The Opera Theater at California Baptist University presented the love story of Charles Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” on Feb. 24 and Feb. 26 at the Lewis Family Playhouse in Rancho Cucamonga.
The opera was sung completely in French, a language known famously for the emotion and strategic accent that flows throughout the language. The conductor, Dr. Gene Moon, associate professor of music and director of orchestral studies, noted that singing the opera in its original language is important.
“The trumpet plays the same notes, whether it’s in French or Italian, but to a certain degree,” Moon said. “When it’s sung in French, it creates a different atmosphere. So I really appreciated being able to conduct in French, which is a strange thing for a conductor to say because you would think that the music is the same with a stick in this pattern that I conduct.”
The cast took several months learning the pronunciation and accent for their roles.
“For my role of Roméo, I had about 75 full pages of French music to have memorized for the show date,” said Dominic Salvati, the actor for the leading role and senior vocal performance major. “But I am grateful to have developed a system to help speed up the process.”
Salvati said that learning the language for this production was discouraging since it was his least familiar language despite the few songs he had done before in French.
“I started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel about a week before the show when I finally grasped the music,” Salvati said.
The show, while produced by CBU, was open to anyone for auditions. However, the majority of the cast was from CBU. The cast began preparing for the production in August, during which time the members focused on hearing the music to learn the themes and general storyline. They then transitioned into the spring semester’s rehearsal. During “tech week,” the week before the show, each cast member traveled to the theater to rehearse for about six hours each day to prepare for the show.
“This, in particular, is the hardest to balance as the physical toll of singing for hours can lead to exhaustion,” Salvati said.
When combined with the orchestra, this entire production took many long hours to prepare.
“The orchestra has had their music for just about a month and a half,” said Gabby Vivona, sophomore instrumental performance major and principal clarinet player for the orchestra in this production. “We’ve only rehearsed about once or twice a week for the past six weeks, and then during the week preceding the show nights, we rehearsed with the cast for a total of 20 hours in four days.
“The cast has rehearsed since early last semester because they have to memorize all their lines in French, too. They also practice singing their arias before they can even learn the staging and acting during the show.”
All this hard work from the cast, orchestra and faculty exemplified the dedication it took to get to the point of performing. The show’s vibrant colors and costumes played into the setup of each act. For example, the colors of Roméo and Juliette are blue for the Montagues and red for the Capulets, respectively, and the characters represented those colors throughout the entire production until they decide to get married.
“From the viewers’ seat, they [saw] a stage with many memorable scenes, [heard] the orchestra down in the pit bringing the music to life and [heard] amazing vocalists sing their hearts out,” Vivona said. “It should be a very awe-inspiring experience, especially for those who have never been before.”
The Lewis Family Playhouse used an actual balcony for the iconic Roméo and Juliette scene, giving the show a sense of authenticity. The orchestra’s music synced seamlessly with the actors and their mannerisms, including the fight scene between Tybalt, Mercutio and Roméo.
“I think I may agree with the audience when I say the sword fighting scene is quite fun, lots of high notes and fast movements, with real fencing swords, I might add,” Salvati said. “A couple of times during rehearsals, I even saw sparks fly off the swords.”
The attention to detail that was put into the production was cohesive throughout its entirety, from the symbolic colors, the music setting the tone and the actor’s notes pushing the storyline even further.
“The music for this opera is so important to the show,” Vivona said. “The sounds you hear from the pit invoke the emotions and actions coming from the stage. In a way, we bring it to life.”
The scene where the two characters are in a room after Roméo has been exiled is a climactic scene in the opera. The music, lighting and singing made it an emotional scene to watch.
“Musically speaking, I thoroughly enjoyed the scene called ‘the bedroom scene,’” Salvati said. “The music and overall set design for the scene was lush and beautiful, iconic to those who were a part of it.”
The authentic feeling that the audience receives can also be noted by the performers themselves.
“I would have to say performing is music and art in its rawest form,” Salvati said. “For a good one, the performer really has to let out the most authentic and powerful emotion they possess. There is something so special about live music that touches hearts, your own and theirs.”
Ultimately, the performance represented a way to keep the art of opera alive at CBU.
“I want to keep that art form important,” Moon said. “Trust me — it’s easy for us to go to a lot of places that don’t have opera. I want people to come to CBU knowing, ‘Hey, we have opera here.’ That’s something to hang our hat on.”