The University of Kansas Voice and Opera Department will wrap up the 2018-2019 school year with a production of Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night's Dream.”
Voice professor John Stephens is the director of the production. He chose “A Midsummer Night's Dream” along with the help of the other School of Music faculty.
“It seemed like the time to do it,” Stephens said. “We chose it because it’s challenging beyond belief. It’s Shakespeare. We had the forces on our side — there’s lots of different reasons.”
The cast is primarily composed of students from the voice and opera department, with a diverse mix of undergraduate, graduate and non-degree seeking singers. Along with two theater students splitting the role of Puck, the Theatre and Dance Department is helping with the costumes and sets of the elaborate production.
“[The story] is of a creative and fanciful nature,” Stephens said. “There’s lots of opportunities for [theater students] to exercise their creativity.”
“A Midsummer Night's Dream” tells the story of three distinct groups: the lovers, the rustics and the fairies. The story mostly takes place in the forest where the fairies live and focuses on the wedding of Theseus, the duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. There are two casts for the opera, with some overlap, as is the norm.
Neal Long, a second-year doctor of musical arts student from Reno, Nevada, is one of two tenors playing the role of Lysander, one of the lovers. Long said while this opera is difficult, the support he and his castmates have received from Stephens has helped them through.
“['A Midsummer Night's Dream'] is the most difficult opera music I have ever sung,” Long said. “Fortunately, Dr. Stephens knows the opera like the back of his hand, and so he’s been able to guide us.”
The music isn’t the only complex part of the opera. Since the production features text in Shakespeare’s English, Stephens decided to use surtitles — translations above the stage — to help the audience understand what the singers are saying.
“I struggled with [the decision to use surtitles],” Stephens said. “I’m glad we are because there are phrases where even if you read it, it’s difficult to understand.”
Long, as a performer, welcomes the surtitles, even though the opera is in English. The music is taxing on the voice, given the large range each character is required to sing, so having the text displayed alleviates some pressure.
“It’s Shakespeare English, so a lot of the words will be new to audiences. They were certainly new to us as singers,” Long said. “I think it’s good to have it there to reinforce [the meaning].”
Rehearsals for “A Midsummer Night's Dream” began after spring break, so the cast has had five weeks of rehearsals together before opening. Long said he has enjoyed performing his role alongside friends and castmates.
“Everybody in the cast is wonderful to work with,” Long said. “This opera is different from anything I’ve ever done. The music is so different. Therefore, the staging follows that, and it’s been a bit of a process getting used to that. But everybody has been so supportive.”
Stephens said he is proud to see all the students, not just the ones from his studio, work hard and commit to the complexity of the music.
“I like to see them take ownership of the material and when they sing their lines,” Stephens said. “It’s occurring to them that they are not only being spontaneous but the irony of it, knowing their music better than they ever thought they would have to.”
Stephens is excited, and also a little nervous, to finally open the doors to the audience and reveal the time and effort the performers have put into the show.
“All teachers teach so you can see people learn what you learn,” Stephens said. “I consider all the students my students and try to help them find themselves as performers.”
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opens Friday, April 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the Crafton-Preyer Theatre with performances on April 28 at 2:30 p.m. and May 2 and 4 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be bought online or at the box office in Murphy Hall.