In an 1849 essay on aesthetics, German composer Richard Wagner popularized the rather unwieldy term “Gesamtkunstwerk.” According to Wagner, a Gesamtkunstwerk, or a ‘total’ work of art, is the highest attainable artistic ideal, a work that synthesized all the major art forms in a single theatrical performance. Fittingly, Wagner applied this term to the multidisciplinary elegance of opera, which unites so many different artistic inputs into one totalized performance.
Indeed, the artistic amalgam that is opera combines instrumental music, singing, dialogue, and dance to create a multisensory spectacle that may appeal to an audience on multiple aesthetic registers. The viewer may both latch onto the particular art contained within opera that they most appreciate and also experience Wagner’s idea of operatic synthesis.
While not the most popular art form at Harvard, students and graduates are revitalizing opera by performing famous works at Harvard, honing their skills in activities on campus and abroad, and composing works of their own concerning modern life. They aim to prove that opera, though steeped in tradition, is accessible and relevant.
In the Dunster House dining hall, it’s brain break—the Harvard event that most unites disparate social elements on campus. Overworked student writers, scientists, and athletes intermingle to enjoy cold bagels, old cereal, and, tonight, something completely different. The bewildered crowd, suddenly surrounded by tuxedo-clad actors and frantic musicians, is witnessing the start of dress rehearsal for “Die Fledermaus,” Johann Strauss’ classic work being put on by the Dunster House Opera (DHO). Rather than flee to the opera-free safety of their rooms, however, residents of the house linger a little longer than usual over brain break to see what all the fuss—and noise—is about.
Getting people to go see the opera of their own volition, unsurprisingly, is no easy feat. In some fundamental sense, opera seems unsexy: fat women in gowns stereotypically stand in for action heroes in swimwear; topics of convoluted aristocratic manners and tragic romance appear pitifully outdated; and, worst of all for an American audience, most great operas were not originally written in English. Benjamin J. Nelson ’11, musical director of the Harvard a cappella group the Krokodiloes and star of “Die Fledermaus,” claims to be languishing idly the afternoon before “Fledermaus” opens. However, he answers my questions with bounces and nervous, energetic exclamations. “Opera, whether deservedly or not, intimidates a lot of people, [whereas] a cappella reaches the point of accessibility at which it’s almost annoying,” he says. Indeed, the light-hearted, almost silly nature of a cappella does seem the ultimate contrast to opera’s beauty and renowned history. A cappella concerts are short and audience members know exactly what to expect, while “Die Fledermaus” is more than two and a half hours long and, for the average Harvard student, utterly recondite.
The DHO is sensitive to these barriers associated with opera. In order to make their material accessible and appealing to undergraduate audiences, they have a stringent set of criteria for selecting an annual opera. The first of these is that the opera must either be written in English or have a readily available English translation. While this decision does limit the number of available options, it vastly increases access, both for audiences and performers. “I think it’s really great that DHO performs in English,” says Nelson. “I personally would never have auditioned for the show if it hadn’t been in English.”
Cast size is also a factor in selecting an opera. Many operas have one or two title roles and a limited supporting cast. The DHO looks for shows with a decent number of roles as well as a substantial chorus that allow them to cast more performers.
One of the greatest obstacles to performing opera at an undergraduate level is that many of the most famous and recognized roles are infeasible for younger, less developed voices. The corpus of Giuseppe Verdi, for example, is off limits to DHO. “A lot of the operas that I was initially drawn to … were just completely impractical,” says Matthew C. Stone ’11, a Crimson arts editor and stage director of “Die Fledermaus.” “Vocally it would be too taxing for young voices to sing any really heavy operatic repertory.” The human voice does not reach full maturity until the late twenties.
While theater companies on campus can perform well-known shows that will attract audiences, opera companies like DHO are more restricted. “You have to look for lighter fare, or lyric opera, or chamber opera for undergraduate voices,” says Stone. Thus, careful thought goes into selecting an opera that is both practical for college-aged performers and attractive to a college audience.
Lowell House Opera (LHO) takes a radically different approach. Its auditions are open to graduate students and actors outside the Harvard community, and it has more relaxed criteria for selecting operas to perform. Last year, the Lowell House Opera performed Giacomo Puccini’s renowned “Tosca” in Italian with English projections, and almost all its singers were professional. “Historically [the DHO and LHO] perform rather different repertoires,” says music director and conductor of “Die Fledermaus” Matthew A. Aucoin ’12.
This difference amounts to a difference in philosophy: characteristically, the DHO focuses on accessibility in the Harvard community and the LHO focuses on performing the greatest operas in their traditional forms. “I think Harvard’s got the whole spectrum,” says Aucoin.
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This operatic spectrum extends to the level of experience held by the cast in student operas. “Most people who get really involved with opera here don’t come from ‘operatic backgrounds’ because those are really rare,” says Aucoin. Instead, students approach opera having trained in theater or classical music. Jennifer Chen ’11, the current president of the Dunster House Opera, came to the form through her involvement with the Early Music Society of Harvard, which is devoted to the performance of historic Western music.