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Maiden voyage

Nights at the opera

photos from Lakme, a student opera productionThe idea to produce an opera at BC came to Claudio Garcia '02 while he was taking assistant professor Jeremiah McGrann's course "Music 206: Opera." For a final project, Garcia and three classmates had staged an original operatic composition based on Ophelia's death scene in Hamlet. A semester later, Garcia became increasingly determined when he had to design a scene for "Film Studies 352: Stage Design." (He chose Act 1 of Lakme by Leo Delibes.)

Though he doesn't play an instrument and has no formal music training, Garcia has been fascinated by classical music since childhood. A studio arts major, he found an ally in cellist Karl Cronin '03, a music major with whom he'd collaborated on the opera class project. They decided to lead a student production of Dido and Aeneas. Cronin would be stage director and choreographer; Garcia would be producer, assistant director, and set designer.

One day last fall, Cronin went to meet with Professor McGrann to ask his advice. As it happened, Nicole Willenborg '04 had an appointment with McGrann, too. While waiting for McGrann on the fourth floor of Lyons Hall, Willenborg, a French major and voice student, introduced herself to Cronin, and, making conversation, he told her of his plans. She quickly joined the Garcia-Cronin team, providing momentum--as well as someone to play Dido. "The three of us were very excited about it," says Willenborg. "But we had to keep reassuring each other."

The opera's official faculty advisor had some reservations, too. "When they suggested they wanted to put on an opera, I sort of raised my eyebrows," says John Finney, director of the University Chorale and BC Symphony Orchestra. But then he heard they had chosen Dido, which he called "the perfect vehicle for young voices."

"If they had picked The Barber of Seville, I would have said, We just don't have the singers for that. But they really did their research and found the exact, perfect piece."

Based on the Aeneid and composed by Henry Purcell in 1689, Dido is considered the first great opera with an English libretto. It is also among the shortest operas; written for performers at a girls' school, it is less than an hour long. The story: Aeneas, driven off course, lands in Carthage, where he falls in love with Queen Dido. Witches who hate Dido trick Aeneas into leaving his love and continuing on to Italy (where he will found Rome). Dido succumbs to a broken heart shortly after getting off the stunning aria, "When I am laid in earth."

When Cronin, Garcia, and Willenborg went looking for a conductor, Finney recommended music major Daniel Sañez '03, who, it turned out, had conducted the Los Angeles Children's Choir in seventh grade. During early auditions, Sañez had doubts, but strong singers eventually tried out, including Aeneas, tenor Matthew Thompson '05, a political science major with lots of show music experience who would be making his operatic debut.

Sañez studied four recordings of Dido and Aeneas and worked with Finney to learn the music. "Without him," Sañez says. "We would not look good."

The cast performed Dido and Aeneas April 11 and 13 at Trinity Chapel before more than 200 spectators. Though Finney, who has been associated with BC for nine years, has watched students take on a variety of ambitious projects, he says, "I haven't seen this kind of a production ever grow up from the ground before."

He may, however, soon see more. "Now that this opera is over," says Willenborg, "we're starting to figure out what next year's opera will be."

Gail Friedman

Gail Friedman is a Boston-based freelance writer.

Photo: Rehearsing, clockwise from top left: cellist Karl Cronin '03 and Daniel Sañez '03; Michael Sangalang '05, Caroline Kita '04, and Cronin; Sañez and Amir Satvat '04; Sean Collier '03, Sangalang, Daniel Williams '04, and Cristina Zamora '04.

Lee Pellegrini

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