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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

Rutgers,

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

university.

Goodall thinks that operatic success is easier to come by than

athletic

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

performances

Friday, February 6, at the Nicholas Music Center on the Douglass

College

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

performance,

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

National

Opera Association (NOA), the organization founded in 1955 to advance

the performance of opera in colleges and small regional opera

companies.

With members in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, and

Australia,

NOA offers workshops to improve opera performances, and then rewards

the producers of opera through their annual Opera Production

Competition.

Goodall is enthusiastic about "The Turk in Italy" as an

entertainment

for all operagoers, and thinks that it is particularly suitable as

an introduction to opera for young people. "It has lots of

slapstick,"

she says, of Rossini’s comedy of masquerade, mistaken identity, and

funny confusion. "It’s clear what’s going on. And there are

beautiful

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

focuses

on the flirtatious young Fiorilla, who henpecks her husband Geronio

while carrying on with her admirer, Narciso. The exotic Turkish

sultan,

Pasha Selim, arrives and falls in love with Fiorilla. Zaida, a gypsy

maiden, recognizes Selim as the lover with whom she wishes to be

reunited,

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

distinctly

different voices. So there is the ridiculousness of nobody

noticing."

Ultimately, Selim and Zaida pair off once again, and Geronio and

Fiorilla

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

difficulty

of singing in English is not anything that the audience needs to

notice.

These performers are very good at English, their own native

language."

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

repeats."

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:

"Titles

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

School

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

professionals.

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

recommendation

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

restaurant.

His twin, Sean, lives in Koblenz, Germany, where, says Goodall,

"he

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

performances.

"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

"bel

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

graduate student.

Choreographer Sherry Alban teaches ballet at Mason Gross, and also

choreographs for the American Repertory Ballet. Alban has worked

previously

with both Goodall and her husband, William Mooney, who directs in

Middlesex County’s Plays in the Park summer productions. "My

husband

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

involved,

finally came together when the chorus, drawn from all the New

Brunswick

colleges of Rutgers, joined the principals for rehearsals after

classes

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

written

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

guarantee

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

instrument."

Through "The Turk in Italy," the voice faculty has been

training

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

important

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,

"but

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

television

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

athletics.

If you cross that finish line you win."

It is not surprising that another athletic analogy floats from

Goodall’s

lips. Rutgers’ President Lawrence is more interested in teams than

in culture. "We are running out of money," says Goodall.

"I

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

The Turk in Italy, Rutgers Opera Company, Nicholas

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.

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OUT BELOW!!!

Half of our budget is for labor because we have no in-house presence

for sets, costumes, or technical personnel.


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