UNLV Opera Theatre “Divas”

UNLV Opera Theatre: Haydn's "La Canterina"

Dr. Arturo Rando-Grillot Recital Hall, UNLV 

Nov 18, 2011

Leather pants, face glitter, goth drag and Twitter gags – this is opera? Yes, and hilariously so.

UNLV Department of Music’s updated version of opera paired traditional music and librettos with modernized characters of pop and Las Vegas culture, making centuries-old stories relevant and poignant to today’s audiences.

Starting the program with a contemporary piece from Too Many Sopranos by Edwin Penhorwood, a bevy of elegant ladies in evening gowns graced the glowing wood stage and backdrop of floor-to-ceiling organ pipes.

UNLV Opera Theatre: Penhorwood's "Too Many Sopranos"
UNLV Opera Theatre: Penhorwood's "Too Many Surprises"

Lead singer Nathan Van Arsdale, appearing in drag and sporting a very long, very black wig that gave him a distinctive gothic vibe, wowed the audience with powerful vocal resonance and projection. Tongue-in-cheek delivery made this piece instantly likeable.  If texting had been allowed, messages like “OMG! WTF! opera rox!” would have prevailed.

The second piece, Haydn’s La Canterina, was presented in the original Italian  and in traditional attire (floor-length, frilly dresses for the women, and short pants, white stockings and powdered wigs for the men).  The cast’s vocals were of professional quality – clear, strong, controlled, and soaring.  The pantomime and face-acting by each character told the story quite well, done with perfect drama and subtlety. Libretto translation was projected onto a movie screen that was on the side of the stage.

UNLV Opera Theatre: Haydn's "La Canterina"
UNLV Opera Theatre: Haydn's "La Canterina"

In this comic opera, the duplicitous nature of the characters and the knavery in the story were playfully acted by the cast, evoking much amusement from the audience.  The cast’s  performance made opera accessible and fun.

Jahmaul Bakare, Sheronda McKee, Cecilia Lopez and Kathleen McVicker were riveting to watch and hear. Ms. McKee carried on as a true professional when her skirt tore midway through a scene.  The porters provided comic relief through their bumbling, half-wit characters (one of which, Mr. Van Arsdale, was the previously-seen drag diva).  The quartet and arias were pure pleasures to witness. One felt privy to early performances of future opera greats.

Their voices were commanding, rich and sophisticated.  Piano was the only accompaniment. Pure human singing, unprocessed and unamplified, feels different to our ears; kinder and gentler than amplified musical events, yet more thrilling.

The cast members in the next three pieces, excerpts from Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow, Victor Herbert’s The Enchantress, and Thomas Pasatieri’s Divas of a Certain Age, displayed various levels of experience and accomplishment.  “We’re the UNLV Divas” was spunky and spirited.  Despite the inconsistencies in the choreography execution and a lack of confidence evident in some ladies, all showed potential for development.  Divas of a Certain Age was well-staged, but the costuming was confusing; the characters were supposedly middle-aged, yet they were attired as college girls.

UNLV Opera Theatre: Mozart's "The Impresario".  Lady Gaga (Erin Kennelly) and her Little Monsters.
UNLV Opera Theatre: Mozart's "The Impresario". Lady Gaga (Erin Kennelly) and her Little Monsters.

The last piece of the evening was the most inventive and delightful.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Impresario (Der Schauspieldirektor), retained Mozart’s plot line, while substituting modern pop-divas and reality-TV personalities for the original characters.  In music director Linda Lister’s updated version, Steve Wynn (Mr. Van Arsdale) is looking to hire a singer for his newly-acquired Caesar’s properties. He is advised (or ill-advised) by Mike ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino (Brian Myer), and lobbied by Ari Gold (Jonathan Mancheni) to audition Madonna (Isabella Ivy) and Lady Gaga (Erin Kennelly).

UNLV Opera Theatre: Libretto translation projected on a side screen.
UNLV Opera Theatre: Libretto translation projected on a side screen. Text of Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino (Brian Myer) in Mozart's "The Impresario".

The competition between the two divas is fierce; Madonna snipes, “Oh, now Gaga sings opera? Can’t she come up with anything of her own?”; Gaga purrs, “I can sing Mozart in German while tweeting!”.  Dueling arias ensue between Maddie and Gaga, and progress into a rivalrous trio with Gold — an operatic cat fight – while The Situation flashes his six-pack and takes digital photos of the divas, which he shares with ever-amorous groupies.  Wynn quits Caesar’s to start a vegan farm and leaves The Situation in charge of the casino empire. Yoga poses from all participants fail to calm the group, until Gold pleads for harmony.

The vocal performances by all of the featured characters in this Mozart piece were astounding. Ms. Kennelly and Ms. Ivy’s soaring, robust singing was pure greatness. Mr. Mancheni and Mr. Van Arsdale had terrific stage presence. The staging was creative and effective in advancing the story.  Production details, such as Lady Gaga’s backup dancers wearing origami claws and hats, added interesting visual elements. The piece was engaging, invigorating and riotously funny.

UNLV Opera Theatre: Mozart's "The Impresario" Trio.  Lady Gaga, Ari Gold, Madonna.
UNLV Opera Theatre: Mozart's "The Impresario" Trio. Lady Gaga (Kennelly), Ari Gold (Jonathan Mancheni), Madonna (Isabella Ivy).

This evening of opera was inspiring, enjoyable, educational, and memorable. UNLV showed that not only  can it preserve and present the classics, but also update them in a meaningful and entertaining way for today’s audiences.

Event Rating: A

Audience: All Ages