Typically on a college campus, April is spent gearing up for finals and the end of the semester. In the Music/Mass Communications building, though, one might see students and faculty from the music, art and theatre departments working on a different sort of end-of-the-year project.
“We wanted to see [APSU Opera] grow, and the programs have gotten bigger and much more involved,” said Lisa Conklin-Bishop, a music professor and director of APSU’s opera productions. “It’s a huge collaborative effort.”
Rather than staging multiple short operas — as the music department has done in the past — this year, APSU Opera performed Engelbert Humperdinck’s hour-and-a-half adaptation of the folk tale “Hansel and Gretel” on Saturday, April 20, and Sunday, April 21. Departing from the story’s original setting of Germany’s Black Forest, theatre and art faculty assisted the opera crew in designing a set that combined elements of 1930s Appalachian America and Eastern European gypsy camps.
“In the set, 2-D pieces are being used to make a 3-D atmosphere,” Conklin-Bishop said. The set was initially built outside of MMC, then brought to the concert hall in separate pieces, according to Conklin-Bishop. APSU Opera is the culmination of the music department’s opera workshop class, which works on a full production every spring for three to four months until it’s stage-ready. The class also puts together smaller productions every fall semester.
“[Opera workshop] is a theatre production class with full-blown sets,” Conklin-Bishop said. “It’s way beyond a class.” The opera productions involve personnel at a variety of experience levels. “Hansel and Gretel” featured performers ranging from freshmen to graduate students to music professor Karen Crow, who played the part of The Gingerbread Witch. The APSU Symphony Orchestra, which provides accompaniment for the singers, also features musicians of various skill levels. “We have a few faculty members that are assisting the orchestra, helping to lead and guide their students,” Conklin-Bishop said.
Alumna Esther Sooter, who received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in vocal performance, performed in multiple APSU Opera productions and feels the opera program is a good way for students to get real-world experience. “It’s great that younger students get to participate,” Sooter said. “There are people my age who haven’t even gotten a chance to sing with an orchestra.”
Sooter, who was the stage manager for “Hansel and Gretel,” also said she gained a greater appreciation for the collaboration of the opera by working offstage rather than performing. “It’s been really nice for me to do the behind-the-scenes work,” Sooter said. “I’ve been up onstage a fair amount … but now I understand better what all is going on.”
Justin Fitch, a vocal and piano performance major who played Peter in “Hansel and Gretel,” said the singers also recognize the collaborative nature of the production. “There’s no separation,” Fitch said. “We all have to be together, or it’s not going to work.”
While the opera is one of the biggest student productions in the music department, Conklin-Bishop still feels it is relatively unknown.
“I don’t think people realize we have this going on,” Conklin-Bishop said. Despite garnering less attention around campus than within the music department itself, Conklin-Bishop said the opera is a positive influence for both participants and audience members.
“I think a production like this speaks well for our university,” Conklin-Bishop said. “The very youngest of students are mirroring the older students, which is the kind of thing you always want to have.”