Wei Wu returns to CU, where he started in opera

Now a guest artist in same role, same opera, same set, same stage, ten years later

By Peter Alexander Oct. 20 at 10:10 p.m.

Wei Wu left Beijing in 2008, a young bass singer with his eyes on a career in opera. The first place he came outside of China was Colorado, to study with Julie Simpson at the CU-Boulder College of Music.

He remained in Boulder for five years, singing in most productions during those years, and graduated with a master’s degree in 2013. The first full opera role he sang anywhere was on the Macky stage, in the role of Colline in Puccini’s La Bohéme.

Wei Wu as Colline in the current CU production of “La Bohéme”

This weekend he returns to the Macky stage, in the role of Colline in Puccini’s La Bohéme—and in the very same set as ten-plus years ago! (You can read about the opera and the current production here.) He will appear in all three performances presented by the Eklund Opera program, Friday through Sunday (Oct. 21–23; details below).

“It’s been like 10 years and that was the first production I did, and I’m so happy to be back,” Wu says. “Boulder has been so special to me and to my wife too, because Colorado is the first state I came to. I just love Colorado.”

Indeed, he loves Colorado so much that he has moved back to Boulder permanently. His operatic career is well established, he has an agent who can land roles for him with opera companies around the country, his wife has a job in Boulder, and he still has many friends here who are “more like a family member to us,” he says. After several years in New York, he was happy to return to a place he loves. 

Leigh Holman

Leigh Holman, the director of the Eklund Opera Program and stage director for La Bohéme is equally happy to have him here. “It’s been great for the students for him to work right alongside of them,” she says. “They have the opportunity to ask him questions and get to know him as a person, but also ask him about his experiences as a young artist.”

Wu’s experiences after leaving CU have been a model for rising young singers. After graduating, he landed a position in the Domingo Young Artist Program at Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. From D.C. he moved to New York for several years, in order to be close to auditions and agents that could help him launch into the professional world.

Weigh Wu (r) with Ken Howard (l) as Steve Jobs at the Santa Fe Opera, 2017. Photo by Ken Howard.

He sang with several companies, but his breakthrough came in 2017 when he sang the role of Kōbun, Steve Jobs’s guru, in the world premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by Mason Bates at the Santa Fe Opera. I reviewed that production on the Sharpsandflatirons blog, writing that he “sang with a deep resonant bass as Kōbun. In a role filled with both wisdom and wry humor, he captured the changing nuances perfectly.” (See the full review here.)

“That was my career turning point, singing in Santa Fe,” Wu says. “The world premiere brought me many other world premieres, doing more new operas. And on that they did a live recording that won the Grammy!”

His Chinese family has come to visit him in Colorado, but he has not been able to return to Beijing since the pandemic hit. His family played a large role in his interest in music: his grandfather played trumpet in jazz bands in the 1950s, and when he was growing up in the ‘80s, his father had cassette recordings of classical music.

Wu admits to a certain amount of culture shock when he first arrived in the US, and credits Holman with helping him adjust. “She was definitely one of my big mentors during my student years, who opened up my mind and helped me develop a lot,” he says. “She gave me a lot of opportunities to touch something as me.” 

His sang roles that certainly were not stereotyped for an Asian singer, including Jigger in Carousel and the sexually predatory southern preacher Olin Blitch in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. Asked about his mastery of Southern English, he said that he has a good ear for accents, then sang out, “Howdy Brethren and sisters!” with a good touch of twang.

After the production of Bohéme in Macky, Wu has some exciting professional engagements coming up. Next will be Tosca in Los Angeles in November and December, and Bellini’s Norma at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in February and March. And The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs continues to pay dividends: he will sing in a new production that was co-commissioned by several companies around the country, including the Utah Opera, where you can see him May 6–14, 2023 in Salt Lake City.

Now that he lives in Boulder, there may be more guest appearances with the Eklund Opera as well. “As long as the schedule works out, I would love to,” he says. 

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Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème
CU Eklund Opera, Leigh Holman, stage director
Nick Carthy, conductor

7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct.21, and Saturday, Oct. 22
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23
Macky Auditorium

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Eklund Opera brings 19th-century Paris to Macky

Puccini’s La Bohème, opera’s ‘gateway drug,’ Friday through Sunday

By Peter Alexander Oct. 19 at 4:12 p.m.

Leigh Holman

“It’s the gateway drug for opera, because I think it’s the best first opera that anybody could ever see.”

Leigh Holman, the director of CU’s Eklund Opera, is talking about Puccini’s La Bohème, the current CU production that opens Friday at Macky Auditorium (7:30 p.m. Oct. 21). “It’s not only the story and the singing and the music, but the pacing of the piece is brilliant,” she says.

