It’s an uncommon dilemma: suppose you have exceptional musical talent, as well as an exceptional gift for writing. Suppose you are interested in cramming into your four college years as many activities as you can. Suppose that when you are a junior, it comes to you that before you graduate you would like to write an opera and have it performed in a fully-costumed version, with orchestra. What should be the first thing you do?
Maxwell Mamon and Alexis Rodda, both members of Princeton’s Class of 2010, know the answer. You find a collaborator. And you work fast. There’s no other way to manage it when you are, incidentally, a member of the Glee Club, work with the Triangle Club, perform publicly, enter musical competitions, and undertake projects in Europe.
Mamon and Rodda’s opera “Rosaleen” appears in Richardson Auditorium on Friday and Saturday, April 2 and 3. Mamon, the composer, also serves as music director, is responsible for orchestration, and plays both piano and keyboard for the performances. Rodda, who wrote the book and lyrics, also sings the title role and acts as director and choreographer. The production includes a 14-member chorus and a five-person instrumental ensemble.
Set in Victorian times in aristocratic circles, the story centers on Rosaleen, who has had a succession of still births. Her husband, the emotionally troubled Dalton, is distressed to learn that Rosaleen is once again pregnant. He knows that his brother, Cale, and Rosaleen are attracted to each other, and suspects that Cale was responsible for the deaths of the newborns. Dalton kills Cale. Rosaleen, coming upon the scene, goes mad and kills Dalton. Her child is born prematurely. Alina, Rosaleen’s maid, who is in love with Cale, is unable to help her and Rosaleen dies. Her child survives.
“Rosaleen” is an independent presentation produced by its authors, and not sponsored by any university entity. Mamon and Rodda secured funding for the production from Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts, as well as the Dean’s office.
Mamon and Rodda, both 21, met through a mutual friend when they were freshmen. Enrolled in the certificate program in musical performance, they took many of the same classes. Pianist Mamon and singer Rodda have performed together several times during their Princeton career. Indeed, Mamon accompanied Rodda for her senior recital earlier this year.
“The opera took about a year to prepare,” Mamon says. “It’s still a work in progress. We knew we had a deadline. If we were working without time or budget constraints, we might have taken longer, and the opera might have been more ambitious.
“We started bouncing ideas about the opera back and forth when we were juniors,” he continues, “and started working on it seriously in the summer of 2009. Alexis was in New Jersey, and I was in Chicago. She wrote lyrics and sent them to me. I set the words to music and Alexis gave me feedback. I prefer to compose with lyrics as a starting point. Our styles work well together.”
If a partnership can be viewed as a tree and a wind, Rodda is the wind in this relationship and Mamon is the tree. “Max always knew he was going to write a music thesis,” Rodda says, “but I approached him late last year asking if he wanted to write an opera. Max was worried at first because of how ambitious the project would be and its feasibility, but it took him almost no time to be on board.”
“I often write too much,” Rodda says, “and Max would send it back and say, ‘This won’t work.’ I sometimes wrote extra songs that didn’t go along with the plot. I’m interested in opera as an art form and have an idea of what works. Thinking of ‘Carmen,’ I wanted to include a gypsy aria. Max didn’t understand how that would make sense in our opera. He acted as my editor.
‘We had no major disagreements,” Rodda adds. “We’re pretty honest with each other. Also, we have no trouble saying ‘no’ to each other.”
Mamon is a newcomer to composing music where his own taste is his guide. Although he has been writing music for theory classes since high school, he began composing seriously on his own last year when, advised by Princeton composer Paul Lansky, he wrote a set of piano preludes. “Over the summer, I started listening to opera composers who I wanted to emulate,” he says. His hand-picked roster includes Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, John Corigliano, Kurt Weill, Richard Strauss, Carlisle Floyd, Andy Vores, and Benjamin Britten. George Gershwin is not on the list. “Actually, I know almost nothing about jazz,” Mamon says.
