UMSL Opera Theatre wins first in NOA competition for ‘The Clever Artifice of Harriet and Margaret’

Madeleine James, Sophie Loban, Stella Markou, Gracelyn Penn, and Lexi Neal

From left: Madeleine James, Sophie Loban, Director Stella Markou, Gracelyn Penn and Lexi Neal placed first in the National Opera Association’s Division 1 Opera Competition for “The Clever Artifice of Harriet and Margaret.” Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the show ran only once, a performance for cast members’ families only. (Photo by Danny Reise)

Lexi Neal was attending a virtual conducting class when she noticed several missed calls from Stella Markou, associate professor of music and director of vocal studies as well as opera theatre at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Neal, a senior music student, immediately became concerned that something was amiss.

She couldn’t have been more wrong.

Instead, Neal discovered that, along with castmates Sophie Loban, Madeleine James, Gracelyn Penn, Swabu Jefferson and Nick Bashaw and Markou, they’d won first place in the National Opera Association’s Division 1 Opera Competition for their performance of “The Clever Artifice of Harriet and Margaret.”

“I could not believe it,” Neal said. “We all believed so much in this production, the chemistry and the hard work, but to receive a national award, to receive that level of validation for something that you worked so hard for, is just unbelievable. It was amazing. It was so shocking. What a great start to your Tuesday.”

The win, which would have been happy news under any occasion, was made more poignant by the disruption caused by safety adaptations due to the coronavirus pandemic. “Clever Artifice” had originally been slated for a run in March.

Markou and Neal were live in studio at St. Louis Public Radio | 90.7 KWMU’s “St. Louis on the Air” to promote the show when they received the news on air that the UMSL campus was closing. It was the day before their first performance. Host Sarah Fenske asked if the show was cancelled.

The two had no ready answer.

“We basically had to leave the interview for the final dress rehearsal. After our rehearsal, I remember just fighting back tears, running offstage and calling my department chair,” Markou said.

That call started a chain of conversations that eventually resulted in special permission to do one performance for family members only, which was recorded for posterity and for the competition.

“That performance that night was the most intimate, artistic experience in my life,” Neal said. “It was like everything that we’ve been working on for all those months all of a sudden clicked. We felt a connection with our audience. We felt a connection with each other that we had never felt before. It was so fulfilling. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that really created the backbone for all of our lives going forward as performers.”

The opera features a conversation between two women while, simultaneously, two players act out their inner dialogues. Markou filled not only the role of director but also vocal coach and designer for costumes, sets and lighting. Piano accompanist Gail Hintz served as music director for the production and Assistant Professor Darwin Acquino was conductor.

Markou notes that “Clever Artifice” is a special piece that was helped along to the win by the hard work and talent of the cast members.

“I’m extraordinarily proud of my students, their resiliency and their ability to take on challenges and excel and bring their very best,” she said. “The fact that we had some closure, and they had an opportunity for their loved ones to see all their hard work, even for that moment, really made that performance special.”

The UMSL Opera Theatre program has produced quality productions and received numerous accolades in its 13-year tenure. Markou recalled her first opera to receive national recognition, “The Mikado,” which won second place at the NOA competition and demonstrated that program size was less of a factor than putting heart, soul and work into the productions.

Continuing on this path, she is already thinking about future musical opportunities for her students, including a mini production with a cabaret flavor for the spring semester. Markou is also working on her future concert works and editing a CD project.

As for Neal, she’s on track to graduate in spring 2021 and is working on applying to graduate schools for a master’s degree in opera or classical studies. Regardless of where she ends up, though, she’ll always look back to her UMSL experience.

That said, a few moments from the “Clever Artifice” especially stand out. She recalls catching cast member James’ eye impromptu during their performance.

“She and I both reached out for each other’s hands,” Neal said. “We just held hands and looked at each other, both welling up with tears. It was such an authentic, raw emotional moment. That was probably the most special moment.

“But the second most special moment was whenever we finally took that curtain call. It was really special to be standing by the sides of all these people that I had grown up with. It was something that I’ll remember forever.”


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