Other performances of the production will take place in Macky Saturday and Sunday (7:30 p.m. Oct. 22 and 2 p.m. Oct. 23; ticket information below). Holman is the stage director of the production, and Nicholas Carthy conducts. Guest artist Wei Wu, a 2013 graduate of CU who is building a professional career in the US, will appear in the bass role of Colline. Other parts and the orchestra will be filled with current CU music students.

Miguel Ángel Ortega Bañales as Rodolfo, Sarah Cain as Mimi

If you don’t know the story, four young starving artists share a garret in Paris. They are poor, making money as they can, but at the start of the opera they are freezing and burning their work to keep warm. One of the four, the writer Rodolfo, meets Mimi, an equally impoverished seamstress, and they fall in love.

Rodolfo and Mimi join the other Bohemians for a Christmas eve dinner at the Café Momus. This scene, filled with families, children, street vendors, waiters and patrons of the café, is brilliant and spirited, introducing Musetta, the fiery girlfriend of Rodolfo’s roommate Marcello. The rest of the opera traces the passions and the breakups of the two couples, until Mimi returns to the garret deathly ill.

The characters’ emotional ups and downs always touch the hearts of audiences. “It’s a brilliant score,” Holman says. “The music’s great, in depicting what anybody’s feeling at any time. And the pacing’s brilliant— just when you think you can’t take any more heartache, somebody’s celebrating and you’re brought along in that.”

Another reason the characters touch people’s hearts is that they are relatable. Just like the Bohemians, most of us have passed through a stage of hopes and struggles at some point in our lives. And at CU the students in the cast are the same age as the characters.

Conductor Nicholas Carthy

Popular as it is, La Bohéme is not easy to produce. Carthy points out that unlike professional companies , CU can’t do whatever they want. “The difference between us and an opera company is that they look at what they want to do and go get the singers; we look at the singers and decide what we want to do,” he says.

The key to performing Bohéme is the role of Rodolfo, which vocally requires a slightly more mature singer than the others. “You have to build it around Rodolfo,” he says. “That’s going to be a slightly older voice.” 

When you have someone who can fit that role, then you put the others in place. In this case, all the parts were cast with students except Colline, one of the four sharing the garret. His role calls for a strong bass, particularly in the aria he sings in Act IV, a farewell to his overcoat. For Colline, CU invited Chinese bass and CU grad Wei Wu back to campus. (Watch here for a separate feature on Wei Wu.)

The score is also a challenge for the conductor. Arturo Toscanini, who conducted the premiere of Bohéme in 1896, once said if you can conduct Bohéme, you can conduct anything. “It’s a massive piece of organization,” Carthy explains, “especially the second act when you’ve got all sort of different chorus voices.

“You’ve got the kids’ chorus singing different things, you’ve got the chorus split into mothers and vendors and waiters, and all the people selling different foods. But it’s the most glorious, glorious thing you can conduct!”

On top of that, the conductor and the orchestra have to be very, very flexible, he says. The tempo keeps shifting throughout, to make the musical phrases expressive. “I told the orchestra, this is music that is so flexible that if you look down, if you’re not concentrating, when you look again I won’t be where you think I am.”

This is a mater of “rubato,” to use the musical term, which means slowing down to stretch one phrase or emphasize one word of the text, then resuming the former tempo. “Taking time isn’t the problem,” Carthy says. “Once you’ve taken the time, it’s getting the momentum back. They find that more difficult. Any orchestra—any professional orchestra would find that.”

Sarah Cain as Mimi and Miguel Ángel Ortega Bañales as Rodolfo in the opera’s final scene

Opera companies around the world, and university opera programs as well, include La Bohéme in their programs again and again. That is a tribute to Puccini’s success in communicating the emotions of the opera’s young characters. And once the emotions reach listener’s hearts, they stay there. “Many opera buffs have been going to operas since they were young,” Holman says. “And they keep coming back to Bohéme.

“Once you get hooked on La Bohéme, we keep those fans forever!”

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Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème
CU Eklund Opera, Leigh Holman, stage director
Nicholas Carthy, conductor

7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct.21, and Saturday, Oct. 22
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23
Macky Auditorium

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GRACE NOTES

Sept. 22 at 10:30 a.m.

CU Music grad featured in Opera News

Patrick Bessenbacher (r) as Tony with Christine Honein as Maria in CU production of West Side Story. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa)

Tenor Patrick Bessenbacher, a 2020 graduate of the CU-Boulder College of Music who went on to graduate studies at Juilliard, is featured in the “Sound Bites” column in the October 2022 issue of Opera News.

Bessenbacher, who studied voice with assoc. prof. Matthew Chellis at CU, appeared in several productions of the CU Eklund Opera. He was Lurcanio in Handel’s Ariodante in the spring of 2018, Tony in West Side Story in Macky Auditorium in the fall of 2018,  George Bailey in Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life in Macky in 2019, and Benedict in a COVID-influenced online production of Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict in 2020. 

