UMSL Opera Theatre wins first place American Prize for production of ‘The Medium’
The University of Missouri–St. Louis Opera Theatre’s latest award-winning production was properly dramatic on and off the stage.
At the beginning of the program’s production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Medium,” Maddie James was an understudy. However, after several weeks, she was thrust onto center stage, taking over one of the main roles in the small ensemble cast.
With the help of Associate Professor of Music and Director of Vocal Studies and Opera Theatre Stella Markou, James took the opportunity and ran with it.
“I had a great experience,” she said. “It was one of the best productions that I’ve ever done.”
The judges for the American Prize National Nonprofit Competitions in the Performing Arts agreed with her.
James, her castmates and Markou won the 2021 American Prize in Opera Performance College/Universities Smaller Program Division for their performance of “The Medium.” The production was staged in 2019, but The American Prize allows a broader window of submitted material.
Markou was thrilled to learn the production won first place.
“It’s such an exuberant joy because I have so much love for this production, for the cast and the process,” she said. “It’s a triumphant achievement just to get that recognition and to see my students’ work and my work being celebrated in such a visual capacity.”
The win marks the third time in four years the UMSL Opera Theatre has placed first in national competition. Previously, the program won first place in the National Opera Association’s 2019-2020 Division 1 Opera Competition for its performance of “The Clever Artifice of Harriet and Margaret” and in NOA’s 2017-2018 competition for “The Pirates of Penzance.” The program was also a national finalist in NOA’s 2018-2019 Musical Theater Scenes competition.
In addition to the first place prize for the production, Markou won the second place 2021 Charles Nelson Reilly Prize for directing.
Markou attributes the continued success of the program to its fierce work-ethic and ingenuity. She noted though larger programs might have up to 200 performance majors, Markou always picks productions that build on the strengths and talents of it small and mighty student body.
She’s found that UMSL students always rise to the challenge, willing to be pushed and dedicate themselves to their craft. James concurred and said the key to success has been teamwork between students and faculty members.
“I think it goes to show that we really strive to do the best with what we are given,” James said. “It’s such an amazing program that is very focused on the students themselves and their creative ideas and their own creative individualized talents. I think by catering to those, it sets an advantage to each student to be able to have us all come together and create such beautiful artistry. I don’t think that would be possible if there wasn’t a collaborative effort between the music faculty and the students themselves.”
Markou chose “The Medium” because it’s darker in tone than some of the program’s previous productions and provided a nice change of pace.
The opera tells the tale of Madame Flora, also referred to as “Baba,” who enlists her daughter Monica and Toby, an orphaned mute boy, to help her hold sham séances.
One night, Madame Flora holds a séance for Mr. and Mrs. Gobineau, longtime customers who desperately try to communicate with their deceased son Mickey, and Mrs. Nolan, a new customer. However, things start happening that lead Madame Flora to believe the spiritual forces she’s been fabricating for years might actually be real.
James played Mrs. Gobineau and said she learned a lot about immersing herself in her character and pushing herself to use all of her vocal techniques. There was one scene in particular that stood out to her.
“There’s a moment where I’m talking about my son on stage,” she said. “It’s kind of a solo moment for me to be encompassed by this entire psyche atmosphere, and I’m swallowed up in it. I had to really push myself to feel the full growth of what it was like to have an explosive amount of emotions that were overwhelming to the point of complete sadness and sorrow, and I’ve never experienced anything like that, doing something like that on stage. It was really impactful thing for me.”
The main cast is limited, but Markou adapted the original production to make it work for the entire class.
“I took a very definitive stance, and I made a lot of bold choices – high risk, high reward,” Markou said. “I created an entire cast of characters that were spirits in the background. I wanted to incorporate the entire class, and I wanted them to be part of the process. What was really joyful was that I created a Greek chorus of subsidiary characters in the background, which ended up really enhancing the show.”
Markou added that the effect of the Greek chorus of spirits surpassed her own expectations and leant a unique twist to the dark, challenging subject matter. James credits Markou’s vision for helping the production stand out among American Prize competitors.
“She had such a different creative genius about this production that I think helped us get first place,” James said. “She’s able to take ideas and turn them into something that no one has ever thought about before. It’s a perspective, a creative perspective that most people wouldn’t reach for.”
The other thing that set the production apart was an unprecedented amount of collaboration with other artists. It was the first time in the program’s history that a production partnered with the UMSL Symphony Orchestra to use live orchestration.
Additionally, Markou commissioned Clelia Scala, a puppeteer and artist, to craft detailed masks for the Greek chorus and the main ensemble. She said collaborating with other disciplines inspired the imaginations of students and audiences alike.
James hopes that the national recognition will bring more awareness to the program, so student performers can share their artistic talents with the UMSL community and beyond.
“I just hope and always want the department here to flourish and to have even more opportunities in the future,” she said. “With all this outside recognition that we’re getting, we want everybody to know about it and everyone to experience and enjoy the artistry we create. That’s what we do as artists by letting people in the community and beyond see that and make them feel something, whether it’s joy or sadness or connection. That’s our end goal.”
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