Papageno and Papagena, the real OTP

Senior Staff Writer and opera junkie Levi Cohen went to the Glicker-Milstein Theater last night for the Columbia University New Opera Workshop’s Fall 2018 Repertory Scenes. The Music Director and conductor was Katie Cooke CC’19, and it was produced by Julian Vleeschhouwer CC’19. Tickets are currently sold out for both tonight’s and tomorrow’s performances (they were available here), but we’d urge you to show up and see if there are any spares. With a CU ID, it’s free!

Sitting down prior to the start of CU NOW’s Fall repertory scenes, I felt just a little nervous about going to see student opera. I don’t normally feel the need to state my “credentials,” but I’ve been listening to opera from a very young age. It’s my favorite art form: its beauty, its ridiculousness, its persistence despite claims that it’s antiquated. So I approached the evening feeling unsure how people around my age could possibly fulfill the astronomical asks that opera demands of its performers.

I shouldn’t have worried. This was one of the most enjoyable evenings of student performances that I’ve yet experienced at Columbia, featuring some truly remarkable musicianship throughout. Every member of CU NOW seemed to be having fun as they sang, and I had fun with them– though I walked away feeling incredibly jealous of their singing abilities.

First up was the overture and first scene of Mozart’s Italian-language comedy, Così fan tutteThe orchestra had a bit of a shaky beginning, but the moment the singing began they seemed to cohere to support the singers (though Matthew Park CC’22 was excellent on oboe throughout). The first scene proper is an all-male trio: Ferrando (Carl Lian GS’20) and Guglielmo (Mike He MSPH’20) are soldiers arguing that their lovers will be forever faithful, while Don Alfonso (Callum Blackmore GSAS’23) insists that they cannot and will not. Of the three, He was my favorite, with a booming lyric baritone that seemed earnestly in love. All three did very well in the trio at the end, their voices complementing each other perfectly.

Next was the first of the night’s two big full-company chorus numbers, the famous “Bridal chorus” from Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. While the singing was not the most memorable– although to non-opera fans it might be the most recognizable of the bunch–the scene was saved by how much fun everyone seemed to be having. The staging by Rebecca Miller SoA’21 seemed designed as one big “up yours” to the famously awful and antisemitic Wagner: all of the couples getting married were gay, most were interracial, and some of the dances done during the celebrations were Jewish. I was carried away by its boisterousness. Oh, and someone dabbed during a mimed wedding photo.

Third up was a scene from the third act of Bizet’s Carmen, the famous “card trio.” For me, this was one of the highlights of the evening. Each of the three women were perfectly cast: Cleome Barber (BC’20)’s high notes as Mercédès, the complete richness of tone that Gabrielle Ferrari (GSAS’22) achieved as Frasquita, and Sarah Fleiss’ (CC’21) captivating turn as the titular Carmen. The jumping from gaiety to sobriety and back again was perfectly handled by all three. I wanted more!

Following Carmen was the third-act quartet from Verdi’s ever-popular Rigoletto. All four singers did very well here, and the campy staging was fun (goofy capes!), but the scene-stealer was Jessica Edgar (CC’19) as Gilda. What a voice! Her stratospheric highs were perfectly controlled, and she managed to act out her character’s scene-appropriate shock and disappointment without sacrificing technique. I was also excited to see two freshmen, Caroline Cole from Barnard and Tyler Nguyen from the College, in this scene as well; I hope they continue working with CU NOW in the future.

Then came the American premiere of a scene from an opera composed by one of Columbia’s own professors, Matthew Ricketts’ No Masque for Good Measure. This was something of an “event,” as Ricketts himself was in the audience–right in front of me, in fact. I enjoyed it, despite the fact that it was very… contemporary. As with seemingly all English operas, we had a countertenor (Haoqi Xia CC’20, doing very well), and a peculiar setting of the text to music (it’s very difficult to make the nasality of the word wedding sound beautiful). But I’m being overly negative: it was a fun change of pace for the evening, with more spoken dialogue than elsewhere. Madeleine Collier BC’19 and Sarah Fleiss (our Carmen) did very well as the duelling Sopranos– Collier in particular could have a future in English opera, so well did she handle the material here.

I was surprised by my love for the next scene, the act two reconciliation of Papageno and Papagena from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Owing to a particularly poor performance I once saw of this opera, I’ve harbored a great distaste for it ever since– but this scene had me laughing with glee and enjoying the hell out of Mozart’s most earnestly charming music. Callum Blackmore gives for me the best single performance of the night: Papageno as a Boy Scout! Playing the kazoo! With a fanny pack! He’s funny, charming, believable, and imbues the role and the whole theater space with a sense of joy. Plus, his German is impeccable. The three Spirits and his beloved Papagena (Elena Schwam BC’19) also did well, but Blackmore really stole the show.

Next up was a duet from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, with aforementioned countertenor Haoqi Xia as Cesare and Madeleine Collier as his Cleopatra. This was a real treat- while the acting and staging were a little uninspired (it’s a classically drawn-out love duet, what are you really going to do), Xia’s and Collier’s voices blended together wonderfully, each elevating the other. Collier’s voice was powerful in coloratura passages especially, while Xia nailed the recitative early in the scene.

The penultimate scene was the famous Act II sextet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, featuring some of my favorites from earlier scenes. Jessica Edgar’s voice was still awe-inspiring, as was Gabrielle Ferrari’s. Mike He as Leporello also did well, selling the comedy as well as his character’s desparation in equal measure. I was impressed by all six singers for gelling together, a difficult task in a piece of music with this many moving parts.

The last scene of the night was the second full chorus, this time the “prisoner’s chorus” from Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. Contrary to the Lohengrin chorus before, I was very taken by the entire company this time around, as they seemed to have gelled over the course of the evening. The staging was effective, with chains rattling prior to the music, and the company gathering around a barricade-esque collection of black boxes. The soloists (Caroline Cole BC’22 and Tiari Faagata CC’22) do well, but the group singing is the most admirable part of the piece. All in all, it was a inspiringly ambiguous note to the end the evening on: simultaneously celebratory and ominous

Katie Cooke CC’19 conducted admirably throughout– though the fluorescent light she used to light her score was angled in just a way to shine unpleasantly in the audience’s eyes. (That’s a seriously minor quibble, obviously.) Overall, as I said above: I cannot recommend this evening of music enough. Don’t come expecting lavish, Met-esque sets or anything like that— instead, come to see and support your fellow students as they open their hearts (and mouths) onstage.

This is the future of opera– not the stereotypical crowds of old money people filing into Lincoln Center every evening, but young singers doing what they do best and keeping the art alive.

Poster for the evening via CUNOW Facebook Page.