Opera News reports that Bessenbacher performed this past summer with Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and will join Florentine Opera in Milwaukee, Wisc., as a Baumgartner Studio Artist for the current season.

The October 2022 issue of Opera News has only just arrived in mailboxes this week, and is available online to subscribers only.

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Cliburn Competition gold medalist will play solo recital Monday at Macky

Yunchan Lim

Pianist Yunchan Lim, who at 18 became the youngest gold medalist in the history of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June of this year, will play a solo recital featuring the music of Brahms, Mendelssohn and Liszt at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 26, in Macky Auditorium.

Lim’s recital is part of the CU Presents Artist Series at Macky. 

In addition to the Gold Medal, Lim won the Audience Award and the Best Performance of a New Work at the 2022 Cliburn Competition. A native of Korea, he was accepted at age 13 into the Korea National Instituted for the Gifted in Arts, where he began studies with Minsoo Sohn. He is currently in his second year at the Korea National University of Arts, where he continues to study with Sohn.

Lim’s complete program will be:

  • Brahms: Four Ballades, op. 10
  • Mendelssohn: Fantasy in F-sharp Minor, op. 28 (“Scottish Sonata”)
  • Liszt: Deux légendes
    —Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata

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Portions of new opera to be presented Sunday

Kamala Sankaram’s Joan of the City is inspired by homelessness and Joan of Arc

By Peter Alexander June 17 at 5:23 p.m.

Composer Kamala Sankaram says that many of the pieces she writes start with her own imagination and not the way many operas get written— with a commission for a specific performing organization. 

“They start with a crazy idea that I have” Sankaram says. “Then I talk to people and see who also is crazy.” She then works with the “also crazy” people to bring her idea to life.

Kamala Sankaram

For her latest project, an opera titled Joan of the City that combines themes of homelessness with the Joan of Arc story, those conversations led her to Leigh Holman, director of the Eklund Opera Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the New Opera Workshop (CU NOW).

Sankaram has been in Boulder for the past two weeks, composing music and working with students in the opera program to start turning her “crazy idea” into a site-specific opera that will be premiered next year by Opera Omaha. Completed portions of Joan of the City will be performed at 3 p.m. Sunday (June 19) in the Music Theatre of Imig Music Building.

The performance is free and open to the public, and will take place entirely in the Music Theatre space.

The basic idea of the opera is that not one but five Joans will be fighting, not the English invaders in France, but gentrification and other forces creating homelessness in American cities. Starting in five different places within Omaha, the Joans eventually meet up, as audiences move with them through the city.

Sankaram grew up in Southern California, where the car is king, but after she moved to New York she started walking everywhere. “Whenever I go to a new city I’m walking, and I see the homeless community,” she says. “I think it’s important to have people see what does that feel like, to be walking the city, instead of driving by in a car.

“I started thinking about [homelessness] several years ago, and it has become increasingly problematic and prevalent . . . [in] all places across the United States. So the idea was how do you get people to look and see things that they normally look past.”

Another idea was the use of technology, which features in a lot of Sankaram’s work. It is technology that will allow the onsite performances in Omaha to take place in different places across the city, and also will allow audience members to participate in the performance by playing audio from their cell phones.

The final piece of Sankaram’s “crazy idea” was working with homeless agencies—Mary’s Place in Seattle and Micah House in Omaha—to connect the finished work to the homeless community. With her co-creator of Joan of the City, New York-based hybrid-theater director Kristin Marting, Sankaram and the homeless shelters presented writing workshops for the shelter clients.

Leigh Holman (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

The work that came from those workshops became the basis of the text for Joan of the City. “The libretto is all these poems that the shelter clients wrote, and then they’re sort of structured on this overall dramatic arc from the Joan of Arc story,” Sankaram explains. “It starts off as arias and then as the Joans meet each other, it turns into duets and trios and finally a quintet.”

Sankaram’s work is an example of the kind of creative and adventurous projects that CU NOW aims to support. Many new works go through a workshop process, but CU NOW is unique in that it offers a longer than average period for composers to work with performers while refining their work. 

The program is largely Holman’s brainchild. She started CU NOW in 2010, and it has offered several composers the opportunity to refine works that were in development, including It’s a Wonderful Life by Gene Scheer and Jake Heggie, which was premiered by Houston Grand Opera in 2016 and performed by the CU Eklund Opera in 2019.

The composers and works are chosen for CU NOW largely through Holman’s contacts in the professional world. “So far nobody has ever submitted anything (for consideration),” she says. “It’s only been knowing somebody or meeting somebody through relationships, or going to see their operas. I just invite them, and they do it because they want to develop their piece and we can provide the students and the facilities and the musicians.”

