EVER SINCE the Academy of Music opened in 1857 with Verdi's "Il Trovatore," Philadelphia has been a mecca for opera lovers. Within just a few blocks of the academy, the home of the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the oldest opera house still in use, are two of the world's great conservatories, the Academy of Vocal Arts and Curtis Institute. Both not only stage operas but train future stars in the operatic constellation.
Yet, less than two miles north on Broad Street, the Temple University Opera Theater has been consistently presenting two superb shows each season, with little fanfare and not much attention.
In recent years, their "Midsummer Night's Dream," "Candide," "Falstaff," and brilliant double bill of "L'Enfant et les Sortileges" and "Le Rossignol" still register strongly in the memory. But opera mavens who regularly travel to the Met in New York and Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., never head five subway stops up Broad Street for Temple's performances.
That's their loss.
Temple's Voice and Opera Department has the huge advantage of the university's diversity and size. It can employ its choral department and, should dance or spoken parts be required, students from the theater and dance departments are enlisted. Opera students gain experience building sets and costumes. Even the art school gets in on the action - last fall, paintings by Tyler students were projected in Lee Hoiby's "A Month in the Country."
This spring's production is Leos Janacek's jewel, "The Cunning Little Vixen," which has kept the costume and mask people, under the direction of Connie Koppe, busy for months.
John Douglas, in his 20th year as music director and conductor, has led companies at Chautauqua and Opera Delaware, among others, and has directed the young artists program at Lake George Opera for the last seven summers.
"Repertory choices are made depending on the voices we have," explained Douglas, "with singers not used in the first opera available to sing in the second. Our goal is to provide opportunities for singers who need to be groomed and who are ready for major role exposure, although there are open auditions for the major roles.
"We haven't done this opera ['Vixen'] in 20 years, and it fits our singers well. We treat our productions in the same conceptual way that are done in a professional company, with no less time, interest or detail. We're doing it in English, with titles, because we think it's more of a benefit to our singers to improve their English diction." (Curtis Opera Theater, in association with the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center, will perform Janacek's opera next March, singing in the original Czech.)
The Temple University Symphony Orchestra benefits from the experience of playing operas in the pit. This is no small feat, since musicians are eight feet below the stage, in the dark, often unable to hear the singers and playing music that rarely stays in tempo.
There's plenty of dance in "Vixen," so Douglas chose Marc Astafan to direct, because of his background in dance and movement. The two met years ago at the New England Conservatory of Music.
"If your goal is to prepare singers for a professional career, you have to know what that entails," said Astafan. "I always begin by listening to the music, which tells it all, then I let it simmer and consider what I'm going to have everyone do. Some colleagues let the text lead the piece, but I think a piece comes from what the action is, and the text will take care of itself. Puccini first saw 'Madame Butterfly' as a play in London without understanding a word, but he knew it would make a good opera because of what he saw.
"Instead of bringing in a dance troupe, I have to make singers believe they can dance, an advantage in their future careers. Also, I'm not a big fan of scenery, because if there's too much hyperrealism you're not asking the audience to use their imagination and focus on the performance. If there were $500,000 available, I would do it in the same way, and luckily [producer] Jamie Johnson is an expert in projection and imaginative design.
"There's a restlessness about this piece, the orchestra always seems searching for somewhere to go. The forester is always searching for something without knowing what, and all the men in the opera are terribly lonely. The animals have a fuller existence, more joyous in their movements."
Douglas is past being concerned about the lack of attention Temple's opera receives. "We're usually virtually sold out and may be able to schedule another performance in the future. But I've become more interested in national recognition, considering that we won awards for the best college production of 'Falstaff' and 'La Boheme,' giving us a larger recruiting base.
"It's good for these students to feel appreciated. And we have found that once a patron sees one of our productions, they'll make the effort to return."
Send e-mail to email@example.com.