Professionalism, Hard Work Prepare Baylor Opera Theater Students for Next Stages

  • Kameron Alston and Sarah Holevinski, both seniors majoring in applied music, perform in Baylor Opera Theater's fall 2018 production of “Trouble in Tahiti." Photo credit: Justin Dickinson (IG: @myjdproductions)
  • Nathanael Medlin, a master’s student in performance studies, and Carly Orr, a senior majoring in applied music, perform in the main stage production of "Signor Deluso." Photo credit: Justin Dickinson (IG: @myjdproductions)
  • Becky Armenta, a master’s student in performance studies, and Preston Hart, a senior applied music major, perform in Baylor Opera Theater's fall 2018 production of “Signor Deluso.” Photo credit: Justin Dickinson (IG: @myjdproductions)
  • Performance studies master’s degree students Autumn Scott and Austin-Sinclair Harris perform in Baylor Opera Theater's fall 2018 production of “Trouble in Tahiti.” Photo credit: Justin Dickinson (IG: @myjdproductions)
  • Cast members perform in Baylor Opera Theater's fall 2018 production of “Signor Deluso.” Photo credit: Justin Dickinson (IG: @myjdproductions)
March 7, 2019

Media Contact: Eric M. Eckert, Baylor University Media and Public Relations, 254-710-1964
Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricBaylorU
Follow us on Twitter:@BaylorUMedia

by Jessie Jilovec, student newswriter

WACO, Texas (March 7, 2019) – Baylor University’s Opera Theater program functions like a professional company. Any Baylor student can audition, but a role is not guaranteed. Hard work is required.

Housed in the Baylor School of Music, the Opera Theater program was established in the 1940s and has a long history of excellence in production and training. Students say the work they do to stage a professional production – from auditions, costumes and voice training to set building, rehearsals and community outreach – is challenging, but they find the experience rewarding as they prepare for their careers.

“For auditions, most of us use repertoire that we have been working on with our private voice professors,” said Carly Orr, senior musical performance major from Montgomery, Texas. “I decided on my audition piece based on what show we were doing in the following semester and what my voice teacher and I have worked on and feel good about.”

Orr auditioned in April 2018 for Baylor’s fall productions of “Signor Deluso” and “Trouble in Tahiti.” She chose “Rantum Tantum” by Peter Warlock to sing before the judges.

“I am always nervous to audition for things, but I’ve found that once you do it a few times it becomes much easier,” she said.

Thirty students auditioned for 11 roles.

Orr earned the role of Clara Deluso in “Signor Deluso.”

Then the work really began.

“I started working on the role soon after the cast list came out,” Orr said.

Hard Work and Athleticism

Orr said she came to Baylor because of the distinguished reputation of the opera program and the opportunities to perform in a variety of ways.

“Both the opera and voice faculty are just stellar and incredibly supportive,” Orr said. “There are also many opportunities for undergraduate students not just on stage but with business, crew, hair, makeup, costumes, props, stage managing and so much more. This makes for a well-rounded experience.”

A Baylor opera performance typically employs 50-75 students, which include cast members, production crew, costume designers, stagehands and orchestra musicians. Depending on the scope of the production, the performance could employ 20 to 40 cast members.

When students are accepted into the opera program, they enroll in the opera class.

“If you’re good, can read music and are teachable, then we’ll put you in the opera,” said Susan Li, assistant professor of ensembles and director of opera. “We cast based on ability and based on how much we trust that a student can perform to standard both on stage in performance and in rehearsal – particularly in rehearsal because that’s where we spend a majority of our time.”

Once in the opera, students commit to a minimum of three practices per week for a mainstage production. A mainstage performance is a performance that is fully produced, which means it’s fully costumed, fully staged, has sets and lights and looks like something seen on Broadway, Susan Li said.

Each year, the program switches from having one mainstage performance to two. There was only one mainstage performance this academic year, which included the two shorter productions “Signor Deluso” and “Trouble in Tahiti.”

Formal rehearsals for opera theater start the first week of the semester. However, this means students need to prepare all the music by the start of the school year. Since roles are assigned in the spring, students have the summer to learn the material.

Orr began rehearsing in the summer before official practices began.