In addition to the work that is done by an established composer preparing a new piece, there is simultaneously an educational component for young composers. Under the rubric Composer Fellows’ Initiative (CFI), a composer and librettist have been brought in to work with students to develop both their musical skills and their understanding of stagecraft.

Tom Cipullo

This year, the students have been working with composer Tom Cipullo, whose comic opera Hobson’s Choice was featured at CU NOW in 2019, and librettist Gene Scheer, whose was in Boulder for CU NOW last year (Intelligence, with composer Jake Heggie) as well as 2016 (It’s a Wonderful Life). 

“It’s a marvelously thrilling thing to be a part of,” Cipullo says of CFI. The composers in this year’s program “are extraordinary young musicians,” he says. “CFI gives them a push into writing operas. They have an interest, they’re all talented. How much they’ll pursue it, what works they’ll create, who can say, [but] they jumped in and they’re doing some really good things.”

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CU Now Opera Workshop
(CUNOW)
Leigh Holman, director

Kamala Sankaram: Joan of the City (portions)

3 p.m. Sunday, June 19
Imig Music Building, Music Theatre (N1B95)

Free

CU Eklund Opera presents colorful ‘Postcard from Morocco’

Surrealistic opera by Dominick Argento Friday through Sunday in the Music Theatre

By Peter Alexander April 18 at 5:35 p.m.

Dominick Argento and John Donahue’s one-act opera Postcard from Morocco definitely doesn’t feature a postcard, it may not take place in Morocco, and it does not really have a plot.

Colorful characters in the CU Eklund Opera’s Postcard from Morocco by Dominick Argento

What it does have is seven curious and colorful characters who collide and interact while waiting for a train that may, or may not—shades of Waiting for Godot—ever arrive. The next production of CU’s Eklund Opera Program, this unique opera will be presented Thursday through Sunday in the Music Theater space of the Imig Music Building (see details and ticket information below).

The student performances are stage directed by Leigh Holman and conducted by Nicholas Carthy. Stage design is by Ron Mueller, with costumes by Ann Piano based on drawings by Maya Hairston-Brown.

If you think this does not sound like any other opera you’ve seen, you might be right. “In a normal opera, we get a plot and hints of a character,” Carthy says. “And in this one we get the character and hints of a plot.”

“We wanted to dig into this piece because it was different,” Holman says. “It’s a way for our singers to dig into a whole genre of opera that’s completely different from other things they’ve done. They have the freedom to really search for the characters they want to develop.”

The CU Eklund Opera’s set for Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco

In many ways, it is an ideal piece for a university opera program. “As an educational project it is perfect,” Carthy says. “Everybody’s onstage all the time. Everybody has an aria. People sing alone, people sing together, people sing in ensemble—basically it’s all there, and [the opera] is so astonishingly well put together.”

Beyond the educational advantages, Holman emphasizes the sheer fun of the piece. “There is a ton of humor in it,” she says. “There are many really funny moments. [During rehearsals] we are just guffawing. There are some very serious moments too, but it’s a nice ride for the audience.”

For Holman one of the pleasures of performing Postcard from Morocco is the fact that it is not often done. “There are no traditions to adhere to,” she says. “That opens up the students and the direction and the music to just do what you would like to do with it. It gives [the singers] space to dig in and find things” in each character.

The central conceit of the opera is that each character is carrying some kind of luggage or box with them. These vary from a cornet case to a paint box to a cake box, but none of the characters is willing to show the others what’s in their luggage. “Everyone has their little secret,” Carthy says. 

The seven characters of Postcard from Morocco with their luggage

This is a clear metaphor for the “baggage” that we all carry with us through life, which is one of the covert subjects of the opera. “We put on a facade of who we are and what we do, but very few people know what’s really going on inside,” Holman says. 

The characters—three women and four men—are deliberately kept mysterious, and only one of them has a name. “An eclectic bunch of characters demands an eclectic score,” Carthy says, and the score features a kaleidoscope of musical styles, from tap dancing to Richard Wagner. The latter appears several times, including a vaudeville scene ironically titled “Souvenirs de Bayreuth.”

Postcards is scored for a chamber ensemble of eight players, who will be costumed and placed onstage. In addition to the singing characters, there are two mimes, and “the maestro is one of the characters onstage, too,” Holman says. “He’s interacting [with the others].”

Carthy points out the many literary references in the libretto—everything from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, to James Joyce’s Ulysses, to The Odyssey, to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses. “You could spend a lifetime deconstructing it,” Carthy says. As for Stevenson’s poetry, “There’s little quotes, but [the opera] has nothing to do with that,” he says. “It’s far away from that.”

