GWO: Looking at opera in a new way
Think opera is boring? How about opera sung in English, in a bar or based on How I Met Your Mother? It seems like a lot more of a good time now, doesn’t it?
The Greater Worcester Opera group has spent the better part of 11 years doing just that: making opera more enjoyable for a broader audience.
“We want people to know that it’s not stuffy and stodgy,” said Christine Petkus, GWO’s fundraising chairperson. “We’re having fun. We present good, quality shows, and they’re affordable.” Petkus, along with Executive Director Elaine Crane, also performs with the group on a regular basis.
To Crane, opera is “a lot like musical theater, but bigger singing.” She and Petkus agree that while most people consider opera to be foreign, it’s really more akin to musical theater performances like The Phantom of the Opera. “Musical theater and opera aren’t that far apart,” Petkus said. In fact, many people don’t realize that the hit musical Rent actually began its life as La Bohème, a Puccini opera that debuted in Italy more than a century ago.
Petkus said that, above all else, singing in English is key to bringing opera music to more people. At larger venues like the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, the translation is usually displayed on the back of the seats. Other times, the translation is projected somewhere on the stage. According to Petkus, this can make the experience a lot less fun. “The audience lags behind, and they can’t pay attention to the movements and actions of the performers.”
To rectify this, Crane translates entire operas from Italian, German or French into modern English. She starts with a public-domain opera from before 1928, saving the group money on production rights. She then sits down with the original script, a “to-English” dictionary and a thesaurus and sets to work. After completing the first draft, she cross-references her translations with English translations already in existence. This long, arduous process takes her about three months to complete, but, she said, it’s “absolutely worth it.”
The final script, however, isn’t without room for adjustment. “It’s not the Bible,” Crane said. “Singers get to give their input regarding solos and translations.”
One would think that for opera purists, translating a piece from its original language would be nothing short of musical heresy, but Petkus said that isn’t the case. In fact, many operas in Europe are performed in the native language of the audience. Petkus believes that “operas are more popular in Europe with the younger crowd because of this.”
Where opera used to be a “park-and-bark” stationary form of performance, GWO has worked to change this. Crane said, “Now, it’s a lot of singing actors.”
“You have to be a good singer, a good actor and a good colleague,” Petkus added. Set-building, rehearsal and everything leading to the actual performance takes a lot of work, and there’s no room for personality clashes or egos. Petkus said an actor can have the greatest voice in the world, but if he or she is difficult to work with, it makes it difficult for the rest of the cast and production staff. Instead, GWO thrives on “positive energy and great people.”
Crane and Petkus both consider themselves “late bloomers,” getting involved in opera when they were in college. Now, they try to introduce opera to a younger audience. Their efforts include updating a traditional piece to create Cosi Fan Tutti, or How I Met Your Mother. The original opera includes the music of Mozart and was set in the regency period (think Jane Austin). The GWO re-vamped the performance to include aspects of the popular television show, How I Met Your Mother, complete with vignettes, plot twists and modern cultural references to tell a tell a tale of “romance, deception and happy endings.” According to Crane and Petkus, the production was met with standing ovations.
GWO members also have collaborated with the Boston chapter of Opera on Tap, a national organization that puts opera singers together and arranges opera performances in bars across the state. Songs and vocal arrangements are developed, rehearsed and performed, complete with horned hats. “It’s very tangible and cabaret-like,” Crane said. “We got a great reception.”
The GWO has also performed at Worcester State University, Eagle Hill Cultural Center in Hardwick and the Warner Theater at Worcester Academy. Despite the number of operas the group performs and an audience volume that averages 600 people per series, the GWO still doesn’t have a steady place to perform on a regular basis. “We haven’t found just the right spot to settle in,” Crane said, “so we try a lot of different places. We have to rent venues.”
Along with arranging, translating and rehearsing these operas, GWO members also build their own sets and make their own costumes.
“I love costuming. Besides performing, that’s my passion” Crane said.
“She can turn scraps into a ball gown,” Petkus said. “I’ve seen her do it.”
With all of its dedication, however, the group is still beset with obstacles to its overall success. “The economy has been terrible for the arts over the past 10 years,” Crane said. “Support comes from sponsors that give $300 here, $500 there. It helps, but we could always use more. We sing for our supper. We could use grants, but we don’t have anyone to write them.”
Yet, the group still manages to generate funds and give back through educational programs. The GWO performs its rendition of Diamonds and Toads, an operatic adaptation of a fairytale by Charles Perrault, in local schools to introduce opera music to children. The group not only performs the opera for children but also provides a handbook for students, which teaches them opera etiquette and includes games. The GWO also offers scholarships to exceptional singers and instrumentalists.
For its upcoming series, GWO will collaborate with the Trinity Lutheran Church in Worcester and Fourth Wall Stage Company in Grafton to perform Amahl and the Night Visitors, a one-act holiday opera about the Three Kings who meet, Amahl, a disabled boy, on their way to the birth of Jesus. The series will run from Jan. 9-11. Crane said that for just $15, this one-hour opera is the perfect introductory opera.
“You love music? I challenge you to come and listen to another type of music,” Petkus said.
For more information, visit greaterworcesteropera.org.