Undergrads Take the Stage for SFCM's Winter Term Operas
The premiere of Jodi Goble's 'Meow and Forever' and a production of Purcell's 'Dido and Aeneas' gave undergrads in the Opera and Musical Theatre department a chance to shine.
With the return of its undergraduate opera class to the school's Winter Term, SFCM is "at the forefront putting undergrads front and center," voice faculty Rhoslyn Jones explains. While younger students "have a lot of opportunities here, to have a named role for an undergraduate, that is something really special."
This year, Jones put on a double bill featuring a somewhat unorthodox pairing: Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. and the premiere of composer Jodi Goble (and librettist Basil Considine)'s contemporary queer love story Meow and Forever. (Voice and Opera Studies Chair Catherine Cook inaugurated the project with Jones last year.)
For sophomore Aaliyah Capilli, cast in Dido and Aeneas, it was her first time playing a named role, and in a production with a special resonance for her. "When I was in high school, I remember our music teacher would talk about opera and the first opera she told us about was Dido and Aeneas. It's such a full circle: I remember my music teacher talking about this, and now I get to sing in it."
Capilli said the most challenging part of the winter term project was the time frame: Full staging and production in two weeks, but singing along with the prominently-featured harpsichord in Dido—her first time doing so—was also tricky. "I feel like it turned out well and now I really love the harpsichord," she says.
"My second year here, they added the undergrad opera workshop. So for me as a sophomore and definitely the freshman, we're all very happy we get to be a part of something, because as a young singer the way to learn is to do it."
Meanwhile, Goble explains that Meow had its genesis during the pandemic with virtual training workshops for composers and librettists, in which each had 24 hours to complete their half of a finished work: Librettists would generate the text and hand it off to a composer to finish it. "Basil and I were paired together, and the prompt was a woman is writing a letter to her mother, but it was for three characters," Goble says. "Basil said to me, 'I think the other two characters should be cats.' And I fought him so hard on it … I had to get over the ego of being the person who was going to be known for writing a trio with cats."
Jones was a fan of Goble since before their collaboration, having "stalked her in a non-creepy way" during the early pandemic lockdowns, she laughs. "Jodi's writing is very lyrical and has a lot of dramatic moments that remind me of the bigger opera style," Jones continued, "but the way she's written it is so accessible for young singers. It's a story about humans, and more than that, it's a story about young people. The music being really passionate and big underscores the way that even a small event in your life when you're that age can feel really emotional."
Goble jokes that she wanted Meow to be "funny, and not just 'opera funny,'" which she defines as "anything where people aren't actively dying." With a queer female-identifying lead role, Meow, Jones adds, is "a love story that isn't based in trauma at all, which I think is important. Opera has a strong tradition of comedy and a lot of modern opera sort of has veered away from that. We're telling what we perceive to be important and dramatic and tragic stories: I can think of a lot of modern operas that fall into that category, but comedy is important. It's a different way of looking at the world and potentially traumatic events."
And Meow, Goble adds, falls into a rich tradition of cat-based opera. "Rossini wrote a cat duet, which is not attached to an opera, just a standalone piece. And it happened again when Ravel wrote L'enfant et les sortilèges, there's a cat duet toward the end of that. So this is just the next generation of cat duets and they sing about things that you would imagine cats would sing about, like not having a cardboard box and not being happy with their food."
"Last year, the winter term was the highlight of my teaching career," Jones says. "It's so heartwarming to see this group of students work together so passionately and earnestly. It's the first time in the year that some of the freshmen and sophomores are really in the same room with their peers, and they really all hang out together. They're in a chat group together. They're fully invested and feel a sense of ownership over their work and their artistry. And that for me as an educator is just really rewarding."
Learn more about studying Opera and Musical Theatre at SFCM.