Ann Piano’s costumes feature drawings by Maya Hairston-Brown and a distinctive color for each character

The CU production aims for a kind of timelessness and placelessness that is neither Morocco nor not  Morocco. The sets and costumes will be as colorful as the characters, literally. Early in the design process, Holman studied the characters and assigned a color to each. “I had someone sketch little picture of the various things they supposedly hold in their containers, so you’ve got hats, shoes, a cornet,” she explains.

That artist, Maya Hairston-Brown, sent the sketches to a company that printed them on fabric, a different color for each character, and then costume designer Ann Piano turned the fabric into costumes. “This is really amazing,” Holman says. “We never loose sight of who’s who and who is connected to what.”

At the end of the opera, either a train arrives, or it doesn’t, depending on your interpretation. Everyone leaves the waiting room to go onto the outside platform, but, Holman says, “We don’t know if this is a fantasy, or what it is.”

You also get a small hint of what everyone has been hiding, but like so much else in the opera, it’s enigmatic. “It’s really up to the audience to figure out what it means,” Holman says.

“It’s Dadaist, it’s surrealist, it’s fun,” Carthy says, referring to artistic movements from the mid-20th century when the opera was written. “And it is such an incredible ride to go and see!”

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Postcard from Morocco by Dominick Argento and John Donahue

CU Eklund Opera Program
Leigh Holman, director, and Nicholas Carthy, conductor

7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 21
7:30 p.m. Friday, April 22
7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 23
2 p.m. Sunday, April 24
Music Theatre, CU Imig Music Building

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Eklund Opera travels to 1950s with Guys and Dolls

Performances Friday through Sunday at Macky Auditorium

By Peter Alexander March 9 at 5:07 p.m.

The Eklund Opera Theater at CU will transport audiences back seven decades this weekend.

Their production of Frank Loesser’s Tony Award-winning 1950 Broadway hit Guys and Dolls, certainly one of the greatest of the era’s classic musical shows, runs Friday through Sunday at Macky Auditorium (details below). Performances, featuring students in the opera and music theater programs, have been stage directed by Leigh Holman, with choreography by Tracy Doty. Nicholas Carthy conducts.

Sky Masterson (Ian Saverin)in Eklund Opera’s Guys and Dolls. Photo by Lily Valdez.

Based on stories by Damon Runyon, Guys and Dolls features characters from prohibition-era New York, including gamblers and their henchmen, nightclub “girls,” tough cops and Salvation Army missionaries. The main plot revolves around two pairs of potential lovers: the gambler Nathan Detroit and his long-waiting fiancée, nightclub singer Miss Adelaide; and the even flashier gambler Sky Masterson and the pious Salvation Army sergeant Sarah Brown.

Other Runyon-esque characters surrounding the leads include such colorful personalities as “Nicely-Nicely” Johnson, “Harry the Horse,” “Big Jule,” police lieutenant Brannigan, who is always one step behind the gamblers, and an ensemble of Hotbox Club dancers.

The Eklund production is set not in the prohibition times of Runyon’s stories, but in the 1950s of the show’s premiere—when alcohol was not illegal as in the ‘30s, but gambling still was: illegal and a little bit glamorous. Spoiler alert: this being golden-age Broadway, “it is a feel-good story,” Carthy says. At the end, the two couples get married and the leading men renounce their shady habits to adopt respectable lives.

Miss Adelaide (Annie Carpenter) and the Hotbox dancers. Photo by Lily Valdez.

As far as the 1950s are from today’s college students, Holman says the cast members were eager to do the show. “Students came out in droves to audition for this piece,” she says. “We were able to choose really good singers and dancers.”

Not only were students eager to audition, they have really immersed themselves in the show. “They are so absolutely committed to it,” Carthy says. “They put in the work, and it’s incredibly gratifying—they love it.”

Holman says they have also been doing their research into the time period. “They’re teaching us!” she says. “They’ve got the accents down, the way to walk—it’s made our job super easy. And there are so many references to things that don’t exist today: Brooks Brothers, Ovaltine, A&P, Whitney Colors”—the last being the livery colors for racehorses owned by the prominent and wealthy Whitney family.

As for the style of the classical Broadway musical, “they love it,” Holman says. “They really get the timing and the style of this type of musical.”

One thing Holman did have to teach was how to use a pay phone—something that was new and strange for the young people in the cast. “They said, ‘I’ve heard of it,’ Holman recalls. “I said, ‘You pick up the receiver, and then you put the coin in, and then you dial,’ and they’re doing it with me like it’s choreography. ‘You dial, and then you listen, those four steps: receiver, coin, dial, listen.’

Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Sam Bruckner) at the Save-A-Soul Mission. Photo by Lily Valdez.

“Nick and I are the caretakers of all the 20th century. We’re teaching whatever from the 20th century that these folks don’t know.”

