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ECU students to perform two operas in week

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East Carolina University students are dividing their time between rehearsals for two different operas - one old and one new - to be staged within a week of each other. “We are facilitating our students' versatility this semester," said Director of ECU Opera Theatre Daniel Shirley.

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By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, March 17, 2019

It is pretty true to form for the ECU School of Music to have students perform in two operas in one academic year. But this spring, there is a bit of a dramatic twist.

Two operas. One week. One cast. Two locations.

One is old. One is new. But both share the theme: What is true?

“Tell It Slant,” a world premiere by Melinda Wagner, will be performed March 22-23 in ECU's A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall. A week later, “The Coronation of Poppea” written by Claudio Monteverdi in 1643, will be staged at the historic Turnage Theater in Washington.

“This is our spring opera festival is how we're considering it,” Director of ECU Opera Theatre Daniel Shirley said. “To do one of the first great operas as a counterpoint to a brand-new piece written specifically for our students seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up.”

Even though that meant that all 32 students would be learning and rehearsing two different operas simultaneously, with cast members moving from one rehearsal space to another to practice parts of each.

“It was a lot to undertake, but it was all manageable,” Shirley said. “Thematically, I thought the two pieces worked exceptionally well together because both pieces are centered around this idea of deception.”

“The Coronation of Poppea,” performed in three acts, is set in ancient Rome. It tells the story of the Emperor Nero and his plans to rid himself of his wife, Octavia, so that he can crown his lover Poppea as empress.

“This opera is 40 years into the creation of opera as a genre at all,” Shirley said.“It's a different kind of music than what our students typically perform.”

The opera will feature a number of guest musicians playing period instruments built to re-create sounds of mid 17th-century music. John O’Brien will conduct.

By contrast, “Tell It Slant” is a commission of the North Carolina NewMusic Initiative.

Director John Kramar said “Tell It Slant,” ECU's first world-premiere opera since 2013, is the first opera in more than 50 years to be written specifically for the university. The last, Carlisle Floyd's “Sojourner and Molly Sinclair,” an opera about Scottish settlers in eastern North Carolina, was commissioned in conjunction with East Carolina's 50th anniversary.

“This is awesome and very unusual,” Kramar said. “This piece was just commissioned from a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and (students) get to create it. That's a huge thing.”

The collaboration between Wagner and ECU dates back for years. A faculty member at the Juilliard School of Music who has composed work for the New York Philharmonic, Wagner conducted Skype discussions with ECU School of Music faculty members and made visits to campus to discuss the artistic vision for “Tell It Slant,” which is described as more of a cantata than a full-length opera.

The half-hour work, in eight different movements, features original text from Wagner, along with quotes from a host of others ranging from Pontius Pilate to Aristotle, Buddha and poet Emily Dickinson, whose work inspired the title.

“Dickinson herself was consumed with the concept of truth throughout her writings as a poet,” Kramar said. “The poem ('Tell It Slant') some analysts say is an instruction to artists to always tell the truth, but you have to couch the truth in such a way that it will not scare people or hurt them.”

Kramar said Wagner's work draws inspiration from modern-day political controversies surrounding truth.

“This concept of truth is so nebulous now,” he said. “Some people believe X and some people believe Y and some people believe Z, and there's no coming together. People actually conceive of truth differently. It (the opera) doesn't explain it. It just talks about it.

“I've tried very hard given the political climate not to make one side seem good and one side seem bad.”

Because “Tell It Slant” has never been performed, it has been left to Kramar and his cast, along with conductor William Staub, to set the tone for the work.

“Sometimes composers will make a study recording,” Kramar said. “We didn't have that; there was nothing. We all learned it together.

“It gives a sense of ownership. It makes (students) part of the creative process. They are creating this piece.”

Wagner is scheduled to attend the premiere, which Kramar, chairman of ECU's voice department, expects to be the last opera he directs at ECU. Two days of recordings will follow the final performance, and then cast members will begin final rehearsals of “The Coronation of Poppea” in Washington.

“It's a new era for ECU Opera Theatre,” Kramar said. “How better than to usher it with two operas at the same time?”

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