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JMU premieres opera

JMU's School of Music takes bite out of Big Apple with premiere at Center for Contemporary Opera
By Chuck Taylor ('84)

Taylor Faulkinberry ('12), Jesika Hayes ('09) and Elizabeth Kibler ('10) brought their Madison magic to the Disney College Program in 2009

The entire cast poses before the performance of the contemporary comic opera Review. Left to right are Megan Steigerwald, Andrew Austin, Sarah Davis, Randall Ball, Frank Mavilia, Megan Sill, Sarah Heisler, Amber McKinney, Dorothy Smith, Leah Hill, David Hill and Mattia D'Affuso.

James Madison University's School of Music took a bite out of the Big Apple as featured performers at a gala benefit for the prestigious Center for Contemporary Opera on Feb. 19.

Under the tutelage of JMU Director of Opera and Music Theater Don Rierson, a troupe of five undergraduate and seven graduate vocal performance students staged the 15-minute contemporary comic opera Review, for a crowd of more than 200 New York intelligentsia at Gramercy Park's posh National Arts Club, a national historic landmark founded in 1898.

The event was part of a new CCO program designed to introduce contemporary opera to a younger audience. During the evening, scenes from three operas from the organization's 27th season were presented, followed by the New York premiere of Review.

After the comic opera was first previewed last spring at the Opera America conference in Houston, the JMU cast began running lines for the New York show in December and arrived in Manhattan just the day before the performance, where they rehearsed in Times Square with Review composers Jeremy Beck and Patricia Marx.

The show's music director, Andrew Austin, a master's candidate in music, says that while it was daunting to perform before the composers, "we were definitely prepared. It's an intricate piece, which we actually learned from the end, working our way forward. That way, you always know where you're going. By the time we got to the city, we were so comfortable with the material that it didn't feel like an 'Oh, my gosh, this is happening in New York' experience. We were ready."

Alum Peter Wojcicki ('81) talks with cast members Mattia D'Affuso, Frank Mavilia and Sarah Heisler after the show

Alum Peter Wojcicki ('81) talks with cast members Mattia D'Affuso, Frank Mavilia and Sarah Heisler after the show

Still, the excitement of performing in the nation's largest market was palatable. "I loved seeing all of the things I'm used to watching on Good Morning America," notes cast member Leah Hill, who is pursuing her master's in vocal performance. "It's an exciting experience and an honor to do what we love in a place that is so friendly to the arts."

Composer Jeremy Beck's works have earned awards, grants and honors from the Millay Colony for the Arts, Meet the Composer, Wellesley Composers Conference, Oregon Bach Festival, American Composers Forum and American Music Center. His opera, The Biddle Boys and Mrs. Soffel, was cited by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as one of the "Top Ten Cultural Events of 2001," while The Highway was presented by New York City Opera for its Showcasing American Composers series.

Beck says that during the JMU cast's rehearsal, "I was thrilled with what I heard. I couldn't have been happier. This is as professional a group of students as I've ever seen. The piece was down pat and they had a great time with it. We were all just able to relax and enjoy the audience reaction."

Mattia D'Affuso ('13), a double major in Vocal Performance and Italian, says, "We're used to working in a smaller environment that lets us experiment freely. I think because of that, when we came to Times Square to rehearse with the composer, we were confident in the bigger environment of New York City."

Jeremy Beck, composer; Patricia Marx, libretto, and Don Rierson, director of JMU opera

Jeremy Beck, composer; Patricia Marx, libretto, and Don Rierson, director of JMU opera

JMU's Rierson says the invitation to perform for CCO was an honor for the university: "It couldn't be more significant for our program to stage this piece in New York. The students couldn't get this experience performing anywhere else. Only the most elite singers are able to participate in such an opportunity — and we have a fine stable of talent that I'm proud of. I think the cast recognized how important it was. They worked hard and had a great time."

Brooklyn resident Stefan Doering ('89M), and one of 50 JMU alumni living in New York who attended the premiere and gala, notes that the pride of JMU students performing in New York works both ways. "There are a huge number of grads based in the city. For the past 20 years, I've stayed in constant touch with a good 20 friends from JMU. So having students from my school here in New York made me proud of my educational roots."

Jim Schaeffer, general director for the CCO, adds that the organization's outreach effort offers a forum "to reach out to universities with strong music programs and expose students to the city. This was a great experience for all of us. Certainly our goals were met in that we provided a first-class venue for some very talented students to perform a contemporary opera in New York. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the cast. I'm from Norfolk, and like most Virginians, they have manners. It was a pleasure to wave the JMU flag."