Opera workshop stretches creativity and stage skills

Students dig into characters, forming a family

Apr 14, 2014 by and

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WINNIPEG, Man. — Ashley Fredette wants to perform in operas one day, but it wasn’t until she took Canadian Mennonite University’s Opera Workshop course that she got her first taste of what life as an opera singer entails.

In 2011, Canadian Mennonite University’s Opera Workshop staged The Mikado, a comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan. — CMU

In 2011, Canadian Mennonite University’s Opera Workshop staged The Mikado, a comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan. — CMU

Fredette, a CMU music student, took Opera Workshop this school year. Participants study selections from operatic literature during the fall term and then perform them over the course of three or four nights at the beginning of the winter term.

The Opera Workshop performance, “Famous Duets and Trios: An Evening of Scenes from Famous Productions,” included music by Delibes, Gilbert and Sullivan, Gluck, Humperdinck, Howland and Mozart.

“I got to learn about how to be on stage, how to move on stage, how to get into the character, and how to make a role come alive,” Fredette said.

Teaching students basic stage movement, blocking techniques, how stage lighting works and how performers can use it to their advantage are all part of Opera Workshop, said David Klassen, instructor of music, who has taught the course and directed the productions for eight years.

Learning how to work with other performers is also key.

“It really gives students exposure to a very involved art form that is ensemble-based,” he said. “They’re never working alone onstage. They always have to work with other singers and actors, so that’s a very important part to understanding singing and acting at the same time.”

Opera Workshop also gives students an understanding of how much energy and effort it takes to communicate when performing operatic works.

The opera experience can also enhance a student’s performance when performing solo on a smaller stage.

“If they have the experience of digging into a character and thinking about how the character feels, it adds a layer of empathy and authenticity to their song repertoire, so they can apply that to their solo repertoire,” Klassen said.

Opera Workshop students mount a full-scale production every second year. Past productions have included The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan and Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II. In the years in between, students present scenes from a variety of works.

Klassen believes that for students, the best part is that they get to see themselves grow.
“They all encourage each other, and they all believe in each other,” he said. “The fact that students pull together and do it is, I think, a big reason for their success.”

And the relationships they form last far beyond the moment the curtains close.

“Whether they’re in a principal role, or the pianist, or in the chorus, they become a family,” he said. “I think those relationships stick really strongly for them.”

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