Harvard College Opera Celebrates 25th Anniversary
This weekend, the curtains will open in Agassiz Theatre to reveal a series of tall gray arches, set against a painted backdrop of a sky that looks borrowed from Magritte. Far above the heads of the singers in the Harvard College Opera’s Le Nozze di Figaro, a partially lowered screen shows the English translation of their characters’ laments, squabbles, and prevarications. The mistaken identity, cross-dressing comedy is a standby for the all-student group, which turns 25 this year. Every half-decade or so, they reincarnate Figaro. In the interval since the ensemble’s “not to be missed” staging in 1996 (as reviewed by this magazine’s contributing editor Adam Kirsch ’97), Mozart’s quick-witted groom-to-be has been transported to 1930s America, the Kennedys’ Camelot, and elsewhere. But all four prior productions were sung in English, which makes this year’s performance in the original Italian seem like a departure.
“We respected and wanted to honor the tradition of doing it in a translation, being that we wanted to be open—kind of more accessible, in some ways,” says music director Sasha Scolnik-Brower ’17. “That being said—we thought that we actually could pull it off this year.”
Yet when the organization first known as the Dunster House Opera Society (DHO) began in 1992, it put on Georges Bizet’s Carmen entirely in French. Ethan Sperry ’93 started the group after an unsuccessful interview to direct music for the Lowell House Opera, at which he proposed that their show, which typically drew lead singers from Boston-area conservatories, be sung and staffed entirely by Harvard students. He and classmate Melika Fitzhugh ’94 then won the support of the heads of Dunster House to stage Bizet’s hit opera in the dining hall. Auditions were held in November, and the cast was instructed to learn music over winter break. The production was put together over some 23 days.
“Lowell House Opera was very well-established,” says Lara Freidenfelds ’94, Ph.D. ’03, who was cast in the title role. “We were a little bit the brash upstarts, trying something new, that we knew was...you know, a little crazy, right?”
Sperry, as music director, drew from his friends in the Holden Choruses to audition for the leads and sing in the chorus. Fitzhugh, as artistic director, got fellow members of the Harvard Wind Ensemble* and friends in other instrumental groups to join the pit band, also recruiting students in the college theater scene to help with sets, costumes, and lighting. The students built a stage that could be broken down and reassembled each night, and rustled up the equipment and know-how for a single, spectacular special effect: bathing the hall in a red glow for the climactic death scene, and having the chorus throw carnations—they couldn’t afford roses—into the audience. (Most of their budget, Fitzhugh recalls, went toward thick programs printed with English lyrics so that the audience could follow along.)
“We weren't about perfection,” says Freidenfelds. “We were about enthusiasm, for sure.”
“Ethan was very intrigued by the idea of taking people of different skill levels,” says Aaron Arzu ’94, who played opposite her as Don José. “We had some first-time musicians, we had people like me who had been singing all their lives. And he was able to tie them all together and say, ‘Listen, not everyone is going to be a virtuoso, but everyone is going to enjoy being part of this experience.’”
Sperry, now a music professor at Portland State University, where he conducts choir, thinks that at a music school, the professors would’ve tried to stop him. “They’d say you’re not ready to conduct it, the students aren’t ready to sing it, and they haven’t had the proper training. And then I would have never done it, and I would’ve grown far less as a musician at that age.”
On opening night, Sperry introduced Carmen as “the first annual production of the Dunster House Opera Society.” “I can be a really flippant person when I talk to audiences,” he allows. “It was a hope, not a guarantee.” But the next year, Freidenfelds produced Die Fleidermaus, by Johann Strauss II,and her stage directors put on Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and La Rondine in 1995. In time, enough momentum built up for the society to become firmly rooted in the College extracurricular scene. Its traditions have shifted, the frenzy of intersession rehearsals giving way to a calmer January term schedule, and the emphasis on English-language performance going in and out of fashion. But a little of the brashness, and much of the camaraderie, has remained.
Sarah Ina Meyers ’02, a stage director on the staff of the Metropolitan Opera, says that the Dunster House Opera was a major reason for her even coming to Harvard—and once she was a student, it was crucial to her transition from performance to working backstage. Playing Paquette in Candide in her freshman year, she suffered from stage fright, and so decided to become assistant director for The Magic Flute. “I thought to myself, maybe if I learn what it means to direct, how someone looks at my performance, it will help me to get out of my head.” Since DHO was student-run, she was exposed to all aspects of production. “Everything, we put our hands on it…putting the scores together, and directing it, and scenery and costumes and all of those things.”
Composer and conductor Matt Aucoin ’12 had a similar experience. “At DHO, we were all in it together,” he says. “Everybody has to sort of do everything, and it was all hands on deck.” The opera gave him his first hands-on conducting experience—and his senior year, someone from the Met attended the students’ production of Figaro, which led to an audition and a job as an assistant conductor.
There have been further changes. The Dunster House Opera moved to Agassiz Theatre in 2014: “A mixed blessing,” says Sperry. “It was partly Dunster House not wanting to do it anymore, and partly them having outgrown the space.” (As a result, the group renamed itself the Harvard College Opera in 2015.)
“I confess that I have trouble imagining the opera company that I remember putting on shows in Agassiz Theatre,” says Meyers. “I loved the experience of taking the space that everybody else uses for meals, and for completely ordinary and routine activity—and that we would take it and convert it into something magical.”
Despite the inconvenience of having to shoo residents out while setting up, and keeping audience members waiting in the courtyard in midwinter, says Freidenfelds, “There was something neat about it being in a House, I have to say.” She adds, “That gives a certain spirit to it, when people feel like, ‘Well this is a little awkward, but we’re making it happen.’ It feels homemade.” The spirit was contagious: “Your audience was really on your side.”
But then, perhaps the move signals a kind of arrival for the student opera. As Aucoin puts it, “They’ve graduated. They’re real boys and girls now.”