Iowa City – I am not a regular opera goer. I may have seen an opera once in my life or perhaps that is just an episode of Quantum Leap I’m remembering. So it was with some trepidation that I approached the Englert Theatre to experience a opera two-fer presented by the Old Capitol Opera. First on the docket was an hour long adaptation of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel. I’ll admit to checking Wikipedia before heading to the theatre. I know the story of Hansel & Gretel (and in fact saw a charming Footiters production just last year), but maybe the opera was totally different? How was I to know? Opera is not my forte. Turns out the story is pretty much just as one would expect. Whew!
The second show was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Impresario. It was updated for the times by local writer Franklyn Thomas. Wikipedia tells me the gist of the original opera involves a competition between two actresses who both want the lead roles in a theatre company. Naturally they have a sing-off (American Idol for the 18th century?) to determine who will win the prize. Thomas’ modern take on it is pretty much the same story just set in 2015.
As my companion and I took our seats in the majestic Englert Theatre, I reveled in the historic ambiance of the Englert. It’s a beautiful theatre and we’re so fortunate to have it in our city. And really, if I’m going to see an opera, something I have always connected to dead people, is there a better venue in the Corridor? Fortunately, my companion does know opera and was able to guide me through the conventions of the evening. “That’s the overture,” he said as the conductor signaled the piano player to begin. I gave him a look. I mean, even I know what an overture is. I have to say both conductors for the evening – Wayne Wyman for Hansel & Gretel and Patrick Zubiate for The Impresario – were excellent, guiding the singers and the pianist through the music and the stories of their respective shows. Kudos also must be given to Jonathan Tauscheck, the pianist. The shows skipped the full orchestra in favor of just a pianist, but Tauscheck was certainly up to the challenge.
Hansel and Gretel were played by Elisabeth Bieber and MaKayla M. McDonald. What struck me most about their performances was how wonderfully animated they were. These are two grown women playing children and they completely embodied the youthful nature of the characters. Bieber as Hansel was particularly effective using her wide expressive eyes to communicate her feelings. They had an excellent rapport as well and were completely believable as siblings. In addition, both Bieber and McDonald are simply amazing singers, easily navigating Humperdinck’s score.
Rachel Joselson protrayed the Witch. Her voice was pure, but again what stuck me was her commitment to the role. She relished every moment of the evil witch, with a sly look here and overpowering stare there. Bieber and McDonald played the fear and later the determination of the children well. These three actors brought the story to life beautifully.
The supporting characters – the mother (Megan O’Brien) and father (Braden D.S. Haralson) as well as the Sandman and Drew Dop Fairy (Stephanie Lai) – performed their roles well. Lai, in particular, stood out as the Dew Drop Fairy. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Cookie Kids, five teens who portrayed unfortunate children transformed into gingerbread cookies. They did a fine job, adding a touch of comedy in their oversized gingerbread outfits, with their morose faces, doomed to be cookies by the witch. And when they had a chance to sing, their voices were clear and beautiful.
I would strongly encourage you to see Hansel & Gretel today. There’s a 2 pm performance and a 7:30 pm performance. It’s an extremely accessible opera. Bring your kids if you have any. We need to expose the younger generation to opera so people like me stop associating it with dead people. Perhaps if I had seen a production of Hansel & Gretel when I was young, I’d be an opera connoisseur by now. Well, you know what they say, it’s never too late. And Old Capitol Opera is producing West Side Story in August…
The second show of the evening, The Impresario, is a comic opera with outlandish characters who do outlandish things and make outlandish statements. The opening scene dragged a little bit as the comic moments weren’t quite as sharp as they needed to be. Juan Ahumada, who played Angel, gamely tried to milk the comedy whenever possible, and he has a wonderfully expressive face, but the pacing of the show was off, and many comic moments slipped by.
As Serafina Goldenfill, one of the two singers vying for the top roles in the theatre company, Megan O’Brien showed her skills as she deftly moved through the various notes of the score. She also has an excellent feel for comedy when singing, evoking much laughter from the audience as her character shows off her pipes. Unfortunately, O’Brien’s character is a racist, which didn’t come off well in the show, mostly because O’Brien seemed understandably uncomfortable playing that aspect of the character. I don’t know if the character is a racist in the original opera, but here it did not work well. If the show is going to go with a character of this sort, the actor needs to embrace it completely and make every moment over the top. But in truth, that characterization seemed a bit unnecessary and made the ending a little unsatisfying since she never gets her comeuppance.
Gyehyun Jung is wonderful as Miso Silverpearl, the other stuck up singer who also happens to be rich, which is very important to the struggling theatre company. She clearly relished playing every moment of her over the top character, and with a beautiful voice, she was fun to watch.
The best moment of the show was the third musical number, “The Infamous Trio.” Jung, O’Brien and Ahumada were simply thrilling during this complicated musical masterpiece. In fact, when it was over, I wanted to hear them do it again.
I would certainly recommend seeing The Impresario if you can. While there were some issues with the script, the singing is excellent and there are plenty of laughs to be had.
Old Capitol Opera is definitely a company worth supporting. Their mission according to their website is to “offer mentorship to the amateur community with an annual summer apprentice program for singers and performers age sixteen and up. OCO is calling on our extremely talented colleagues and offering current and potential amateurs a chance to integrate into the world of musically staged productions.” That sounds like a fantastic opportunity for the singers of the greater Iowa City area. If you can’t check out their shows today, be sure to mark your calender for West Side Story in August. I know I will.