 8, 2019

Coming off a national award, the troupe shifted gears into darker, more challenging subject matter and musical territory.
UMSL Opera Theatre – The Medium

Emese Mattingly (left) and Alayna Epps perform in “The Medium,” the latest production by the UMSL Opera Theatre. (Photos courtesy of Danny Reise)

Baba – or Madame Flora, as she’s known to her customers – is a fraud. She’s emotionally and physically abusive to her daughter Monica, and Toby, the mute boy she’s taken into her home. She swindles grieving parents out of their money by making them think she can communicate with their deceased children.

Emese Mattingly, who played Madame Flora in the recent UMSL Opera Theatre production of “The Medium,” had a bit of trouble identifying with her at first.

“She’s just this evil character with evil motives. I consider myself an optimist,” Mattingly said. “It was challenging, but it was really worthwhile because I was able to understand her motives. Not only that, I kind of dove into the why she is the way she is.”

Stella Markou, University of Missouri–St. Louis associate professor of music and director of vocal studies and the Opera Theatre, wanted to stretch her students’ boundaries with “The Medium,” which ran from March 15-17 at the Lee Theater in the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. After last spring’s production of the comedy “The Pirates of Penzance,” she wanted the 14 members of her troupe to experience something completely different.

Stella Markou

Opera Theatre Director Stella Markou wanted to challenge her students with the dark subject matter and discordant melodies of Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1948 work.

For Mattingly, that meant embodying an unfamiliar character. For Alayna Epps, who played Monica, it meant finding the humanity in a mother who is inhumane. For Jordan Carr, who played Toby, it meant expressing a range of emotions without using words.

For the whole cast, it meant grappling with the dark tone and discordant melodies of Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1948 work.

“We had to understand that the music did not shape the scene: We did,” Epps said. “When Monica is trying to comfort Baba, she can’t listen to the sadness that the music is portraying. She’s really being hopeful. It was all up to what the character is trying to display at that moment, not what the music is doing. It’s like moving against the water.

“After this show, everything is like a piece of cake.”

Epps had never performed opera before she joined UMSL’s program at the urging of Markou, her voice coach, in the fall of 2017. Mattingly, too, was a neophyte when she gravitated to the program after transferring to UMSL in 2015. She graduated with bachelor’s degrees in English and music in December but is continuing to take graduate music classes as a non-degree-seeking student.

Mattingly has an upcoming internship at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and hopes to use it as a springboard into a career in the arts.

“I am so excited to have this internship serve as the platform in my career in the arts,” Mattingly said. “I realized that I loved doing arts administration and advocacy and engagement with the community, especially with something that has this whole world of opportunity.”

Mattingly and students like her are what make the Opera Theatre unique. While other college programs are mostly made up of vocal performance majors – aspiring professional singers – UMSL’s brings in students from all over the academic spectrum.

The cast for “Pirates” included nursing, media studies, social work and biology majors. That production earned the Opera Theatre a tie for first place in its division at the 2017-18 National Opera Association Opera Production Competition. It was the second time in four years UMSL had placed in the top three.

Darwin Aquino

An 18-piece orchestra under the direction of Assistant Teaching Professor of Music Darwin Aquino added a new wrinkle to the show. The Opera Theatre usually performs with only a piano accompaniment.

“If you’re an opera singer, you’re kind of like the Olympic athlete of voice,” Markou said. “The skills they learn – consistency of discipline, team playing, ownership, propriety, almost like project managing by yourself and pushing your limits of endurance physically and mentally – these are all aspects you need to be successful in the work field. Contemporary classical music is very difficult. Now they’re bringing different assets and skillsets to the table that they didn’t have before. We took a big program risk, but it really paid humongous dividends in the individual growth of each cast member.”

The new wrinkles for “The Medium” – aside from the subject matter and tonal language – included working with masks made by artist Clelia Scala and singing with the accompaniment of an 18-piece orchestra conducted by Assistant Teaching Professor of Music Darwin Aquino instead of the usual piano accompaniment, broadening the musical possibilities.

Or, to put it in Markou’s words, “Now you have a box of Crayolas of 100 colors where before you had, maybe, 10.”

Epps feels that everyone should give opera a chance. She’s glad she did.

“Some people think it’s not tangible, but it really is,” Epps said. “Opera is a mirror to your humanity. It’s people living lives to the extreme in every moment. Everyone should experience that.”

David Morrison

David Morrison