Despite the obstacles COVID-19 has continued to present, the School of Music, Theatre and Dance (SOMTD) has been hard at work to ensure students still have opportunities to perform, connect with industry professionals and collaborate in a safe and healthy environment.
This semester, the SOMTD will be producing two theatrical productions as usual, but in innovative ways—a PowerPoint opera and a musical podcast were not what anyone predicted for this spring’s productions, but the forced adaptation is already proving to be a positive experience for the students, directors and creative teams.
Rehearsals for Puccini’s comic opera “Gianni Schicchi” were well underway last semester when it became clear that the show would be almost impossible to produce, with multiple students in quarantine and off campus, unable to attend rehearsals. The show relied heavily on a majority of the cast being on stage for the entire show, and rehearsals became difficult with some of the cast missing.
Director of Boze Lyric Theatre Dr. Fritz Robertson found a creative solution to guarantee the opportunity to produce an opera. Robertson described the show as a “pastiche utilizing recontextualization,” taking pieces from operas such as “The Magic Flute,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Carmen,” “The Gondoliers” and, of course, “Gianni Schicchi,” and putting them together in a PowerPoint entitled “Plan B: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to ‘Gianni Schicchi.’” Some of the lyrics have been rewritten by Robertson himself to better tell the story of the cast’s experience trying to produce an opera during COVID-19.
Robertson explained the plot and purpose of the show.
“I think there’s humor,” said Robertson. “I think there’s also tenderness. I think it’s also about us, about the kind of enthusiasm and caring and support that we all have for each other in this department. I think it’s very common in the performing arts, but I think we have it uncommonly.”
Not only does the format of the production better lend itself to the current safety precautions, but rehearsals typically require only one to five singers at a time, rather than six or more every time.
The new format has also allowed for a guest artist, Shelby Rhoades.
Rhoades, a 1996 AU graduate, has joined the production team as music director, accompanying the cast and coaching the pieces. Rhoades holds a master’s degree in collaborative piano and voice performance, was on the accompanying staff at Juilliard and just finished a seven-year stint as principal coach at Virginia Opera.
Rhoades’s addition makes the show extra special for Robertson.
“One of the first full operas I ever did here was ‘Cosi fan tutte,’ and, as a student, Shelby Rhoades was playing the score and singing Dorabella and correcting other people’s notes while I was conducting and coaching,” he said. “So there’s sort of a full-circle, bookend feeling.”
This will be Robertson’s final production at AU before retiring this spring. Although it wasn’t what he anticipated, he explained its significance to not only himself, but the world today.
“It’s been an aesthetic shot in the arm because it’s challenged me,” said Robertson. “This is no disrespect to ‘Schicchi,’ and we would have loved it, but in some ways, this is actually more meaningful for the world we’re living in right now. There’s something so right about the fact that we fell into it, or that we were pushed into it.”
The second show of the semester is also unlike anything AU has produced. Associate Professor and Director of the musical theatre department Professor David Coolidge connected with Stacey Schiller and Cody Stiglich, two alumni Coolidge has worked closely with in the past, to direct and write a four-episode musical podcast series. Stiglich described the podcast as a “murder mystery—a whodunit.” New York-based actor and creator Sam Balzac joined the team, composing and writing the music for the project.
The entire process has been different from a typical stage production process.
“We had a very basic premise before auditions,” Schiller explained. “Then we started building the characters.”
Schiller explained that they held an initial table work session, and have had numerous work sessions with the cast over Zoom since.
“It’s like, you’re rehearsing and you’re writing the show, and they’re happening parallel to each other,” said Schiller. “So it’s a matter of working with the cast and thinking, ‘alright, notes’ but also ‘just let me hear that again to make sure I think it sounds good.’”
While this production is an exciting opportunity for both the cast and creative team, it will also be a fundraiser for “The Actors Fund.” “The Actors Fund” is important to the theatre industry and community, especially in New York.
Coolidge spoke on the significance of this new work.
“So often, in theatre and musical theatre, you are handed a script,” said Coolidge. “And when you are in the process of creating something new, that script can change on a daily basis. It uses a very different part of your brain as an artist, and I think it’s a remarkable and necessary skill for young artists to become good at—to learn how to pivot and adjust and adapt and bring something new to the experience, to be bold and daring and to be the kind of person that creators want in a room when creating new work.”