Such details of life in the 1950s as forgotten brand names and pay phones are quaint, but it was also an era when social conventions were very different than they are today. It was a largely patriarchal society, and the women are looking for traditional 1950s marriages, but both Carthy and Holman are adamant that the show is not inherently sexist.

“I don’t see it,” Holman says. “Are there examples of men objectifying women? Of course there are. But the women don’t take it! They’re strong women! Adelaide is doing exactly what she wants to do, and Sarah is on a mission. But I don’t think any one of those women put up with much.”

“I do not think it’s a sexist piece in any way,” Carthy says. “It is a child of its time, and child of its time means it’s got fantastically witty dialog and amazing show tunes. It needs to be enjoyed for what it is: an intelligent, non-sexist story with fabulous music and dance.”

Holman is especially pumped about the dance. “The dance is not like anything you’ve seen at Eklund Opera before,” she says. “It’s worth the price of admission on its own! Tracy Doty, who did the choreography, has done wonders with them.”

In fact Holman is, as always during the rehearsal process, pumped about the whole show. “This is one of the strongest books I’ve ever been involved with,” she says. “There’s a lot of dialog, but it’s so brilliantly written, and it really does carry the story forward. We’ve had a lot of fun with that. We’re really excited to be doing this piece!”

For his part, Carthy summarizes the show’s longstanding popularity, saying, “It’s full of big tunes and witty text, (so) how could you not love it, really?”

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Guys and Dolls
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
CU Eklund Opera Theater

7:30 p.m. Friday, March 11, and Saturday, March 12
2 p.m. Sunday, March 13

Macky Auditorium

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Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly listed the photos as by Collin Ring. They were taken by Lily Valdez. We apologize for the error. Correction posted 3/10.

Eklund Opera presents ‘the perfect Verdi Opera’

CU production of La traviata will be in Macky Auditorium Oct. 22–24

By Peter Alexander Oct. 22 at 11:43 a.m.

Nicholas Carthy describes La traviata as “the perfect Verdi opera.”

Certainly one of the best known and most loved operas, La traviata is a production of the CU Eklund Opera, to be presented in Macky Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 22-23 and 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 24. As music director, Carthy will conduct the performances by student singers and the CU orchestra. Leigh Holman, director of Eklund Opera, is the stage director. 

The performances will be sung in Italian with projected titles in English. Tickets for all performances are available from the CU Presents Web page. Masks are required in all public indoor spaces on the CU Boulder campus, regardless of vaccination status.

The performances will be sung in Italian with projected titles in English. Tickets for all performances are available from cupresents.org/performances. Masks are required in all public indoor spaces on the CU Boulder campus, regardless of vaccination status.

Photo courtesy of Eklund Opera

Based on the 1848 novel by Alexandre Dumas the younger La Dame aux camélias (The lady of the camelias), La traviata tells the tragic story of Violetta, a high-society courtesan who falls in love with Alfredo, a young man from a respectable family. Alfredo and Violetta move together to the country in search of a quiet life together. 

Because of Violetta’s status as a social outcast, Alfredo’s father demands that she leave Alfredo, to clear the way for his younger daughter to have a respectable marriage. Under pressure, Violetta returns to her prior life in Paris, but she is suffering from tuberculosis, which took the lives of a quarter of the adult population of Europe in the 19th century.

The social issues of 19th-century Paris may seem remote, but Carthy says they are easy for today’s students to understand. “The idea of a disease that kills, and a family that disapproves is not terribly far away,” he says. 

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

CU Eklund Opera offers “toe-tapping good music”

Handel’s 1709 opera Agrippina will be streamed starting Friday

By Peter Alexander May 13 at 9:30 p.m.

“It’s toe-tapping good music,” Leigh Holman, director of the CU Eklund Opera Theater, says. “There’s always a beat going!”

George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner

She’s talking about the company’s next production, Handel’s 1709 opera Agrippina, which opens in a streamed production at 7:30 p.m. Friday (May 14). The stream, which is offered on a pay-what-you-can basis, will be available here for three weeks, until 11 p.m. Friday, June 4.

The opera was rehearsed and performed with strict observance of social distance protocols. After a postponement due to the March snowstorm, two casts were filmed over a single weekend in the Music Theater of the Imig Music Building. The singers will be accompanied by a reduced orchestra of five players under the direction of Nick Carthy.

Baroque opera can be a challenge for audiences, because the stories are often based on classical mythology or, in the case of Agrippina, Roman history that may be unfamiliar to modern listeners. The music is presented in a series of arias that expose emotions, alternating with recitatives that advance the action. With all the arias structured the same, the lack of variety can be monotonous.

“That’s where I come in,” Holman says, referring to all the ways she as director can make the show accessible and more fun to watch. In the case of Agrippina, a story about the rise of the infamous Roman emperor Nero, Holman and CU have placed the production the board room of a modern high-tech firm in Silicon Valley.

