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American operas more than just song and dance

‘Gallantry’ and ‘The Medium’ introduce students to (soap opera) drama and tragedy

By Leigh E. Rich

From its beginnings in 1600, opera, at its best, is the quintessential theatrical experience—combining a full orchestra with drama, song and dance. At its worst, it is “a concert in costume,” says professor Charles Roe, in his seventh year as artistic director of the UA Opera Theatre. This weekend, Roe, the College of Fine Arts and the School of Music and Dance present two American operas, “Gallantry” and “The Medium.”

“Gallantry” is a one-act comedy set in a television studio in the 1950s—a spoof of the hospital soap opera. It is even interrupted several times by commercials. Roe uses “Gallantry” as a “curtain raiser,” exposing the audience to (now deceased) Douglas Moore’s opera antics.

The stereotypical plot revolves around latent desires and unspoken truths. While in the operating room, Dr. Gregg confesses his suppressed love for Lola, the anesthetist, in front of his patient and Lola’s true love, Donald. Donald exposes the truth about Dr. Gregg’s marital status, leaving the indignant Lola to spurn his advances and thus creating an ethical mess in the OR.

“Gallantry” is followed by Menotti’s two-act tragedy, “The Medium.” Set in a European atmosphere, this six character opera concerns a charlatan medium (Flora) who uses her daughter (Monica) and adopted mute gypsy boy (Toby) to assist in her frauds. “People are really believing what they hear at these seances,” Roe explains. “She is a fake.”

During one seance, however, Madame Flora feels a hand around her throat and rashly accuses Toby of playing tricks on her. “The interesting part of the story is that she starts believing, and she becomes obsessed.” Roe asserts, “It is a very dramatic show.”

Madame Flora is a tour de force role for a mezzo-soprano, requiring a range of emotions. “The medium’s part is very demanding, a very difficult part to perform. It is a juicy role,” Roe continues. “She carries the show during the second act, screaming, shouting, whipping and running.” Since she is on stage during most of the performance, Roe has double-cast the medium’s part as well as the part of Monica.

Toby, however, is played by Drew Humphrey, a high school student who is enrolled at the UA. “A very bright and talented young man,” Roe sought him out for auditions. Humphrey, who is active in theater all over the Tucson area, is receiving college credit for his performance in the show.

Both operas are “total student productions.” The caliber of talent ranges from juniors to graduate students from a mixture of artistic realms: orchestra members, singers, actors, dancers, costumers and technical assistants. Roe concedes, “They’re just wonderful. This is not easy music to play.”

“The Medium” will also be performed at the UA extension campus in Sierra Vista. Other opportunities to catch UA opera include the free production of opera scenes on December 5 in Crowder Hall (a mixture of selections which will be performed in their original languages) and next spring’s production of “La Boheme.” This popular Puccini work will be performed in Italian with English supertitles—an exciting (and expensive) first for the UA Opera Theatre—on the 100th anniversary of its premiere.

After years of moving from one venue to the next, “Gallantry” and “The Medium” will be the Opera Theatre’s second production in Crowder Hall (last year’s “The Marriage of Figaro” was the first). “We’re happy to be home in our own theater,” Roe admits. “It’s like a brand new auditorium.”

The eternal professor, Roe explains that the Italian word “opera” translates as “a work” and was originally performed only for royalty in private. Although classified as 400 years old, opera has its roots in the “Greek form of expression, where people sang the drama.” Roe, who sang with the New York Opera Company for a number of years, proudly displays pictures from all of his UA operas on his office wall. He gleams with pride and paraphrases the Bible when describing the talent needed for the demanding medium of opera: “Many are called, few are chosen.”

Rich, L.E. (1995, November 2). American operas more than just song and dance. Arizona Daily Wildcat.

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