MSFO, Opera Conservatory students join forces to bring Puccini to Amphitheater stage

Under the baton of Timothy Muffitt, students in the Music School Festival Orchestra and Opera Conservatory rehearse for their production of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica Sunday in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall. Jess Kszos/Staff Photographer

Zoe Kolenovsky
Staff writer

In a night characterized by grief, loss, hilarity, and hope, students from the Chautauqua Opera Conservatory and Music School Festival Orchestra will guide the audience through an exploration of family and community that reveals the tragedy and comedy in our own lives.

The joint performance at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater represents a collaboration between the School of Music’s Instrumental Program and Opera Conservatory, and consists of two one-act operas written by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini of La Bohème fame, produced as part of a series titled Il Trittico, or “The Triptych.”

The program opens with the middle of the three in the original series. Suor Angelica is a tragedy, and the concluding opera, Gianni Schicchi is a comedy. 

Each is just under an hour long, but in that short amount of time, Puccini’s music “takes you to places you, emotionally, couldn’t even imagine going,” said Timothy Muffitt, artistic director of the School of Music and conductor of the MSFO.

He said handling such thematically conflicting scores requires technical expertise.

This dexterity of passion asks a lot of the orchestra’s members, but Muffitt said the highly-trained students are “accustomed to a broad range of expressive demands” and thus are “well adapted and ready to do this.”

Even without the first act, Il Tabarro, which stage director John Matsumoto Giampetro said requires more “maturity vocally,” the preparation process for this evening’s show is still incredibly demanding, as the program will include twice as much music in the same amount of rehearsal time.

“I’ve never done something like that before,” said Kate Reynolds, a violist in the MSFO. 

The students of Chautauqua Opera Conservatory have their own set of challenges that come with preparing for such an intense performance.

“It’s very difficult ensemble music,” Matsumoto Giampetro said. “It presents itself as a light, effervescent, luminous piece, but it is very complex musically.”

Muffitt has nothing but praise for the hard work of the Chautauqua Opera Conservatory in advance of this evening’s show, and said “the cast is absolutely extraordinary, dramatically and vocally. What John (Matsumoto) Giampetro does with the staging is so powerful and moving and funny and everything it needs to be. He’s a master at stage direction.” 

Muffitt has been attending Conservatory rehearsals for the past two weeks, in addition to the MSFO’s, in order to better coordinate the efforts of the two programs to prepare tonight’s show.

Matsumoto Giampetro, who serves as associate director of the Conservatory, is grateful to this partnership between the School of Music’s programs for giving his students the chance to develop technically and professionally.

“One of the best parts of this collaboration with the MSFO and one of the most important elements of a young singer’s development is having the opportunity to work and to sing with an orchestra,” he said. “They get to hear all of the orchestration, all of the colors. And they can react and respond to this, whereas in rehearsal, it’s a piano trying to be the entire orchestra.”

Facilitating this development is the principal goal for the Opera Conservatory, formerly the Voice Program within the School of Music which was brought under the same umbrella as the Chautauqua Opera Company in 2022. Chautauqua Opera Company and Conservatory has operated under the joint leadership of Chautauqua Opera General and Artistic Director Steve Osgood and Opera Conservatory Director Marlena Malas.

Less than two years after that integration, it was announced two weeks ago that programming for both Chautauqua Opera and the Opera Conservatory would be reduced in 2024 in response to lingering financial challenges brought on by COVID-19. By 2025, according to Institution officials, the plan is for Chautauqua Opera Company and Conservatory to be incubator of new works — pivoting away from large student performances and toward a workshop-based model. 

While community members have continued to express concerns over the program’s diminished capacity, Matsumoto Giampetro said the students’ training will remain a priority.

“Our mission is to focus on the development of young singers to train them to sing beautifully, to train them as singing actors, and to have more engagement with music and the world around them as they develop into artists,” he said. “So that’s our mission; that’s always been our mission. And that will continue to be our mission even as these changings and reimaginings take place. … (As for) what it will actually look like in 2025, there’s still a conversation going on.”

In the meantime, the students are throwing themselves wholeheartedly into tonight’s performance, which begins with Suor Angelica.

“Angelica is a young woman who has found herself ostracized from her family,” said Marquita Richardson, who is set to perform the titular role. “She has been sent to live in a convent and to kind of pay for her past, and she’s hoping to reconcile. But in the meantime, she has spent seven years with this community of sisters and tried to find her way, or at least try to find her place among them.”

This idea of sisterhood has become a grounding theme for the cast in the process of preparing the opera.

“John’s vision has really set a place and sense of community among these women,” said LaDejia Bittle, who plays La Zia Principessa, Angelica’s princess aunt. “Even though it’s not necessarily a religious idea that he has in mind … it’s still a very communal place.”

Richardson said this narrative extends to the cast’s journey, as they grow closer to one another through the process of getting to know the opera’s story.

“We did a lot of table work at the very beginning of just how we were personally impacted by the piece. Just hearing their stories and having people open up about where this piece met them has been really interesting,” she said. “It’s brought us closer as our own little community of women.”

The newfound community between Suor Angelica’s cast members has grown to include members of the MSFO as well, as their close proximity on the grounds and partnership in preparing for this opera has facilitated warm relationships.

“I think that the orchestra and opera collaboration is always a great thing,” said Bittle. “I’ve been to each of the Monday night concerts with the School of Music orchestra because I have a couple of friends there that my castmates and I like to support.”

With two more operas in the wings for the students in the Opera Conservatory this summer, tonight’s performance is the only opportunity Chautauquans will have this season to experience this collaboration on such a large scale. Muffitt said “there’s some vocal chamber music that may be happening, but this is the only big event” produced by the two programs in conjunction this summer.

The night concludes with Gianni Schicchi, the lighthearted complement to Suor Angelica’s earnest exploration of family and loss. 

The story follows the Donati family in the aftermath of the death of their patriarch, Buoso. A time usually marked by grief and despair is revealed to be more aligned with apathy and avarice, though, when they discover that Buoso left his fortune to a monastery instead of the remaining relatives. Outsider Gianni Schicchi steps in to help the family in their time of need, impersonating Buoso in what soon becomes a comically tangled web of deception.

“Gianni Schicchi is incredibly intelligent and a natural-born actor,” said YeongTaek Yang, who will be delivering his rendition of the character tonight. “This work has been a very beneficial time for me, and I’m looking forward to communicating that joy with the audience.”

There is truly much joy to be had this evening, with such talented performers giving life to a critically acclaimed score, Matsumoto Giampetro said.

“The music is heavenly; quite literally, heavenly,” he said. “Audiences respond to Puccini: the lushness, the melodic richness of the score. So they’re going to get a feast for the ears, but they’re also going to be immersed in this really human drama … and this magical comedy.”

Muffitt noted Puccini’s compositional prowess, that “he was a master at orchestration, at color, at ambiance, at writing character into music, at writing drama into music … To me, that sets him apart in the world of opera.”

“Puccini really created a little masterpiece,” said Richardson. “It has drama and little things that make you smile, but also just explores such depths of grief and loss and hope. … I’m really looking forward to being swept up in the sound and the story and finally being able to invite audiences to go along for the ride with us.”


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