Archive for Thursday, January 18, 2001

THE MAG: NIGHTS AT THE OPERA

January 18, 2001

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By Jan Biles

jbiles@ljworld.com

At first glance it seems like an odd pairing for a KU Opera production: "Gianni Schicchi," a classic Italian opera by Giacomo Puccini, and "The Emperor's New Clothes," an opera based on the popular Hans Christian Andersen children's tale with words and music by Lawrence playwright-actor-musician Ric Averill.

But both operas are challenging to singers, and both are appealing to opera lovers of all ages.

"They're both less than an hour long, and they're both comedies," Mark Ferrell, music director for the shows, says.

"Gianni Schicchi" is about greed and deception. The opera opens with mourning relatives around the bed of the recently deceased Buoso Donati. The relatives are interested in knowing who will receive Donati's money. They learn, however, that he has left his fortune to a group of monks. A relative sends for Gianni Schicchi, who agrees to impersonate the dead man and dictate a new will leaving the money to the relatives. But Schicchi pulls a switch and makes himself the beneficiary of the will.

"Gianni Schicchi" was first performed Dec. 14, 1918, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Originally set in the 1200s in Florence, Italy, the KU Opera version updates the plot by making the characters part of a Mafia-like family.

Ferrell says the opera is sung in Italian by a 16-member cast, with English text projected on a screen above the stage. The opera is directed by Carroll Freeman, director of opera at the University of Tennessee.

While "Gianni Schicchi" frequently is performed, "The Emperor's New Clothes" is being "workshopped" to prepare for its premiere in late November or early December at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Representatives of the Kennedy Center will attend this weekend's performances.

"We originally did it (as a script-in-hand reading) at the Kennedy Center in June," Averill says. "It was well-received."

The opera is about a girl who is being forced by her father to marry a counselor to the emperor. But the girl falls in love with a young man who has been hired to make the emperor's clothes for the wedding. She breaks free of her father's hold when he allows the emperor to walk around in his underwear (In the original version, the emperor is wearing no clothing).

A gypsy serves as narrator and keeps the action moving.

"It's all sung," Averill says of the show. "It's the longest piece of continual music I've written."

Since June the show has been performed as part of a trilogy of Andersen stories being toured by the Seem-To-Be Players, a Lawrence-based professional children's theater company founded by Averill and his wife, Jeanne, in 1973.

Based on the KU Opera rehearsals, Averill has trimmed the seven-member cast to five. He has shortened the play and cut some songs because they were "too difficult to sing or too hard to hear."

Averill is composing and recording the orchestration for the Kennedy Center production. Larry Maxey, Kansas University music professor, is helping Averill organize musicians for the recording session.

"We have applied for an NEA grant, and there's the potential for the Kennedy Center to tour the piece," Averill says. "We'll know in the spring."

-- Features-arts editor Jan Biles can be reached at 832-7146.

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