Yan Li understands the challenge the Chautauqua Opera Company’s Young Artists face.
He came from the classical world, trained as a classical pianist and composer. He knows the changes he and Andy Gale have asked the Young Artists to make are not easy. They continue to ask, though.
“It’s like taking a ballroom dancer and saying ‘Now you’re going to tap a little,’ ” Li said. “This is kind of what we’re doing with them.”
The reason why the two guest instructors do it is simple: it will make the artists better.
Community members will have the chance to find out how much better at 10 p.m. Wednesday in the Athenaeum Hotel Parlor as Chautauqua Opera presents its final Young Artist Open Mic Night of the season.
Like the Young Artists themselves, this open mic event has undergone some changes — not in its time or in its place, but in its repertoire. Replacing the more classical performance pieces of Open Mic Nights past is a repertoire that Gale said is “distinctively, uniquely American”: musical theater.
“The thing about the repertoire we’re talking about, it’s America’s gift,” Gale said.
For those performing Wednesday, America’s gift hasn’t been given without first putting in the work.
Musical theater, in the notation of its music, is vastly different than an operatic score. To begin to explain this, Gale taps the spirit of famed American composer Leonard Bernstein.
Bernstein once alluded to the fact that there is music that is exact, and there is music that is inexact. Exact music, according to Bernstein, is a more appropriate moniker for classical music. The notes that are on the page are the notes that are sung.
“We have to notate music,” Gale said, “but the notation of musical theater and popular music is rather more of a road map than ‘You need to sing it this way because that’s what’s on the page.’ ”
Musical theater as a genre provides a much broader avenue of interpretive leeway than opera, Gale said. As the Young Artists learn to take advantage of that leeway, they become stronger performers not only in the world of musical theater — which opera companies do occasionally perform — but within the opera world as well.
“Since we dwell on the words and we look at phrasing and how you sing the words in a different way, it can’t help but affect how they look at a role in opera,” Gale said.
It’s an interesting opportunity in that it offers freedom where there commonly exists very little. Singers are usually told — by score, libretto, directors or choreographers — exactly what it is they need to do, Gale said. So this sudden freedom can be jarring and, in some sense, uncomfortable.
“Singers, in their own way, are going to go, ‘Oh, you want this to be about me?’ ” Gale said.
In a word: yes.
In presenting a musical theater repertoire, Gale said, the Young Artists are not characters in an opera — they’re themselves. As such, audience members will see an intimate performance and have a chance to get to know the Young Artists in an up-close and personal way.
As the accompanist for the Open Mic event in addition to coaching the Young Artists, Li finds himself taking two distinct, but equally important, approaches. One has him joining the singers as a scene partner. The other has him tapping and channeling their efforts appropriately.
“Half is figuring out how to vibe on their frequency,” Li said. “The other half is taking some of the learned mannerisms and techniques that are their go-to instinct in classical training and pivoting that toward the musical theater genre.”
The result is more than something that can only be classified as American.
“It’s really about putting the human element back into determining what’s actually being performed,” Li said.