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Nadir and Leila, played by Philippe Talbot and Andrea Carroll, share an intimate, yet tense moment in Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers.” (Courtesy of Kent Miles, Utah Opera)

Being able to work in one’s chosen profession before graduation is an unattainable dream for many college students. Sometimes there are exams that have to be passed or certifications that have to be earned. Other times employers are simply unwilling to hire students.

Weber State University Senior Austin Toney has the unique opportunity to participate in a professional opera before he graduates with his bachelor’s degree in music. Specifically, Toney is participating in the Utah Opera’s colorful production of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers.”

“The Pearl Fishers” premiered in Paris in 1863. Like many of Bizet’s operas, it didn’t gain popularity until after his death. This three-act opera tells the story of a village of pearl fishers in ancient Sri Lanka. The story follows two friends, Nadir and Zurga, who swear to never let anything come between them. When the beautiful priestess Leila comes to the pearl fisher’s island, the strength of their friendship is tested.

Costumes for this production are as historically accurate as possible, with many of the fabrics coming from India. Cast members are dressed in brightly colored sarongs and traditional Indian clothes. The set is very simple, entirely made up of bamboo stalks running from the orchestra pit into the rafters along with stone-gray platforms and pinnacles. The simple set pieces present an accurate period, and the costumes allow the audience members to be completely drawn into the world of “The Pearl Fishers.”

Toney said he has been very pleased to be involved in the first performance in Utah of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers.”

“It’s been really eye-opening about how dedicated you have to be as a performer to do it,” Toney said. “As a chorus member you’re given two weeks to memorize all your parts.” He added that failing to memorize all the music on time resulted in a dock in pay.

Toney said one of his favorite parts of having this experience has been getting to work with the principal performers, those singing the main roles in the opera. Hearing about their experiences in “the business” has inspired Toney, who stated that it has taught him more about being a professional performer than any other experience.

“With this experience, it’s been really fast paced and hardworking, which is what it is in the real world,” Toney said. “You have to be prepared for anything.”

Caleb Harris, chorus master and assistant conductor for the Utah Opera Company, explained that being in an opera chorus is very different from being in a normal choral setting.

“One of the unique things about being in an opera chorus is that you’re on stage in costume and you’re acting as a character, usually within a crowd scene,” Harris said.

Harris also explained that being in an opera chorus requires choristers to act and go through a similar dramatic process as the principal performers do, even if the chorister’s characters aren’t named in the opera.

Harris explained that Toney is one of three undergraduate students out of 42 total choristers in “The Pearl Fishers” opera chorus. As an undergraduate in a professional production, Harris said Toney is getting experience that cannot be taught in the classroom, and that will only help him as he continues on in his education.

There are two more opportunities to see “The Pearl Fishers”, Jan. 23 at 7:30 p.m. and Jan. 25 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets start at $18, but are only $10 for students and can be purchased through arttix.org.

“It’s a beautiful art form,” Harris said. “Musicians, non-musicians, and all lovers of art can come and engage in the performance. I’d like to invite everyone to come and experience this performance for themselves.”

 

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