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Union Avenue Opera springs forward with Handel's 'Acis and Galatea' this weekend

In Performing Arts

8:13 am on Tue, 04.24.12

Opera in April? In St. Louis?

In a word, yes.

For 17 years, Union Avenue Opera’s season kicked off in summer. Now the company has decided to open in April in the hopes of reaching more people and helping the bottom line, said Scott Schoonover, founder and music director.

“No matter what opera we did in the second half of July, we lost money. But in early July and late August, we sold out productions,” Schoonover said during a rehearsal break. “It didn’t matter if we did Verdi or tried operetta, in late July it didn’t fill the house. April is an experiment.”

So Union Avenue 18th season opens at 8 p.m., Fri., April 27, with George Frideric Handel's opera “Acis and Galatea.” English playwright John Gay, best known for “The Beggar’s Opera,” wrote its lyrics. The new production’s three performances continue at 8 p.m., Sat., April 28 and at 3 p.m., Sun., April 29. 

Summer season

Union Avenue Opera resumes June 29, 30 and July 6, 7 with Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” and Aug. 17, 18, 24 and 25 with Wagner’s “Das Rheingold.” Both operas are  sung in original languages. (The company expects to present “Die Walkure” in 2012, “Siegfried” in 2014 and "Götterdämmerung" in 2015.) Tickets range from $30-$52; subscriptions, $85-$111. For tickets, call 314-361-2881.

Schoonover’s not stepping on other companies' toes with an April opening. Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents its season in May and June, and for the past five years, Winter Opera has claimed various weekends from November to early March.

Of course, Union Avenue's season has traditionally been in July and August. 
This summer, it will resume its split season with two more productions, a Verdi opera and its first Wagner opera.

Springtime when love is in the air

Springtime just might be the perfect time for Handel's “Acis and Galatea,” with its shepherds and sea nymphs singing about love. The opera, based on the Roman poet Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” was popular in England in Handel’s time because the English poet John Dryden had translated it into English. Gay’s often witty lyrics with a bit of parody of musical conventions add to the charm.

In 1718, just five years after the German-born Handel moved to England, he organized the opera’s world premiere outdoors in an English garden on the estate of the Duke of Chandos.

“We thought about doing it on the church’s front lawn, it’s a big lawn. But after standing out on Union Boulevard a few minutes, well it was just too noisy,” Schoonover said.

Instead, the company is bringing the outdoors inside. Flowering bushes, small trees and potted flowers will fill the stage in the church sanctuary for the weekend.

The Handel opera is a tale of love between Acis, a dashing shepherd, and Galatea, a semi-divine sea nymph. "Love in her eyes sits playing,” a reflection on how Galatea looks at Acis, is among the opera’s best known arias. And the couple swears everlasting love in the ravishingly beautiful aria “Happy We.”

The opera’s music is what seems immortal. Nearing its 300th anniversary, “Acis and Galatea” is the only one of Handel's operas that has never left the operatic repertory.

Singers embellish their performance

Like other early opera composers, Handel depended on royal patrons to pay their bills. To please them, they chose wildly romanticized plots in what is known as the Italian grand seria style.

Baroque opera seria encourages artists to embellish, to create their own riffs on the composer's written notes. In a Baroque da capa style aria, the singer sings exactly what a composer has written for part A of the aria. Then when the score calls for a reprise of part A, singers can let loose with their own embellishments. 

Marc Schapman
Marc Schapman

Tenor Marc Schapman sings Acis, a handsome Sicilian shepherd. He also sang the role two years ago at the Duluth Opera. (In St. Louis, last January, he sang the more familiar dance master in Winter Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne Auf Naxos.”) 

The Iowa native combines performances in American opera companies with his post as an award-winning professor of voice and director of graduate studies in music at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. He also teaches Opera Theatre of St. Louis' high school students in the Artists in Training outreach program.

“I love this role” of Acis, Schapman said during a rehearsal break. “It’s more challenging than, say, doing Puccini or Verdi.”

