Residents of the nearby retirement community Kendal at Oberlin can often be found in the audience at Conservatory of Music performances. But this winter term, many are exiting their seats to experience the production in an entirely new way.
Six Kendal residents are joining conservatory students to perform Strawberry Fields, a one-act opera by playwright A.R. Gurney and composer Michael Torke. Sally Stunkel, clinical associate professor of opera and one of the foremost acting teachers for opera singers in America, is the driving force behind the project.
“Real life has people of all ages, [but] I am normally limited to students in the ensembles of opera,” Stunkel says. “This is an opera about age and generations, and I am delighted to have them represented.”
In Strawberry Fields, a Columbia graduate student and an older woman meet in Central Park. The woman, suffering from dementia, believes the everyday doings of people in the park to be an opera mid-performance. Conflict arises between parkgoers and the older woman’s adult children when the latter arrive and insist she be moved to a nursing home.
Second-year vocal performance major Amber Monroe stars in the production. Kendal resident Allen Huszti plays the workman and is also in the chorus, along with fellow residents Carol Harvey, Anne Martin, Jane Hannauer, George Hannauer, and Nancy McClusky. Bob Cothran, a Kendal resident and Oberlin College professor emeritus, is designing and constructing the set with assistance from students.
Dementia, the subject matter of the opera, is a growing concern for older adults and their families: The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates approximately 35.6 million people are living with dementia worldwide, and 7.7 million new cases are diagnosed every year.
Michele Tarsitano-Amato, Kendal at Oberlin creative arts therapy director and certified dementia specialist, shared her knowledge of dementia with students involved in the production so they could understand its life-altering effects and better take on their roles. Stunkel met Tarsitano-Amato years earlier when her mother was a Kendal resident. In many ways, the performance of this opera is a tribute to Stunkel’s mother who, in her later years, was diagnosed with dementia.
Performances of Strawberry Fields will be held Friday, January 30, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, January 31, at 2 p.m. in the ’Sco.
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