“Oberlin Opera Theater and the American Dream”

July 8, 2019

Communications Staff

Hands holding up window frames. Illustration.
Photo credit: Illustration by Andrea Wang ’19

Inside the student union building, a stick frame barn and makeshift grave marked by a tire set the scene for Oberlin Opera Theater’s production of Proving Up.

Voice performance majors Shawn Roth ’20 and Katherine Krebs ’20 discuss what it was like to work with composer Missy Mazzoli, who visited the cast and crew in Oberlin during production and for the final two performances.

Listen to the episode:


This episode is narrated by Erin Ulrich, and features an interview with Shawn Roth ’20 and Katherine Krebs ’20. Assistant Professor of Opera Theater Christopher Mirto is also featured.

Accessible Transcript

[Theme music playing in background]

Erin: “This is An Oberlin Minute, an audio series dedicated to highlighting the inspiring work of Oberlin students, faculty and staff.  We’ll be getting an inside look at the pulse of Oberlin by exploring research, performances, and everything in between.”

[Environment sounds of opera rehearsal in background]

Erin: “We’re going to be hearing from third-year Shawn Roth and fourth-year Katherine Krebs, both of whom performed in the winter-term opera Proving Up, which tells the story of a 19th-century Nebraskan family and the difficulties they face after losing hope in the American dream promised to them by the U.S. Homestead Acts. Composer Missy Mazzoli visited the cast and crew of Proving Up in Oberlin to work on the opera’s production and returned for the final two performances.”

Christopher: “The first number, it requires this sort of... [clapping sounds]”

Erin: “We attended a rehearsal of Proving Up during winter term and got to take an inside look at the opera, which took place in the student union building. Inside, students share a small stage as director Christopher Mirto guides performers through the production.”

Erin: “The set is simple, yet eerie. A stick-frame barn takes center stage, with a wooden swing set and rocking chair at each end of the stage, as well as a grave made of a large tire filled with dirt, plastic flowers and crosses. The empty music stands and chairs during rehearsal are set to feature a 13-piece orchestra.”

Shawn: “Well, I’m Shawn Roth. I’m a third-year voice performance major.”

Katherine: “And my name is Katherine and I am a fourth-year psychology and voice performance student. I’ve been lucky enough to participate in the operas and do this winter term project, which has been a lot of fun so far. And like Shawn said, we are doing a work that a lot of people have never heard before. It’s only been done I think three times before.”

Shawn: “Well, it’s also new.”

Katherine: “Right, it’s brand new. Missy Mazzoli is the composer and she was just commissioned to write for the Met.”

Shawn: “Mm-hmm.  Yeah. We have girls hanging down from the ceilings, you know, singing from the balcony. And that’s just not something that you can do in a regular concert hall, so it’s really kind of refreshing.”

Katherine: “Right, it’s a lot of fun to explore a new space and get to do a work that’s not often done.”

Shawn: “The advantage here was that, this time, we had Missy come in before we really could really delve into the music. So, we were able to get the clearest ideas of how to interpret this piece from her... you can’t ask Mozart what he meant...why he held the Count’s récit a beat and a half before the act two finale, but you can ask someone like Missy Mazzoli that. But then, you know, you do something that the composer has never seen before and they go, oh, well, you know, actually, I like that. Actually Missy, for this production, told me to include another word and that was really cool because I’m the first person that’s ever going to sing that word and it’s probably going to become standard at some point.”

Katherine: “Yeah, Missy has been great and we have still been in contact with her while we are rehearsing, so we’ve been able to ask her questions continuously about staging and just about the music whenever things have come up. It’s been really, really, really helpful to have her feedback and she is so incredible to work with and we are so lucky to have her.”

Shawn: “That’s also something that is really cool, is that for the past two winter terms, we’ve had the composers come in and work with us.”

Katherine: “We actually got to have dinner with her at the Feve and got to chat with her just as, you know, as if friends would do. So, it was really exciting to get to know her, all about her life, and just her journey as a female composer. And it was really inspiring because we are working with people that are really out there in the field and doing it, and it’s really exciting to see how humble they are and just how intelligent they are and all the information they are willing to share with us is so exciting because we get to just absorb it like sponges.”

Shawn: “What’s really great about Oberlin is that like most conservatories, it’s all music, all day, so everything you do is relevant to what you want to be doing when you are here. Operas at Oberlin are pretty much the only way to prepare you for operas anywhere else. And one of the major pros that you get coming here is that there are no grad students. There’s artist diploma students, but there’s only two or three of those at any given time, so all the opportunities, virtually all of them go to people like you, an undergrad. And that is quintessential for developing experience and you just wouldn’t get that anywhere else, especially a school with grad students, because you need to develop the experience now.”

Shawn: “And again, being fortunate enough to actually experience professional rehearsals at my time in Oberlin with the Cleveland Orchestra, it’s the same process. Everybody shows up prepared, everybody is ready to work, and I just simply wouldn’t have been prepared for anything professional if I hadn’t already cultivated that and experienced it at Oberlin first.”

Katherine: “And another special thing about Oberlin is the fact that we aren’t just a conservatory, we have the college, too. So, me being a part of both, I just feel like it’s really cultivated my knowledge...I’ve been able to really feel like I’m ready for the real world and... I’m ready to dive in.”

Erin: “To learn more about what takes place at Oberlin, visit www.oberlin.edu/news. A big thank you to our student workers. The audio for this episode was engineered by Vu Nguyen and Claudia Hinsdale. Interviews were conducted by Erin Ulrich and sound design and theme music were composed by Piper Hill and Claudia Hinsdale.” 

[Theme music plays in background]

Erin: “Our graphic designer is Andrea Wang, and this episode was coproduced by Yvonne Gay and Erin Ulrich in the Office of Communications. Special thanks to our consultant and Oberlin’s digital media engineer, Kyle Hartzell. This has been An Oberlin Minute. Thanks for listening.”

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