Leslie Moruza as "Rosalinda," Kevin Murphy as "Dr. Blind" and Dorian Balis as "Gabriel von Eisenstein." Inset: music director Dorothy Maddison and orchestra conductor Robert McCashin.
Students stage the waltz king's party
A young man fakes right, then left, and down through the middle. With a triple spin, he begins waltzing and toasting and singing.
"The timing of this is more complicated than a football play," says JMU voice professor Dorothy Maddison during one of the rehearsals for Die Fledermaus, the fall 2002 student operetta.
In circular motion, students whirl 'round the practice room in the Music Building. Their singing crescendos as students become a blur of colors and sound. Then -- a crash. Silence. The cherub statue representing the set's stairwell has taken a tumble and broken cleanly in half. "It's the same as drilling for football plays, except cherub heads can be broken," Maddison laughs.
Die Fledermaus, set in Vienna in 1890, is considered the most operatic of all operettas. Written by the waltz king Johann Strauss, the story follows Dr. Falke (played by sophomore Justin Leighty), who once was tricked into walking the streets of Vienna dressed as a fledermaus (a bat). He realizes his revenge by inviting philanderer Gabriel von Eisenstein (played by junior Dorian Balis) to a party attended by lots of beautiful women and a disguised Mrs. Eisenstein (played by junior Jessie Sutherland).
Leighty says, "This was hard work, but it was a great experience. Dr. Maddison is an awesome music director. She knows her stuff."
Staging this operetta requires students to be at the top of their game on every level, says Maddison, who joined the JMU faculty last fall. "If you are in musical theater, you need to be a triple threat -- dancing, singing and acting skills have to be balanced," she says.
The November production of Die Fledermaus, a School of Music and School of Theatre and Dance collaboration, "was a wonderful opportunity for students to work as a team," Maddison says. "You can't have opera or music theater without collaboration. If everybody was the world's best singer, we'd never get a lighting design done. The second chair clarinet is just as important as the lead soprano."
Students in these two schools also work together on the annual spring musical. The 2003 production will be Pippin. "Having the theater and dance and music students work so closely teaches them to respect each other's disciplines," Maddison adds. "That division [between music and theater in academia] is sort of artificial. In the real world, it doesn't exist."
Maddison, whose soprano voice earned her acclaim in European opera houses for 20 years, came to JMU in part because of its new emphasis in musical theater. First offered in 1994, the discipline has transformed into a Bachelor of Music with an emphasis in musical theater. The concentration "received full accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Music in 2001, following the reaccreditation evaluation of the entire School of Music," says music professor John Little. "As an emphasis program, it is one of two interdisciplinary major programs in the School of Music, with a curriculum that includes courses from both the School of Music and the School of Theater and Dance."
Maddison began her academic career in 1995 after receiving her master's and doctoral degrees from Arizona State University. She started her musical career as a child violinist. "Because my mother was a voice teacher, I was bound and determined not to be a singer," she says. Her mother taught choral groups for many years in Minnesota.
But an inspiring college teacher changed Maddison's musical aspirations. "In a way, it was a natural transition," she says. "In another way, it was a complete surprise."
Musical theater prepares students to be in musicals and operas, "a powerful combination," according to Maddison. "Because opera singers' voices don't reach maturity until age 28, music theater gives students the background to work in musicals and music theaters until they are ready for opera."
Shannon Dove ('96), scenic designer for the operetta, says the collaboration of theater and music was a positive experience for him as a student. "When I was here, the theater and dance departments weren't as big, and everyone had to do everything. I thought that was a really good thing for me."
Stewart Holt, visiting professor and stage director for the operetta, says that JMU students demonstrate the versatility needed to perform in musical theater. "I think JMU students come with a really well-prepared palette for something like this."
Directing their voices to enunciate, illuminate and entertain, Maddison coaches the students to a musical triumph. "No one person can do it. It's a team activity," she explains. "The kids -- I can't tell you what a joy it is to work with them."
To learn more, go to www.jmu.edu/montpelier/monty/SingingStrauss.shtml.
-- Donna Dunn ('94)