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Bravissimo! Students, faculty sing praises for summer opera program in Rome

Students, faculty sing praises for summer opera program in Rome

By Jane Ford

On a cold Saturday morning in January, Alexis Keyser entered Garrett Hall, found a secluded spot in a stairwell and began to warm up. Her voice echoed in the stairwell and spilled over into the main hall.

Keyser, a second-year student majoring in music and psychology, came to audition for a part in the summer production schedule of the Operafestival di Roma.

The festival is a labor of love for Louisa Panou-Takahashi, director of U.Va.’s Opera Workshop and voice lecturer in the music department. Panou-Takahashi created Opera-festival in 1995 to provide professional opera experience for students, young artists starting their careers and faculty members seeking an opportunity to display their talents.

“Broadway Concert” Rome 2002. Brandee Martin (U.Va.) choreographer. Also participating: music majors, Erica Cornet and Kristi Wholford.
“Broadway Concert” Rome 2002. Brandee Martin (U.Va.) choreographer. Also participating: music majors, Erica Cornet and Kristi Wholford.

Keyser, who plans to be a professional opera singer one day, is hoping to be one of 55 chosen for the company. The competition is fierce.

More than 300 auditioned for roles as leading or supporting singers, as members of the ensemble or to participate in the recital programs. The troupe includes students from all over the world. Audition sessions are held in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Washington, Richmond and Charlottesville.

“It is a professional production,” said Panou-Takahashi. “The U.Va. students who attend are very proud of their results.”

The program won the 2002 National Opera Association Award for best production among university and regional theaters.

Beginning in late June, the troupe will spend five weeks in Rome where they will begin rehearsals for this year’s repertoire: “L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love)” by Gaetano Donizetti and “Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica)” by Giacomo Puccini, plus chamber music concerts, Broadway concerts, vocal recitals and opera-scene performances.

Accommodations are in a three-star hotel where the daily routine includes three weeks of master classes, coaching, lessons in lyric diction and voice, and rehearsals. “The relationship [with the hotel] is a wonderful partnership,” said Brandee Martin, a U.Va. fourth-year student majoring in music and Spanish. She attended the program the past two summers and praised the family-run hotel. “They even threw a Fourth of July party for us.

“But the best part is the performance space,” said Martin. “The acoustics are wonderful.” The troupe performs with a professional Italian orchestra in the courtyard of the Palazzo della Sapienza with the 15th-century church of Sant’ Ivo alla Sapienza as the backdrop.

“When you hear the orchestra start up at the first rehearsal in the church courtyard and look at the stars up in the sky, it’s just a wonderful feeling,” said R. Lee Kennedy, U.Va. associate professor of drama.

Although romantic, performing in the courtyard provides challenges, and planning begins long before everyone assembles in Rome.

No scenery is allowed in the courtyard, which means lighting, costumes and staging take on special roles.

Kennedy has designed the lighting for four seasons, since 1998. He took graduate drama students with him in 2000 and 2002.

“The broadening of their experience is fantastic,” Kennedy said, “and it is great credit to see international opera work on their resumes.”

Last year, three U.Va. music majors and a drama student and professor participated in the program. They received scholarships made possible by matching funds from the International Studies Office.

William Quandt, U.Va. vice provost for international affairs, said he is pleased to be able to “support a project that allows U.Va. faculty and students to have an international experience that will broaden their horizons and engage U.Va. in international educational and cultural activities.”

The logistics of bringing all the parts together takes time and careful planning. The participants must learn their parts, costumes need to be constructed and props gathered.

Dorothy Smith, a 1996 M.F.A. drama department graduate in costume design, said, “You have to think of every contingency and take the things with you.”
Smith begins her work early in the planning process. An expert in period costumes, Smith said she “loves the convention of glitter that is part of the spectacle of opera.”

The costumes are constructed in Charlottesville from measurements the singers send to Smith. In Rome, she and five assistants do the final fittings in the costume shop they set up in the hotel.

“We create a professional atmosphere and make them feel like stars,” she said.
The star behind the scenes is Panou-Takahashi. Her attention to detail and support and respect for each troupe member is evident, even at the auditions.

Katie Polit, part of the ensemble chorus last summer, came to the Charlottesville tryouts from Car-negie Mellon University, where she is a senior. When it was her turn to sing, Panou-Takahashi asked her to sight-read an unfamiliar piece. At the piano, Panou-Takahashi did a quick run-through with her, singing the other part. Polit then tried the piece on her own.

“Basta! Basta! Good,” Panou-Takahashi said and gave Polit a big hug.


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