Oberlin productions—and the students who mount them—dispel the myth that opera is just for conservatory musicians.
A team of more than 40 Oberlin students, faculty, and others convened in January to produce the world premiere of Rachel J. Peters’ The Wild Beast of the Bungalow, Oberlin’s winter-term opera for 2020. Student singers and instrumentalists made the music happen, but toiling behind the scenes was a team of equally passionate fellow students consumed with their roles as production assistants: untangling the countless artistic and logistical issues involved in staging an opera, and researching the cultural, historical, and societal aspects of the work.
Though they had all joined forces for a conservatory production, nearly half of them pursue their studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. It’s one of many ways Oberlin, with its single campus dedicated to both a liberal arts college and music conservatory, nurtures a singular environment for interdisciplinary study and creation.
“We’re all passionate, we’re all here for a reason, and everyone brings something different to the table,” says Kitty Schwartz ’20, an English and history double major who served as Wild Beast’s assistant director, providing feedback to faculty director Christopher Mirto, running a second rehearsal room, and recording staging notes. “It’s exciting!”
Joining her backstage was politics major Alec Perlow '20, who researched and analyzed the opera’s influences, plot, and music as one of the production's dramaturgs. Together, the direction and dramaturgy teams collaborated to create an informed world and bring it to life onstage.
Though neither Schwartz nor Perlow imagined a career in performance, both were drawn to Oberlin for its vibrant musical community and its extensive opportunities for students of all majors.
“The ability to try a little bit of everything was a huge part of why I chose Oberlin,” says Schwartz, of Urbana, Illinois. “It’s great to know that my varied interests don’t have to be separate parts; they can work together and influence one another. And I think that’s the really special thing about being here. Learning to think critically and creatively for my liberal arts courses absolutely helped me develop a story from libretto to stage.”
“I do research all the time,” laughs Perlow, a resident of Grayslake, Illinois, who graduated—with Schwartz—in May. “There’s different kinds of research, but a dramaturg’s work is very similar to academic work: Find the material, make sure it’s credible, and then present it in a clear and concise way.
“At a place like Oberlin, many people excel at this kind of thinking—and in an incredibly diverse range of subjects,” Perlow says. “That expansive, intellectual culture means that skills for my major help me understand an opera’s themes and motifs.”
Perlow traces his connection to opera to a fourth-grade trip to the theater. “My mom took me to see The Barber of Seville,” he says. “She asked me if I wanted to leave at intermission, and I said, ‘No!’ The rest is history." He was cast as a supernumerary—a silent actor—at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and later joined the Lyric’s Youth Opera Council, a social and educational group for high school students passionate about opera. When he arrived at Oberlin, he jumped at the chance to take music history and opera-directing courses in the conservatory.
Schwartz’s passion for opera emerged through an unexpected connection to the American West, a significant focus of her dual majors. While researching iconography of the West through a collection of roadmaps at the Newberry Library in Chicago, she stayed with her aunt, the principal oboist for the Lyric Opera.
“She got tickets to dress rehearsals and always asked if I wanted to go. I mean, are you kidding? I saw four operas in three months. Before I had only seen one in my entire life. It was a very intense experience, and I was bitten by the opera bug.”
Little did Schwartz know that her research on the West and her visits to the Lyric would combine upon her return to campus.
“[At the Newberry], I worked to decode the embedded myths surrounding westward expansion that impact American identity even in our present. My project meant delving deeply into 19th-century American history to get at these roots.”
As Schwartz was tracing the history of Western travelers, Oberlin Opera Theater was finalizing plans to present Proving Up, Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s chilling opera about the government-sponsored expansion of land settlement beyond the Mississippi through the Homestead Acts of the mid-19th century. The production needed an assistant dramaturg; Schwartz was the perfect fit.
“Proving Up clarified a lot of things for me,” she says. “I was transitioning back to Oberlin after a semester away, and I’d returned with this new appetite for opera. The questions I started asking then, I continued asking with Beast: Do I like being part of the process? Is opera production or management something I want to pursue?”
The answers appear to be yes.
Both Schwartz and Perlow, in fact, envision careers in arts leadership, and both shaped their paths through extensive experience at Oberlin.
Perlow’s conservatory courses in music history and opera direction led him to selection for the inaugural class of Oberlin’s Music Leadership Career Community, one of a series of groups that unite Oberlin students, alumni, parents, and faculty around shared interests in various employment sectors. He plans to work in arts funding.
“I’m really interested in the financial side of the performing arts,” he says. “The kind of work that the National Endowment for the Arts does—everything that allows creativity to flow without financial burden.”
Schwartz, meanwhile, graduated with direction and dramaturgy experience, in addition to serving as a music history tutor. She was selected for the spring semester Music Leadership Career Community.
“Opera combines my love for music and theater with my training as a writer and researcher beautifully,” she says. “I would love to keep bringing it to life.”