Lovers and performers of opera often feel the need to defend it to outsiders, but AU’s productions of “Down in the Valley” and “The Old Maid and the Thief” need little defense. With a single full-length production, an audience might only get one take on the art form, but with the pairing of these two one-act works, clocking in at about 30 and 75 minutes respectively, audiences have the chance to see the kind of thematic and musical range opera can have.
Kurt Weill’s “Down in the Valley,” the first of the two shows, tells the story of the love of young Brack Weaver and Jennie Parsons to the folk sounds of its original setting in Appalachia. With a romantic plot, a large ensemble dance sequence and spoken scenes paired with songs, “Down in the Valley,” like Weill’s famous “Street Scene,” was part of a movement among composers of his time to bridge the gap between the Met and Broadway and the score plays almost as much as a musical as it does an opera.
The sometimes small-and- sweet, sometimes epic-and-sweeping arias and ensemble songs are derived from or meant to sound like old folk songs of a much younger America—songs which still influence modern bluegrass and Americana—and those songs will reach out and grab even those completely unfamiliar with opera. This music, combined with its tightly-written story and engaging cast, together make for an ideal first incursion into the art form.
With “The Old Maid and the Thief,” however, Gian Carlo Menotti fashions a comical and approachable story within the musical form of more traditional opera. When Ms. Todd and her maid Laetitia allow the wandering and homeless—but attractive—Bob to stay the night, they decide they will use any means necessary to keep him there, even though he bears a striking resemblance to a dangerous, escaped convict.
Though the show was originally written as a radio opera, the story adapts itself well to staging with its smart humor and memorable characters. Anyone who has lived in a small town will recognize Ms. Todd and Ms. Pinkerton as the kind of church-lady gossips they might have known back home.
Freshman Isaac Derkach, who starred in “Deathtrap” last semester, takes on his first opera production as Jennie’s father. Besides admiring the “interspersed moments of passion, romance, action, and suspense all set to a score which is nothing less than beautiful,” he commented on the energy and unity of the ensemble.
“We’ve got this great collective energy as a cast,” Derkach said. “We all know each other and, as much as we are individual characters, we are all quite an effective unit.”
For Clare Lillig, a freshman who comes from an opera background and studies voice performance, the opportunity to perform in not one but two shows simultaneously has been a valuable and insightful first experience on Byrum Hall Stage. After performing with the ensemble of “Down in the Valley,” she dons the hat and raincoat of town busybody Ms. Pinkerton in “The Old Maid and the Thief.” Throughout the process, she has worked closely both with her own class and just as closely with more experienced students.
“I get to work with seniors and even some who have graduated already, and then freshman like myself,” Lillig said. “I love this because there is so much wisdom coming from upperclassmen and so much I can learn. This production has made me even more excited for my years and productions to come at AU.”
Even for those in the cast with previous experience on Byrum Stage, the shows are not without their difficulties. Senior musical theatre major Natalie Pridemore’s last role on stage was the massive and difficult role of Mama Rose in “Gypsy” last semester, and transitioning from heavy musical theatre singing to heavy opera singing has been the largest challenge of her role as Ms. Todd (the titular Old Maid of the show). That said, Pridemore’s well-balanced training and hard work has paid off in another strong showing.
Sophomore Kayla Brandt found that, though she has played the “love interest” before, working on the part of Jennie Parsons has challenged her both on and off stage.
“Personally, playing a love interest has challenged me to be a more affectionate person,” Brandt said. “The best part about this show is definitely the cast. It is so fun to be a part of a big cast and collaborate with everyone—each role adds another layer of detail in an already beautiful story.”
Director and conductor Dr. Fritz Robertson has been conducting and music directing musicals and operas for most of his tenure at AU, but “Valley” and “Old Maid” are his first time stage directing—meaning staging and providing acting coaching—in over 15 years.
Despite his hiatus, Dr. Robertson’s extensive knowledge and experience still shows in both productions’ inventive staging. Audience members will notice that both shows carry similar themes without becoming monotonous, but also share other subtle details.
Audiences should be on the lookout for nods from one show to the other that imply both stories exist in the same world and the same time.
“Down in the Valley” and “The Old Maid and the Thief” run Friday and Saturday in Byrum Hall at 7:30 p.m. and again Sunday at 2:30 p.m. AU Students, faculty, and staff each receive two free tickets.