“A friend of mine already had the score, and at that time I was leaving to do a program in Maine, so a lot of score study happened on the plane,” she said. “However, once I got back from my program is when I really started diligently working so that I would be prepared when we started music rehearsals.”

The program has two groups of students doing each show, Li said. They name each cast by Baylor’s official colors, so one is the Green Cast and the other is the Gold Cast. So, if there are four performances in one night, the casts switch off so each cast performs twice. They do this because of the nature of back-to-back shows.

“In opera, professionally, we don’t do shows night after night,” Li said. “We do them every other night because the act of singing opera and the athleticism that is necessary is preventative for doing it every night.”

Opera as a Foreign Language

Coaching is done by Susan Li, Joseph Li, assistant professor of voice, and Jeffrey Peterson, Ph.D., associate professor of voice and music director for Baylor Opera Theater.

Michael Skarke, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in performances studies from Willis, Texas, said rehearsals have multiple steps.

After a show is cast, the first step to staging a production is having a few weeks of music rehearsals consisting of Joseph Li and Peterson coaching language, style, performance practice and musical details. After music rehearsals, there is a memorization test to see if the cast is ready to begin staging without music.

Susan Li said when preparing the music for an opera, performers must treat it like a foreign language because they are singing rather than speaking.

For example, Susan Li said the vowel sound in the word “cat” does not sound appealing when sung for a long period of time. Coaching helps students understand how to adjust the sound and the way they sing the word to make it appealing.

After the test, staging rehearsals begin. Susan Li teaches singers about the show, coaches them how to act like their characters and helps block their singing. These rehearsals run into show week and consist of run-throughs of different acts of the show until performances begin, Skarke said.

During show week, or “tech week,” the director takes notes on what does and does not work and coaches singers or restages to make sure the show is in pristine condition before reaching the audience.

Community Outreach

Aside from the mainstage performance, Baylor Opera students do community performances with the Baylor Opera Theater Guild, made of community members who are not associated with the University but support the program. The guild hosts concerts, and students are selected or volunteer to perform.

Opera Theater also hosts a scenes program, which focuses on smaller pieces of opera pulled from a part of a larger opera. It serves as a tool to teach students the different kinds of operas, help them become familiar with the stories of different operas and introduce them to memorable music.

“If you’re watching a car commercial, a chocolate commercial or a Christmas commercial, there’s a 90 percent chance you’re listening to something operatic or classical,” Susan Li said. “It’s a part of that marketing culture, so in a way, those pieces that get used for marketing benefit us in the classical music industry because people go, ‘I know that,’ so they’re more open to it.”

Skarke said all the preparation that goes into Baylor’s opera makes him feel prepared for future opportunities.

“The friendships I have made in Baylor Opera will be extremely valuable connections down the road,” he said. “Furthermore, I have felt more comfortable auditioning for opera companies this year because of my experiences in the theater and my work with my teachers.”

Orr said she has received beneficial training because of the many opportunities Opera Theater gives students.

“Being a part of Baylor Opera has been an awesome experience,” she said. “I have had so many opportunities and experiences within this program that make me love what I do. It is such a blessing to work with such knowledgeable and supportive faculty every day and to be able to grow as a musician and actress.”

To learn more about Baylor Opera Theater, visit the School of Music website.

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 17,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

ABOUT THE BAYLOR UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MUSIC

The Baylor University School of Music provides transformational experiences that prepare students for careers in music. Students thrive in a Christian environment characterized by a nurturing resident faculty, an unwavering pursuit of musical excellence, a global perspective, dedication to service and devotion to faith. They investigate the rich musical and cultural heritage of the past, develop superior musical skills and knowledge in the present, and explore and create new modes of musical expression for the future. While preparing for future leadership roles, students join with School of Music faculty in enhancing the quality of community life, enriching the larger culture and making Baylor a place in which heart, mind and soul coalesce. Baylor’s School of Music is a member of the National Association of Schools of Music and the Texas Association of Music Schools. Degree programs include bachelor’s and master’s degrees in performance, music education and academic majors, as well as doctoral degrees in church music. Degrees leading to the Bachelor of Music Education conform to certification requirements of the Texas Education Agency. Visit www.baylor.edu/music to learn more.

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