School of Music to perform two one-act opera pieces

Convents and debauchery come together this weekend in the School of Music’s opera show, Sacred and Profane. The performance consists of two one-act shows: Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Mahagonny-Songspiel” and Giacomo Puccini’s “Suor Angelica.”

The first act, “Suor Angelica” (“Sister Angelica”), is set in a convent in 17th-century Italy and focuses on Sister Angelica, a nun from a noble family with a mysterious past. The opera, which premiered in 1918, is the second in a trio of Puccini’s operas known as Il trittico (The Triptych).

Kati Richer, a sophomore vocal performance major, is in the opera’s chorus and is one of three sophomores in the production. The cast members have been rehearsing the show since school started, Richer said. “We rehearse a lot, but it has been a great experience to get to work with our stage director [Dorothy Danner] and our music director [Maria Sensi Sellner], who I normally wouldn’t get a chance to work with.”

Danner is a guest director who has served on the faculties at the Julliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music; she also stage-directed Carnegie Mellon’s production of Nine in 2007. Sellner, a Carnegie Mellon alumna with degrees in both mechanical engineering and music composition, is in her 10th and final season as music director of the All University Orchestra and the String Theory Chamber Orchestra.

The second act, “Mahagonny-Songspiel” (“The Little Mahagonny”), is a cantata based on five “Mahagonny Songs” that Brecht had published in 1927 in his collection of poetry, Hauspostille (Devotions for the Home). The cantata follows “ ‘everyman’ people leaving their life behind who are going to the fabled land of Mahagonny, [where they] can do anything they want,” explained Tyler Alderson, a senior vocal performance major in the show.

“For them, it means gambling and having sex and essentially having a free-for-all,” he said. “They go to this place and all hell breaks loose, because when you can do whatever you want, there’s stealing, there’s killing, there’s chaos.... They eventually get disillusioned.”

The opera, which was a precursor to a larger experimental opera that Weill and Brecht later wrote called The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, was “tough, because it’s essentially an ensemble piece,” Alderson said. “There aren’t arias. There are some solos, but there aren’t a ton.... It’s six people in an ensemble who are all singing together.”

The ensemble nature of the opera presented more than just vocal challenges. “It’s tough because you have to from that ensemble make out individual characters. So we’ve had to do a lot of extrapolations — so using the text and going beyond the text to try and draw out things and make sense of it,” Alderson explained. “The text is blunt at some points, but it’s also [sometimes] vague, almost.... The character has been made pretty much by us, using the text as a guideline.”

Alderson also praised Danner. “The director has done a very good job of taking this work that doesn’t give much of an arc or a storyline ... [and] filling in the blanks, using both the larger opera that came later and also by making the conscious decision not to use the larger opera [in some cases].” For example, “The narrator is a character we’ve created, specifically to help bridge that gap between the audience and to clue the audience into what exactly is going on,” he said.

He summarized “Mahagonny-Songspiel” by joking, “Everyone’s drinking and drugged out — it’s great! It’s the best of human nature.”