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Rutgers Opera’s Game Plan
This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on February 4, 1998. All rights reserved.
Even though Valorie Goodall, founder of Opera at
has been spending long hours grooming the company’s production of
Rossini’s bel canto comedy "The Turk in Italy," she still
keeps abreast of the news. Goodall knows that both President Francis
Lawrence of Rutgers and Governor Christie Whitman advocate spending
more money on Rutgers football to enhance the reputation of the
Goodall thinks that operatic success is easier to come by than
wins, and it makes her uneasy that no pushy constituency supports
opera. "My plan just before I retire," she says, "is to
hire a small plane and have it fly over the stadium during a football
game with a banner that says `Opera at Rutgers Never Loses.’"
Goodall’s production of "The Turk in Italy" begins
Friday, February 6, at the Nicholas Music Center on the Douglass
campus in New Brunswick.
As professor of music at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts,
Goodall has directed more than 100 concerts devoted to operatic
including a battery of fully-staged, full-length operas. Under her
direction Rutgers Opera Company, in the last six years, has won five
awards, including three first-place production awards from the
Opera Association (NOA), the organization founded in 1955 to advance
the performance of opera in colleges and small regional opera
With members in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, and
NOA offers workshops to improve opera performances, and then rewards
the producers of opera through their annual Opera Production
Goodall is enthusiastic about "The Turk in Italy" as an
for all operagoers, and thinks that it is particularly suitable as
an introduction to opera for young people. "It has lots of
she says, of Rossini’s comedy of masquerade, mistaken identity, and
funny confusion. "It’s clear what’s going on. And there are
costumes and an orchestra."
The opera story is written as a play-within-a-play. Prosdocimo, a
poet, searches out a plot for his next farce from real life. He
on the flirtatious young Fiorilla, who henpecks her husband Geronio
while carrying on with her admirer, Narciso. The exotic Turkish
Pasha Selim, arrives and falls in love with Fiorilla. Zaida, a gypsy
maiden, recognizes Selim as the lover with whom she wishes to be
and realizes that Fiorilla is her rival. At a masked ball Fiorilla
and Zaida exchange clothing and Geronio disguises himself as Selim.
"In the scene with the disguises," says Goodall, "part
of the comedy is having players that cannot be easily confused. The
two women are hilariously different. The tenor and bass have
different voices. So there is the ridiculousness of nobody
Ultimately, Selim and Zaida pair off once again, and Geronio and
are reconciled. The poet is satisfied with the ending. The opera is
often described as Pirandellian because of the parallels with Luigi
Pirandello’s "Six Characters in Search of an Author." However
the play of Nobel Prize-winner Pirandello could equally be described
as Rossinian. "The Turk in Italy" premiered in 1814. "Six
Characters" appeared in 1922.
The Rutgers production uses the English translation of Andrew Porter,
prepared for the 1978 New York City Opera production with Beverly
Sills. "English," observes Goodall, "is great for theater
because of its large vocabulary. It’s one of the things that made
Shakespeare possible. But it’s not easy to sing. I hope that the
of singing in English is not anything that the audience needs to
These performers are very good at English, their own native
Still, even when native English speakers sing in an English opera,
companies may use supertitles to allow an audience to read what they
might have missed aurally. Opera Festival of New Jersey used them
for Benjamin Britten’s "Vanessa" last summer, and New York’s
Metropolitan Opera is using them for Stravinsky’s "The Rake’s
Progress" this season. Goodall will not use titles at Rutgers.
She thinks that with the Porter translation, they are unnecessary.
"The Porter translation," she says, "is in the style of
the period, with lots of repeats, lots of repeats, lots of
She makes the point that repeated text engraves itself on the memory.
"In addition, the arias are linked by recitative or sung dialogue,
which helps explain things." Then comes the bottom line:
are very expensive."
Preparations for the opera began many months ago. Designer Joseph
Miklojcik Jr. designed the set last summer, built it in the fall,
and installed it the first week of January. The principal singers
have been working on their music since the beginning of November.
Before the end of the fall semester, the music was blocked out, and
ensemble rehearsals took place. Staging the opera began January 9,
in the limited number of days when the opera company had access to
the stage at the Nicholas Music Center. The hall is normally reserved
for the instrumental and vocal ensembles of Rutgers’ Mason Gross
of the Arts. However, in the 10 days just before classes resumed,
it belonged to "The Turk in Italy."
"For 10 days," says Goodall, "we worked like
We were not distracted by classes or exams. We rehearsed every day,
including Saturday and Sunday, for eight hours a day. That is heaven.
My dream would be to rehearse the rest of my life and have my food
sent in from the Frog and the Peach," says Goodall, a high
for the New Brunswick restaurant noted for excellence and imagination.
