Opera partners with Glee Club for double-feature performance

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The cast of “Gianni Schicchi” performing in Thorne Hall at Occidental College. Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. Grace Garrett/The Occidental

The Pacific Opera Project, a professional performing group that aims to bring accessible and affordable opera to the LA area, stood side by side on stage with members of Occidental’s Glee Club to deliver an intense, humorous and visually striking performance for the Occidental community and Eagle Rock residents. This was Pacific Opera Project’s opening performance for its 10th anniversary season, taking place in Thorne Hall from Jan. 25 to Feb. 2. The event also marked the first joint performance of the two operas: “Gianni Schicchi” and “L’enfant et Les Sortilèges.”

A sudden dimming of the lights accompanied by a few major chords from the onstage orchestra signaled the start of the event, as director Josh Shawappeared on stage to address the audience.

The first of the two operas performed that night, “Gianni Schicchi,” was writtenby Giacomo Puccini, an Italian composer, and premiered in 1918. According to Pacific Opera Project’s website, it tells the story of the formerly wealthy Donati family from Florence. When family patriarch Buoso dies, leaving his entire fortune to the monastery, the Donatis wail in agony about their impending ruin. They are soon saved by the namesake character, Gianni Schicchi, who manages to secure the Donatis their fortune — while simultaneously giving himself the most valued items in Buoso’s will. In a performance that borders on slapstick, the singers portray the Donatis’ shock and their inability to stop Schicchi for fear of being discovered.

The second opera, “L’enfant et Les Sortilèges,” by French composer Maurice Ravel, is linked to the first piece through the character of the youngest Donati, a schoolboy named Gherardino. Young Gherardino prefers mischief to homework and chores until his mother rebukes him and he throws a tantrum. As he thrashes his room, the objects in it come to life and teach him a lesson.The opera culminates as the room turns into a garden filled with animals, all bemoaning Gherardino’s cruelty toward them. Gherardino’s cry for his mother provokes the animals into attacking him, but when he decides to tend to a squirrel that gets injured in the fray, they see his moral transformation and have a change of heart.

“L’enfant et Les Sortilèges” included approximately 10 members of the Glee Club as background dancers and vocalists.

Glee Club member Adelia Nunn (senior) said the performance was incredible and personally motivating.

“It kind of inspired me to try to pursue opera postgrad — actually try to get into the opera world and maybe go to opera conservatory,” Nunn said. “It’s honestly just kind of inspiring.”

Oli Vorster (sophomore) said that they and other student ensemble members, along with members of the Glee Club, spent several weeks in preparation for the event.

“We were given the music before winter break, and then we had winter break to learn it, and then I would say we had a week to then begin staging with the company,” Vorster said. “They’d already begun to plan for like three weeks or so, I think, and then we were entered into the mix, and had to learn it within a week, so it was kind of crazy.”

The operas were performed in their original languages: Italian and French. Student performers had to learn bits of French over the holiday as a result.

“French is not the most commonly sung-in language, especially for choir — at least our choir — so that was hard,” Nunn said.

Desiree La Vertu, director of choral and vocal activities at Occidental, said that she could not teach the opera in class because not all Glee Club members were involved in the production, which posed an additional challenge.

“For this show we had to have lots of extra rehearsals outside of class, and the students very generously gave up their time to do that,” La Vertu said.

La Vertu said that David Kasunic, chair of the music department and professor of music, knows Shaw personally.

“They came up with the idea for Occidental students to somehow be involved in a Pacific Opera Project production,” La Vertu said. “Then Professor Kasunic came to me to float the idea.”

The Glee Club has previously performed with the Pacific Opera Project. Their first collaboration was in 2016, when they performed Igor Stravinsky’s play “The Rake’s Progress.”

La Vertu said the performance was a rare chance for students to get involved with opera performances of this size.

“At a small school like Oxy, there’s very rarely an opportunity to be in a full stage opera production,” La Vertu said. “This is a really rare and really exciting opportunity for our students because it’s not something you usually get at a 2,000-person school.”