For longtime PBS fans, the story of Agrippina starts up where the 1976 TV series I, Claudius leaves off. Emperor Claudius’ wife Agrippina wants her son, Nero, to be the next emperor—or in the CU production, the next CEO. When a false report arrives of Claudius’ death, she goes into overdrive trying to position Nero for the top job.

Bust of Nero at the Capitoline Museum, Rome

When Claudius turns up alive, Agrippina tries to manipulate everyone—Nero, who desperately wants to be emperor; Ottone, who is madly in love with Poppea; Claudius, who also lusts for Poppea; Poppea herself; and several minor characters—to clear the way for Nero’s ascent. After many twists and turns, Claudius realizes that Nero wants to be emperor and Ottone wants to marry Poppea, which he facilitates. Everyone is happy—for the moment. (History tells more that is not in the opera.)

In spite of the high stakes game being played by everyone, Holman insists that the opera is funny. “It’s a comedy, and we really had a good time bringing that out,” she says. “There is a pair, Pallante and Narciso, [who] are goofballs.”

At the same time, there are arias that are serious. “The aria by Ottone, when he realizes that nobody wants him and he’s left all alone—he sings this gorgeous aria and it’s one of the most touching things in the world.

“But in the next scene you’ve got goofball antics.”

Leigh Holman

Holman had to get the students to find the right groove for the opera’s comedy. “I kept saying to the students, I know this is Handel, and I know that this music is hard for you to sing,” she says. “But for those moments that are funny, don’t be too reverent!”

Handel, Holman likes to point out, wrote operas for entertainment. “This is for people to enjoy,” she says. “There are some very touching moments, but most of all it’s just entertainment and there’s nothing wrong with that. We need that right now!”

This is the third Baroque opera Holman has directed at CU. There was Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea—which takes up where Agrippina leaves off—in 2015, and Handel’s Ariodante in 2018. “Baroque opera is a challenge, because the actors, the director and the conductor can find so much,” she says. 

“There’s so much room to dig without it being handed to you. It opens up lots of different different ways to play it. I think that’s fun.”

The difficulty of having so many arias strung together, all in the same structure—diagrammed ABA—Holman sees as another challenge to the performers. She asks the singers what changes during the aria. “How does the character change in that aria,” she asks, “during A and then the different music in the B section, and then going back (to A)—why does the character do that? That gets them to think about those things.”

The singers have responded to the challenges of Baroque opera. “These students are very serious,” Holman says. “The only thing they need to do is read about the history of these characters. They’re really good about it—they seem to enjoy it.”

Holman has no doubt that people will enjoy Agrippina. “The music’s beautiful, and this is one of the greatest groups of singers we’ve had at CU,” she says. “People that are attracted to opera because they want to hear good voices, they’re going to get it. If they like good storytelling, they’ll be really happy. If they like good acting, they’re going to see students that are doing far more than I could ever imagine.

“There’s something for everyone in this production.” 

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CU Eklund Opera
George Frideric Handel: Agrippina
Performed in Italian with English titles

Leigh Holman, stage director
Nicholas Carthy, music director

Stream available at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 14, though 11 p.m. Friday, June 4.

Full cast and credits, and pay-what-you-can access to the streamed performance, are here.

Opera in a time of pandemic

Following strict health protocols, CU stages Hansel and Gretel for streaming

By Peter Alexander Dec. 9 at 4:15 p.m.

Putting on a staged opera during a pandemic is challenge.

There are many restrictions: distancing of performers, at least 12 feet because of the spread of aerosols by singers; no orchestra in the pit; rehearsal and performance space having to be aired out every 30 minutes; and of course no audience.

Leigh Homan

All of those challenges and more have been met by CU Eklund Opera director Leigh Holman and music director Nicholas Carthy. Fully staged, streamed performances of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel will be available online starting at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11, through 11 p.m. Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

The pandemic has had a major effect on the CU opera program. But the students depend on their experiences at CU to prepare for their careers, and Holman and Carthy were not willing to lose a full year of students’ educations.

The pandemic arrived in March just as the opera program was preparing Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. “When we got in dress rehearsal for Figaro and that turned into nothing, the outpouring of both grief and love was enormous,” Carthy says.

The opera planned for the late spring was Beatrice and Benedict by Hector Berlioz. Unwilling to let it drop, Carthy and Holman found a way to record individual musical numbers with singers performing separately. Holman worked over the summer with a videographer to make those numbers available online (see the final product here.) 

After that, they turned their attention to the fall production. As it turns out, Hansel and Gretel is the ideal opera to produce at this time: the cast is small, the opera is fairly short, which made it easier to observe time limits singing together, and it is a Christmas tradition in many opera houses. And another benefit: CU produces the opera every few years, so there was a complete set and costumes in storage.

