If you’re new to the operatic world, Nick Olcott, interim director of the Maryland Opera Studio, suggests a comedy such as “Albert Herring,” opening Friday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, to ease you in.
“I think it’s important when people are going to come to the opera for the first time, they should come to a comedy because it is much more accessible and much more relatable than big tragedies,” Olcott said. “And this one, on top of everything else, is in English so you don’t have to know Italian.”
Composed by British composer, conductor and pianist Benjamin Britten, “Albert Herring” is the story of “hapless lad” Albert and his attempt to shed his good-boy image. His timing is unfortunate, however, as the presumptuous Lady Billows has decided to break from tradition and crown a King of the May instead of a queen.
“Albert Herring” is the first of two productions the Maryland Opera Studio will produce during the 2013-2014 academic year. The second, Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus,” will open in April.
The Maryland Opera Studio is a graduate program within Maryland’s School of Music. Every year, about 10 students are admitted to the studio, which functions as an academic program and a performance ensemble. Upon their completion of the two-year program, students receive a master’s of music in opera performance. Students typically perform a minimally-produced or “white opera” in the fall, followed by a fully produced show in the spring.
“The opera is minimally produced in that there is no set,” Olcott said. “We use our stock set costumes which are all made of white muslin, which is why we call it the ‘white opera’ ... Usually it’s done only with a piano, but this year, because the original piece is written for a chamber orchestra, we are actually doing it with the full orchestra it is written for.”
Houston-based conductor Craig Kier is conducting the piece. A graduate of SUNY Fredonia in New York City, Kier currently spends most of his time working with the Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet. Recently, he’s been frequently making the trip to and from College Park to work with the Maryland Opera Studio students.
“I’ve actually been there several times,” Kier said. “We spent the first week coaching it musically and putting all of the ensembles together ... I’ve been back three or four times to oversee things.”
Thanks to the small size of the studio program, Olcott said the operas are chosen specifically to fit the strengths of the students.
“Our primary goal is to serve our students,” Olcott said. “As the students are admitted and we hear their voices and get to know them, we make a selection of what opera would suit them the best.”
In addition to being a good fit for this year’s class of studio students, Olcott said “Albert Herring” was chosen in part to celebrate Britten’s centennial.
Despite their varying vocal strengths, one thing all Maryland Opera Studio students have in common is their affinity for drama.
“We place a lot of emphasis on acting ... making sure they know how to act and analyze their scenes dramatically,” said Olcott, whose professional experience includes acting, directing and writing for the theater. “There was a stereotype of opera for a lot of years that the singers couldn’t really act they just stood in the center of the stage and sang and there was no real connection with the characters ... In the modern age, that stereotype is just disappearing — particularly with the advent of HDTV broadcasts of opera. The singers really have to know how to act.”
For Kier, working with the students who have such an intense dramatic focus has been both refreshing and rewarding.
“Often students at this level don’t have the stage-savvy skills or acting chops to pull from,” Kier said. “It’s been really great to work with these students ... there’s a great focus on dramatic content because of what Leon has set the foundation for. All of the singers come from the point of view of finding the most dramatic way to present where they’re coming from.”
The drama-focused approach may be yet another draw for newcomers to the opera.
“The audience gets a lot out of it because there is compelling storytelling ... Kier said. “There are no distortions to the audience.”
But perhaps above all else, it is the characters in “Albert Herring” that Olcott said will draw an audience in.
“It’s all of these wonderful English Village-types we’re all so fond of because of our Miss Marple Murder Mysteries,” Olcott said. “All of the stock characters we know from Agatha Christie are there.”
But for Maryland Opera Studio student Katie Baughman, who plays Ms. Wordsworth, a schoolteacher, another cast of British characters come to mind.
“Downton Abbey,” she said. “[It] has come up more than once since we’ve been talking about our characters.”