Beast in the Workshop

October 18, 2019
Charlotte Maskelony '21
singers rehearse music together
Photo credit: Jack Lichtenstein '23

Voice students collaborate with a new opera's creators in advance of a Winter Term premiere.

What’s it like to birth an opera?

While much of Oberlin has been adjusting to new classes and new friends, nine conservatory singers have been focusing on something else entirely—new opera.

Oberlin voice majors spent this past week rehearsing and performing in the workshop of The Wild Beast of the Bungalow, a new opera by composer Rachel J. Peters and librettist Royce Vavrek. The darkly comedic opera follows a girl grappling with her parents’ failing marriage amid a menagerie of unusual creatures, including a mermaid, taxidermied prairie dogs, and sentient chickenpox.

Beast is the first work of the Oberlin Opera Commissioning Program, made possible by Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting ‘71. The program guarantees two world premieres at Oberlin with the composer and librettist in residence, preceded by a workshop of each opera. Oberlin will present the world premiere of The Wild Beast of the Bungalow this Winter Term.   

What exactly is an opera workshop? It's a period of intense rehearsal that allows the composer/librettist duo to experience their work performed live. During the workshop, the pair learns what works musically and dramatically and how an audience reacts. The singers work with new music, learn about the creators’ intent, and provide feedback that influences the opera’s creation. The performers, production team, and creators all convene to refine the opera.  

The Beast cast, chosen through audition last spring, prepared parts over the summer, spent the first week of classes in coachings on the music with a vocal coach and pianist, then workshopped the material the entire second week of school. The schedule that week included individual coachings with the conductor, discussion about the work, yoga classes, and lots of rehearsal. The week culminated in a complete recording of the opera and a performance of excerpts.

Working with living creators highlights the fluidity of music. Beast has been more than 11 years in the making, but the work transformed with every rehearsal. Notes were changed, lines added, and character arcs sharpened. The night before recording, Vavrek wrote new lyrics to a lullaby, and the cast sang them the next morning.

Tenor Mac Atkinson ’21 (who performed the role of Miles in last Winter Term’s production of Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up) sang the role of Grover in the Beast workshop. Atkinson described his realization of new music’s malleability: “It’s like glass shattering.” [The composer] can just sit with a hard copy of the score and decide, ‘Yeah, cross that out and write this instead.’ That was an incredible moment.”

While the music changes quickly in rehearsal, so do the singers. As the workshop progressed, the cast’s performance grew more complex. Evan Lindberg ‘20, who sang two roles—both the Real and Prairie Dog Dad—observed that “the more specific work we did, the more I noticed all these insightful details that were exciting to perform.” 

Collaborative work at a minute level can be deeply rewarding; the relationship between creator and performer creates a conduit for instant feedback. Atkinson agrees: “It’s empowering, because when you get it right, the composer is like, ‘That’s exactly what I pictured.’ From the mouth of the composer, you’re doing great.”  

That rapid collaborative work demands dramatic investment from the get-go. Mezzo Julia Alexander ‘22, who sang the Grandparents, cites director Christopher Mirto’s opera theater courses as crucial to her preparation. “We’re lucky at Oberlin to have a strong focus on acting—especially with newer operas. The comedy of this piece leans heavily on theater, which actually makes it easier to sing. When you have an intention for what you’re doing, everything falls in place vocally.”

New vocal works are an essential part of the Oberlin experience—whether working directly with the composers Du Yun ‘01, Missy Mazzoli, and Rachel J. Peters for Oberlin Opera Theater productions or performing alongside Roomful of Teeth with the Oberlin College Choir. Singers study the skills necessary for the field: Atkinson, Lindberg, and Alexander all named their Oberlin music theory and aural skills training as the key resource they used to learn the opera. “New opera requires you to know your theory," Alexander said. "This music is so exposed that you simply have to sing as a smart musician, and that’s important to learn early on.”

The voice department supports the students as well. Each singer credited voice coach and pianist Daniel Michalak—who guided singers through initial preparation and played the entire opera—as instrumental to the workshop process.  

What’s next for Beast?  Now that Peters and Vavrek have a recording of the performance and have experienced an audience reaction, Beast will undergo yet another transformation. Peters will orchestrate the opera, and the pair will make musical and dramatic changes based on the work done this fall. Then in January, Peters and Vavrek will return to campus—this time for The Wild Beast of the Bungalow’s world premiere.

The Wild Beast of the Bungalow workshop cast:

The Girl: Caroline Wolfe

The Mermaid/Real Mom/Prairie Dog Mom: Charlotte Maskelony

Real Dad/Prairie Dog Dad/Charlie Chickenpox: Evan Lindberg

Grandma and Grandpa/Shirley Shingle: Julia Alexander 

Grover/Chubby Chickenpox: Mac Atkinson

Watermelon/Shelby Shingle: Abby Orr

Mrs. Gonzales/Sheena Shingle: Katherine Krebs

PDETA Man/Chaddy Chickenpox: Matteo Adams

Phyllis/Chester Chickenpox: Evan Tiapula

 

Creative Team:

Director: Christopher Mirto

Conductor: Joseph Hodge

Musical Coach: Daniel Michalak

Stage Manager: Julia Harbutt

Dramaturgy: Julia Bumke, James O'Leary

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