Baylor Opera Theater belts a new tune with livestreamed performances

Baylor Opera Theater puts on a livestreamed performance of "La serva padrona" on Friday night. Photo courtesy of Baylor Theater Opera's YouTube channel.

By Lucy Ruscitto | Staff Writer

This past weekend, Baylor Opera Theater held its first two productions via livestream, “La serva padrona” by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi on Friday and “La canterina” by Joseph Haydn on Saturday, to showcase the program’s efforts thus far this semester.

While navigating the COVID-19 crisis, Baylor Opera Theater has worked to make their performances shorter in length and smaller in cast in order to have more of a variety as well as give those in the program more opportunities to work with a plethora of distinct roles within the shows themselves.

Aliso Viejo, Calif., second year graduate student Emily Wood is a member of Baylor’s opera program. She said that in some ways, while the opera team no longer prepares for the extensive, more long-term types of performances, this new, refreshing, quicker overturn of production style has presented its own set of benefits.

“It’s kind of fun to be doing some of these productions that don’t get done as much,” she said.

She said the director of Baylor Opera Theater, Jen Stephenson, has done so much work through the pandemic and alongside the other opera team members and directors in order to achieve their desired end results.

“We got our music over the summer. We actually started coaching, the language and stuff, over Zoom in the summer before we even got to campus in the fall,” Wood said. “We rehearse outside a lot. And then when we rehearsed inside, we’ve had to follow the red tape. Every half hour we would have to switch rooms, which was a little cumbersome.”

Just as preparation for the opera shows have been unprecedented, so have the actual performances themselves for other cast members, like for Rowlett first year graduate student Preston Hart.

Both Hart and Wood starred in Friday’s show, “La serva padrona,” a comic Italian opera originating in the mid-18th century. The show’s title translates to “The Maid Mistress” in English.

The show stars only three characters: Uberto, master of the house and raiser of young and conniving Serpina, the house maid, and Verspone, the mute servant and accomplice in Serpina’s tricks, according to StageAgent.

Hart said he played the part of Uberto.

“[Uberto] didn’t know that he was in love with his servant until his feelings reveal themselves,” Hart said. “Serpina loves Uberto, but Uberto won’t admit his feelings, and he kind of doesn’t know how he feels … so she [Serpina] just runs the whole trick with Verspone to fool and scare him, essentially into realizing that he loved her.”

Hart said to prepare specifically for “La serva padrona,” it took him and the rest of the cast around two months total: about one month to learn all of the music and another month putting all of the pieces and minuscule features into place.

Hart said that he thinks approximately 20 people were involved in the organizing of this show, and both Wood and Hart said that teamwork and cooperation play a large role in developing a performance.

“You have your cast of singers, and then you have a coach or two, like Dr. Peterson, who work with you on the language and rehearse with you … larger productions in a normal situation you would have maybe an orchestra or something and a conductor,” Wood said. “You have stage director. So Dr. Stephenson guided us in the staging and everything, and she helped us to interpret the text as well.”

Wood said Baylor Opera Theater is also very heavily student-oriented. She said these closer-knit and quicker performances specifically have been produced in a large part mostly by the students.

“The students were heavily involved in the behind the scenes work for this particular production for these productions. They made the costumes, they helped put this together and everything, so that was really awesome and cool,” she said. “It’s quite a team. And in these circumstances … the team is a little smaller and so people are wearing more hats, but they’re still a team.”

Wood said when performing on Friday night, she and her cast members had to adjust to the new way of performing via livestream.

“We had no audience. We’re kind of singing to the cameras. I had to practice looking at the camera out at the audience,” she said. “When we found out we would be masks while performing, I started thinking to myself, ‘Oh I guess I should put my makeup on my hair differently because of the mask and work around that.’”

Hart agreed that the lack of a physical audience was disconcerting, especially when as a performer, he is used to the affirmation of a crowd laughing or even the occasional cough just to know that the performance isn’t another rehearsal but the real deal.

Despite the downsides to performing without an in-person audience, both Wood and Hart said they have enjoyed some of the other aspects about performing in a COVID-19-environment.

“In some ways it’s less stressful and in other ways, it’s a little anticlimactic. But at the same time, what’s really exciting for me is my family and friends from back home in California were able to watch,” Wood said. “For an opera to actually be accessible via livestream really awesome especially for those of us who know people from out of state.”

Hart said he believes that wearing a mask while performing in some ways has benefitted his on-stage presentation, and that opera singers oftentimes use more expressive body language that regular stage performers because they cannot change the intonation or volume of their singing too much.

“We use our bodies so much,” Hart said. “I, ironically, found the masks helpful because there wasn’t even a need to feel like I needed to make any facial expressions.”

Despite the recent changes and adjustments the actors have had to make to their practice routines, both said they are still grateful for the genuine efforts their advisors have contributed to Baylor Opera Theater.

“I’m thankful that at least we were able to do this right so it’s a small sacrifice, all things considered,” Wood said.