In early operas, including Handel’s operas, singers are challenged to heighten the emotional expression of the music and the story, he said. With two years to reflect on the embellishments that he sang in Duluth, he’s developed interesting vocal ideas.

“They are fun, but Scott does have to approve them,” Schapman said. “My character is so fueled by his passion for the beautiful Galatea.  The opera is about love, the most human and raw emotion.”

At nearly all American opera companies, singers sing their own riffs first for the music director and conductor. Then they sing them in rehearsal, so the full cast and orchestra can anticipate their timing. It takes an intelligent opera singer with a supportive, honest vocal coach to come up with embellishments that reflect the emotions of the story and show off the singer's vocal strengths.

Embellishments were wildly abused in Handel’s day and well into the early 20th century. Singers went nuts with riffs and egomaniacal repeats. Wise coaches and conductors prevent singers from looking foolish. 

Juliet Petrus
Juliet Petrus

The production’s other title role, Galatea, belongs to Juliet Petrus. It’s her first time to sing Galatea, but in 2007 and 2008 when she was in the Glimmerglass Young American Artist program, she learned Handelian embellishments in master classes with Lisa Saffer, a respected Handelian soprano from Boston.

Weeks ago, as Petrus was preparing to sing Galatea, she worked with Saffer again on embellishments. Generally, if the singers embellishes the written music by taking it to higher notes than the composer wrote, the singer needs to end the embellishment in the range of the composer’s own notes, she said. Knowing the rules, Petrus also knows when she can take the liberty to bend them. She’ll bend that rule, just once in a soaring Act One aria.

“I can do that” because this production is not strictly historical with sets and costumes as Handel would have, she said. “I love having the freedom to do my own embellishments.”

Her contemporary work includes singing Violet Beauregard in a preliminary workshop session of Peter Ash’s "The Golden Ticket" with the American Lyric Theatre in New York before its world premiere at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. She sat in the audience here to see the OTSL world premiere of it and to see her friend Ash's thrilling success, she said.

Petrus lives with her husband and 2-year-old son in Chicago, where she also teaches voice at Harold Washington College, one of Chicago’s City Colleges.  Petrus grew up in Detroit and spent summers in her parents’ cottage in Pentwater, Mich., on a Lake Michigan beaches that had St. Louis audiences AOL for UAO July offerings.

Finding the drama in the opera

For years productions of early music operas, such as this one by Handel, had the singers standing almost in a line in front of the foot lights –- often candles -- where they rarely moved but for stylized embraces and stabbings.

“This won’t be a ‘stand-and-shout-Handel,” tenor Schapman said. Under St. Louisan Allyson Ditchey’s direction, the cast is making the acting seem fluid and grounded, he said.

“My concept is a beautiful painting come alive,” Ditchey said.

She’s working with the singers to create graceful choreography, not just in the brief dances but in all movements, to make the story flow. For example, she spent seven minutes at the first staged rehearsal arranging the legs of nymphs and shepherds as they sat on the grass for a picnic. When she got them on their feet again, she aimed for an elegant diagonal line in their stage movement.

She’s also helping them try Baroque theatre hand and arm gestures, which were a standard theatrical sign language of the 18th century. These include gestures that anyone might observe from a café on any Italian piazza. If you put a finger near your eye, for example, to a Baroque audience, the gesture means you are weeping. To scratch the head with just one finger indicates weakness.

Most hand movements the company is using are more intuitive, ones that any of us might observe wherever people are -- in airport lines in bad weather or on a sidewalk seeing a meter maid ticket their car. For example, if an actor is offered a hand to shake but draws back without shaking, that shows suspicion 

Baroque opera expert Christine Armistead, a founding member of the St. Louis Early Music Ensemble and Washington University vocal professor, helped the cast with hand movement at a special session. She will return to tweak their efforts just before Friday’s opening night.

“It does not matter if everyone doesn’t understand every movement; it gives it style,” said Schoonover who is also conducting this production.

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