Nicholas Carthy

But obstacles remained, including the orchestra. “We were told by the College of Music in no uncertain terms that we could not have the orchestral members to do it,” Carthy says. But rather than deny the students the opportunity of singing with an orchestra, he entered the entire score into a music writing program and sampled the score through a symphonic sound library. The result is a sampled orchestra, using real players and instruments.

Carthy set the tempos throughout. The performance tempos are not rigid—there are ritardandos and accelerandos—but they will be the same each time. “My role changed from somebody whose sole object in the pit is to be with the singers, to somebody who has to force the singers to be with me,” Carthy explains.

Holman had her own obstacles. “We had quite a list of protocols that we needed to follow (to stay safe),” she says. “When we practiced the staging all of the singers wore masks.”

They had to limit the singing in rehearsals, Holman says, because “even if you sing through the mask it starts the clock, and you can only sing for 30 minutes before you have to leave the room for 15 minutes.”

For the early staging rehearsals, no one sang—a rehearsal pianist would play the score while the singers spoke their lines in rhythm. “Once we had a scene ready to sing through, they would take their masks off,” Holman says. “We sang for 30 minutes and then left the room.”

Linsey Duca, Tommy Bocchi and Kely Riordan observing social distancing in CU’s Hansel and Gretel

The staging too had to observe the protocols. The singers had to stay 12 feet apart. ”Our technical director Ron Mueller was so helpful in marking out the stage so that we knew exactly where 12 feet was,” Holman says.

“We tried to make it as active as possible but stay 12 feet apart——a lot of circles around the stage. There’s a sword fight with brooms but the brooms are six feet long, and we used little bandanas that they could use when they weren’t singing, or when (Hansel and Gretel) were asleep under the trees.”

The stored sets for Hansel and Gretel were designed for Macky Auditorium, but the rehearsals and recordings took place in the much smaller Music Theater. This meant individual set pieces had to be combined on the small stage; scenic artist Jennifer Melcher Galvin hand painted a backdrop that other set elements could fit into. “It is one of the stars of the show!” Holman says. “It really brings it all together.”

The performances will feature three different casts, two singing the original German and one singing an abridged version of the opera in English, designed for school outreach, that lasts about an hour. Purely orchestra material—the overture and the Witch’s Ride—are cut from both versions. All the performances were taped the weekend of Oct. 24–25.

Tenor Tommy Bocchi as the Witch

You will notice that in all three casts, the witch is sung by a male tenor. This is often done in opera houses, to give the witch an additional bit of humor and to add a man’s voice to a cast dominated by women. In CU’s case, there is another reason: a male witch gives more male students the opportunity to be cast. 

Although the origin of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale is quite dark, Carthy and Holman point out that the opera is more humorous than scary. In the opera, Carthy says, “It wasn’t an evil stepmother, it was a mother with two boisterous children and a headache. And the witch has to be so funny!”

Holman agrees. “This is a story about a real family who love each other but they are going through hard times,” she says.

It is overcoming the challenges of presenting opera at all that Holman keeps coming back to. “We really paid attention and stressed the protocols that our epidemiologist gave to us,” she says.

“Our singers were very, very serious about these protocols. I did want to make that point, because when people see the video of people on stage together, that can make them nervous. Everybody did take it so seriously. And we’re really proud of them about that.”

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Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck
CU Eklund Opera
Nick Carthy, conductor
Leigh Holman, stage director

Stream available from 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11, through 11 p.m. Monday, Feb. 15

Detailed program information and stream access available here.

NOTE: Edited for clarity 12/9/20

CU Eklund Opera production of “Marriage of Figaro” now available online

Spring performances were canceled due to Coronavirus

By Peter Alexander June 23 at 9 p.m.

The University of Colorado College of Music/Eklund Opera student production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro was in the final week of dress rehearsals in March.

PR still for the Eklund Opera production of Le Nozze di Figaro (Photo by Glenn Asakawa—University of Colorado)

The production, under the musical direction of conductor Nick Carthy and stage directed by Eklund Opera director Leigh Holman, promised to be an outstanding realization of one of the greatest—or the greatest—operas in the repertoire. (Read my original preview story in Boulder Weekly.)

But at one of the very last dress rehearsals, Holman had to tell the cast that all performances on the CU campus had been canceled. They ran through the opera one last time, they cried, they hugged one another, and then they went home.

Now that final dress rehearsal has been made available through CU Presents. You can access the stream of the full dress rehearsal here. The stream is described as a “pay what you can performance,” in which viewers are asked to make whatever contribution they can afford after watching the stream.

The performance lasts 150 minutes (2 hours, 30 minutes), and has English titles throughout. The CU Presents Webpage does not say how long the stream will be available.

Eklund Opera’s “Marriage of Figaro,” production shot.