Goodall is on the brink of being a culinary expert through her role
as a mother. Her son Will is a chef, considering buying his own
His twin, Sean, lives in Koblenz, Germany, where, says Goodall,
sells industrial glue in the German language." The twins were
born in 1966 when Goodall was in the midst of a six-year stint as
a performer in European opera houses. Handling the demands of caring
for the twins and pursuing an operatic career simultaneously helped
shape her approach to life. A native Texan, Goodall earned degrees
from Baylor University in Waco, and the University of Colorado before
coming to New York to study singing.
Goodall is enthusiastic about her colleagues for the upcoming
"We are particularly fortunate in having one of the top 10 opera
lighting designers in the world," she says, speaking of Mitchell
Dana. For conductor Benton Hess she points out his immersion in
canto," operas, ones in which the beauty of vocal production is
an essential part of the performance. "Hess has prepared about
20 bel canto operas," she says. "That’s an unusually large
number. An opera conductor might get to four or five, maybe six. There
aren’t that many bel canto operas around." She is happy about
the sets, designed by Joseph Miklojcik Jr. of the Mason Gross School
Theater Arts department, and the costumes by Stephanie Lussier, a
Choreographer Sherry Alban teaches ballet at Mason Gross, and also
choreographs for the American Repertory Ballet. Alban has worked
with both Goodall and her husband, William Mooney, who directs in
Middlesex County’s Plays in the Park summer productions. "My
and I sit home at night fighting over who loves Sherry the most,"
says Goodall in a burst of hyperbole. She names the catfight between
the opera’s two leading women, and the action of the three clowns
as samples of Alban’s skill.
The Rutgers version of opera, with contributions from all those
finally came together when the chorus, drawn from all the New
colleges of Rutgers, joined the principals for rehearsals after
resumed on January 20.
Goodall notes that they work in a theater one-fifth the size of the
Metropolitan Opera. "It seats about 700 people, and is the size
Rossini would have written for. This is an ideal size theater for
almost any opera," she says. "Most opera before 1850 was
for this size theater. At that time composers were not writing for
volume. They didn’t make opera singers compete with instruments. The
voice was prized for its beauty, expressivity, and flexibility, rather
than sheer size."
Successful performance in Nicholas, however, is no
of a big career. "You can’t make an international career if you
can’t be heard in a theater that seats 1,500, and if you don’t sing
opera written after 1850," says Goodall. "Our students cannot
aspire to an international career if they don’t add volume. Some of
that is locked into their physiology. The rest, the voice faculty
tries to develop by helping enhance the resonance of the student’s
Through "The Turk in Italy," the voice faculty has been
students in the suppleness, stamina, and expressivity of bel canto,
a term which means "beautiful singing." Given well-trained
instructors and talented students, bel canto boils down to a simple
rule of thumb, says Goodall. "Bel canto requires a great deal
of vocal flexibility. Teaching bel canto is teaching that it’s
not to sing so loudly you lose the flexibility of the instrument."
Goodall notes that the quality of voice teachers has increased in
the last 50 years because of research on vocal production, and because
of the influx to the United States of skilled singers who fled Nazi
Germany. "The refugees are almost gone," says Goodall,
their legacy is very much with us."
That legacy has played a part in increasing the appeal of opera in
the United States in recent years. Goodall attributes the trend, in
part, to the improved quality of opera performances. Opera, she says,
has become better, more entertaining, and more accessible. "Opera
is now in English, either through titles, or because it is sung in
English," she says. Furthermore, productions have managed to meet
the needs of demanding opera consumers. "People raised on
expect a higher quality of acting skill and casting than people who
had no television. Performers today have to look like the characters
they’re playing. You can get to the top without looking like the part
you’re singing, but you have to out-sing everybody else. Pavarotti
and Jessye Norman did it. In a wonderful way, it’s sort of like
If you cross that finish line you win."
It is not surprising that another athletic analogy floats from
lips. Rutgers’ President Lawrence is more interested in teams than
in culture. "We are running out of money," says Goodall.
hope opera will continue at Rutgers. Opera is so expensive. We’ve
been able to supplement the modest contribution of the university
through grants. But we’ll run out of money after one or two more big
productions. It’s sort of a scary thing and sort of sad. The New York
Times and Time magazine report good demographics for opera. Attendance
in the age group 18 to 40 is on the rise. That’s wonderful news. This
is not the time for Rutgers to back away."
— Elaine Strauss
Music Center, New Brunswick, 732-932-7511. $16. Friday, February 6,
8 p.m., Sunday, February 8, 2 p.m., Friday, February 13, 8 p.m., and
Sunday, February 15, 2 p.m.
Half of our budget is for labor because we have no in-house presence
for sets, costumes, or technical personnel.
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