“The scale of the orchestration is modest,” he says. “I used chamber music forms and timbres — string quartet or piano. Our opera is not like Puccini or Wagner. I wouldn’t mind a bigger chorus or orchestra if the opera was done in a different time and place. But there are lots of good 20th century chamber operas.”
Mamon and Rodda did the casting by themselves. “The audition was self-selective,” Mamon says. “The term ‘opera’ scares away a lot of people who would audition for musical theater.”
Rodda adds, “A lot of people thought, I can’t sing that kind of music.’”
Mamon says, “It’s a different skill set from musical theater. My style of vocal writing calls for classical singers — classically-trained singers — legit singers, like Maria in ‘West Side Story,’ singers who use their head voice, rather than their chest voice, the kind of voice traditionally used for art songs.”
“Most pop and Broadway singers use their chest voice,” Rodda says. “That’s ‘belting.’ If you push the chest voice, that’s what rock stars do.” She promises to demonstrate the difference between head and chest voice before I leave the interview.
“I know a lot about auditions because I’m a singer,” Rodda says, “and I have definite ideas. I think that the best thing to do after a singer auditions is just to say, ‘Thank you,’ and not give any feedback right away. When you do casting, you know immediately who’s right for the role.”
Rodda lives in Wyckoff, New Jersey. Her father is a lawyer; her mother, a teacher. “They appreciate music a lot,” she says. A cousin sings professionally. Rodda calls Caroline, her older sister, “a talented trumpet player.” Both siblings began piano lessons at an early age.
Rodda has played piano since she was five. She played tuba beginning in sixth grade and started studying voice when she was a high school freshman. Currently she takes a weekly voice lesson with Meagan Miller in New York City, and a second weekly lesson with Nancy Froysland Hoerl at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. Her senior thesis for the English department compares women’s relationships as shown in the texts of Jane Austen’s “Emma” and Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”
She is enrolled not only in the certificate program in musical performance but also in the certificate program in German. In addition, she is a member of the Princeton Equestrian team.
Mamon grew up in Inverness, a northwestern suburb of Chicago. His father is a physician; his mother, an artist. Like Rodda’s parents, they appreciate music. His three younger siblings have all had musical exposure. Miles, 20, a Northwestern University student, plays pop and classical guitar. Mitchell, 18, a football player, used to play drums. Sister Morgan, 16, is a vocalist.
Mamon started studying Suzuki piano at three and was burnt out by kindergarten. After a break that lasted until second grade, he began traditional piano lessons. In 2008, he spent the fall semester of his junior year at London’s Royal College of Music as part of the Princeton Music Department’s pioneer Study Abroad project. “It was a different environment,” Mamon says. “It was only music. I had private lessons and no classes. It was nice to be able to practice as much as I wanted. I had a jury but no public performances.”
At Princeton Mamon studies piano with Jennifer Tao, a member of the performance faculty. “‘Rosaleen’ is my senior thesis,” he says. Dimitri Tymoczko, of the Princeton music department faculty and a composer, is his advisor. Mamon composes at the piano.
Mamon and Rodda have tucked our meeting into the flurry of their busy last semester at Princeton. We meet in Woolworth, the music building, in order to have access to a piano.
The two perform the aria sung by Rosaleen’s husband, Dalton, at the close of Act 2. The text presents Dalton as unbalanced. The piano accompaniment is tempestuous; it could be a Chopin Prelude. The tension between the somewhat irregular rhythm of the sung melody and the relentless piano background grows even stronger in a climactic passage where the piano settles into sparse chords while Dalton’s uncontrollable violence explodes.
Rodda has used her head voice, which seems suited to the music. She then briefly sings in the harsher, more aggressive chest voice while Mamon accompanies her. Finally, the two seniors leave briskly to bolt down their lunch before an early afternoon class.
Rosaleen, Princeton University, Richardson Auditorium. Friday and Saturday, April 2 and 3, 8 p.m. New original opera with book and lyrics written by Alexis Rodda, and music by Maxwell Mamon, both members of Princeton’s Class of 2010. The production features a chamber orchestra and 12 singers. Reception follows April 2 performance. Register. Free. 609-258-3000. www.princeton.edu.