In Verdi's 'Falstaff', comedy and opera exist in harmony

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To many, opera conjures strange or boring images, such as scenes of stuffy singers with horns on their head, rooted to a single spot on the stage and howling at the audience for hours on end. Pacific Opera Project’s most recent production, “Falstaff,” throws out these conventions, with even the most tender moments of soft singing interrupted by a raunchy fat man. Occidental students were given a taste of this irreverence during a Sept. 16 preview in Bird Studio.

“Falstaff,” adapted from the Shakespeare play “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” was the last opera written by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. In Pacific Opera Project’s rendition of the work, Zeffin Quinn Hollis played lead character Sir John Falstaff, a drunkard who gets into increasingly hilarious dilemmas while trying solve his financial woes. Performing alongside Quinn Hollis were Rebecca Sjöwall as Alice Ford, a woman Falstaff attempts to seduce; Annie Sherman as Nanetta, the daughter of Alice Ford; and Nadav Hart as Fenton, a young man who falls in love with Nanetta.

The preview featured songs from a small portion of the show, including romantic duets between Fenton and Nanetta and a handful of scenes depicting Falstaff’s failed attempts to seduce Alice Ford. Hollis managed to deliver modern humor through slapstick comedy and well-timed delivery that made the story seem more like a well-written contemporary show than an opera from over 100 years ago.

Sarah Greilsamer (junior) attended the preview at Occidental as a part of her class on opera.

“Their voices were resonating,” Greilsamer said. “I’ve never heard something like this before. I think it was an incredible opportunity because we’ve learned a lot of the theory of opera, but hearing it in person was an experience that you can’t replace.”

The full-length show premiered Sept. 12 at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. For Sherman, the audience on opening night was energizing, laughing raucously at all the right times. Music Department Chair David Kasunic also marveled at how engaging a live opera is.

“To hear voices like that, right there, that’s extraordinary,” Kasunic said. “That impact of being able to hear that, you can’t swap that out, you can’t do that on your earbuds or in some other context. It’s about being there and experiencing it live.”

Kasunic has organized events like Occidental’s preview since becoming chair last fall, including a preview of Pacific Opera Project’s adaptation of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” last March. According to Kasunic, the music department plans to continue hosting similar events and may preview Pacific Opera Project’s next performance in November.

“People have so many walls up against opera and art and in music,” Kasunic said. “I just want the walls to be broken down, people to be much more relaxed and much more excited. This is the dirty secret, it’s really great.”

Hollis agrees that Pacific Opera Project’s performances are an accessible way for students to expand their artistic horizons.

“You have to explore as many things as you can and see what kind of fits you the best,” he said. “This is a great company to do that, because it’s not stuffy, and it’s not kind of prohibitive in any way. It’s very, very inclusive and it’s a way to really experience opera in a relaxed setting.”

“Falstaff” showed for the final two times Sept. 19 and 20 at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, with at least 32 students and faculty at the Saturday performance.