Though the Weber State University Music Department performs opera scenes each semester, full-blown operas are sufficiently labor-intensive that they are only performed every two years. This year, WSU will offer “Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute),” with Karen Brookens as vocalist director and Michael Palumbo rounding out his retirement semester directing the WSU Chamber Orchestra for the event.
This year’s performance marks the fourth year of producing a full opera at WSU. Brookens acknowledged the contributions of donors, the WSU Department of Performing Arts and the university itself.
Brookens came to WSU with the intent not just to direct opera, but to make it an established program for the school. Five years after her arrival in 2001, she was able to produce “Cosi Fan Tutte,” the first full opera performed at WSU since the 1980s. Brookens said the second major opera,“The Gondoliers,” a comic opera by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, was particularly well attended. In 2011, “Die Fladermaus” was the offering, with what Brookens called a “fun audience.”
“It takes time to develop a program,” Brookens said. “You have to fundraise. You have to plan it. You have to make sure there’s singers that can do it, that will audition, and the orchestra (is involved). It takes time. That’s why we only do it every two years.”
This year’s “Die Zauberflote” is sung in German with supertitles, while the actual spoken dialogue will be in English. When asked if switching back and forth between languages was difficult for remaining in character, Sydnee Ralph, one of the female leads in the only double-cast role of Pamina, said she did not find the switch difficult at all once she had the German lyrics memorized. It helped that Ralph was seasoned on “Die Fladermaus.”
“That (experience) helped me . . . I think the hardest part of doing an opera is working with a live orchestra,” Ralph said. “The piano is meant to follow you, but with the orchestra, it’s more a mutual agreement. You follow them and they follow you.”
As with any character, Ralph said, she drew from her own personal experiences to get into the role. She said the cast has been wonderful to work with and that they all fit into their roles so well.
“It’s been awesome working with Dr. Brookens,” Ralph said. “She’s just so talented and has a beautiful eye for this type of production.”
Brookens said there are very specialized roles in this opera — one for a really low bass and a really high soprano, a coloratura role (the latter being required of the Queen of the Night).
“Because of that, I kind of had to line up those two roles ahead of time, to make sure I had singers that could do that,” she said. “Not just anybody could step in to do that. That determined when I could do the opera.”
Violinist Ben Yule has performed in the chamber orchestra for all four major WSU operas since they began here.
“The arias of the Queen of the Night (Cheryl Davis) are a real honor to listen to,” Yule said. “She’s really good.”
In addition to a cast that Brookens said work together so well in their roles — like Trenton Fordham as Papageno, and Ralph and Jessica Sant as Pamina — other names in the music department bring more than one talent to bring the opera to fruition. WSU vocal instructor Linda Lee acted as costume designer, and Brookens said she “has done fabulous work.” Michelle Castille served as stage manager and set designer, doing “an amazing job,” according to Brookens. Kirsten “Fluffy” Blake, production manager of the Browning Center, is doing the lighting.
“It’s been a wonderful group of people I’ve had to work with,” Brookens said. “A production like this doesn’t happen unless you have good people. They’ve put so much into it to make it what it is.”
This particular production, Brookens said, cuts across ethnic backgrounds and appeals to any age.
“Its beautiful music (and) fun, whimsical, almost fantastical moments make it appeal to all ages,” she said. “But there’s a serious side to it too, because it’s about attaining enlightenment, to be enlightened, to attain wisdom. Plus it’s about finding love, finding what makes you happy, your true love — always a nice, universal theme.”
After Brookens selected the opera, she learned the Utah Opera then chose to mount the same production, which is running right now. Brookens said she feels WSU’s production could easily parallel or rival the Utah Opera’s, but at a fraction of the cost.
“Plus, it’s going to be wonderful to watch, a real visual treat, with the set, the lighting, the chamber orchestra,” she said. “We just don’t get this thing all the time. And it’s at such an affordable price.”
“Die Zauberflote” will premiere on March 28 at 7:30 p.m. in the Austad Auditorium. Tickets can be obtained through the Browning Center’s box office, in advance at the Dee Events Center, online at www.weberstatetickets.com or at 801-626-7000.