Opera’s Apprentice Artists prepare buoyant program to end their season

Rachel Sliker, soprano Chautauqua Opera Apprentice Artist performs with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Saturday, July 14, 2012. Photo by Eric Shea.

Leah Harrison | Staff Writer

You might sit through an entire opera or Broadway show just to hear a favorite song. You buy a ticket for Carmen to hear the “Habanera” aria; you attend My Fair Lady for “I Could Have Danced All Night”; and when the orchestra swells with the introductory notes of your beloved piece, you are transported.

At 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater, Chautauqua Opera Company’s Apprentice Artists will sing only the favorites in their end-of-season pops concert, “Water Matters: Broadway — The Great Wet Way,” with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.

After programming the Opera Highlights concert to reflect Chautauqua’s “Water Matters” theme during Week Four, the opera staff had a long list of water-related music that did not fit in the July 14 concert. Keeping the water topic for the Apprentice Artists’ second symphony concert seemed like the obvious choice.

Included in Saturday’s offerings are selections from Carousel, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls and The Pirates of Penzance.

Musical theater makes up a significant portion of the opera program’s training, debunking the myth that opera singers are too serious for show tunes. Aside from equipping its students with crowd-pleasers to perform at parties and dinners, Chautauqua Opera’s staff sees qualities in Broadway music that communicate the same integrity found in operatic scores.

“When Peter Schickele — or P.D.Q. Bach — used to have his radio show, he used to say, ‘Good music is good, no matter what the genre,’” said Carol Rausch, Chautauqua Opera’s music administrator. “And I believe that, too. … I think it’s especially important for the young artists, because more and more companies — and I mean big companies — are doing musical theater. The Lyric Opera of Chicago just did Show Boat. Glimmerglass Opera is doing The Music Man this summer. You have to be that versatile.”

In addition to staying abreast of emerging conventions, Guest Conductor Stuart Chafetz — a freelance conductor and principal timpanist in the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra — believes singers should know their own musical heritage.

“It’s important to understand the background of Broadway as an American art form,” Chafetz said.

Musical theater is trendy and historically important, but it also offers qualities that are highly valued in operatic performance.

“Some of the best people in opera have had a lot of musical theater experience,” Rausch said. “They move well, they dance well, they know how to communicate, and there’s an ease to it that you can bring to your operatic work.”

Soprano Rachel Sliker agrees.

“I find that when I go back to opera after singing show tunes, it’s freer, easier and better,” she said.

Sliker will sing “Mister Snow” from Carousel, a song she has sung since her childhood.

Likewise, bass-baritone Zack Rabin has been singing “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat since age 10.

“I’m particularly excited to sing ‘Ol’ Man River,’ because my dad will be in town, and he’s heard me sing that since I was 10,” Rabin said. “And I’ve never done it with an orchestra.”

Singing with an orchestra affords singers an opportunity to let loose. Singing with a piano means holding back in a lot of cases, because indulging the full volume and power of an operatic voice would overpower the piano.

Tonight, the Apprentice Artists will not hold back. With an orchestra, they can use all their breath and shift their dynamic range.

“It’s like healthy screaming,” said tenor Ben Gulley.

“We can ride the orchestra,” Sliker said, “because it’s just so cushion-y, instead of the percussive piano.”

“This is literally getting to play,” Gulley said. “We’re getting to use our voices in ways we never get to. And that’s super freeing. We don’t get to take as many liberties in opera as we do with this.”

Gulley, Sliker and Rabin are all singing on the two selections that will be accompanied by pianist Sterling Price-McKinney, rather than the orchestra. Price-McKinney was the musical director for both musical theater revues this season, and arranged selections from Lady in the Dark, Marie Galante and Anything Goes!

“I’m really looking forward to this concert,” Rausch said. “In the new format of Chautauqua Opera, it comes last. It’s kind of good to have something on the lighter side come last.”

Gulley thinks the familiar, fun tunes and lack of rules and conventions help draw audiences to pops concerts — a buoyant, fitting way to end the season.

“We literally end on a high C in ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’ from Guys and Dolls,” Gulley said.