June 13, 2024

In a riveting convergence of classical tragedy and comedic legal proceedings, the opera double bill of ‘Dido and Aeneas’ and ‘Trial by Jury’ was presented by California Baptist University at the Lewis Family Playhouse in Rancho Cucamonga on Feb. 23 and 24. The night captivates audiences with heart-wrenching operatic drama and uproarious courtroom antics. This pairing navigates the timeless tales of love, betrayal and justice with an innovative twist.

The first opera was a Baroque-style opera, while the second was a comedy. This combination of performances has taken lots of planning for the cast and production team, as they have been preparing since the beginning of the fall semester.

“So it’s two very contrasting shows of the night. But one, you get the drama of opera. The second one is completely different, where you get the comedy of opera,” said Wyatt Mitchison, vocal performance graduate student and the actor who plays Aeneas. 

In the first performance, Mitchison plays the son of Aphrodite and Anchises and is known in mythology as a mythical hero of Troy and Rome, while in the second, he is the judge.

Navigating between the two storylines proved to be a challenge for the entire opera production as they went through the hours and days spent rehearsing the week before their show.

“‘I’ve been creating four or five different characters since September. But it’s been really fun. It’s really challenged me and pushed me to be able to snap into two different characters at a moment’s notice,” Mitchison said, “We’ve never done two shows in one night. It’s a very unique and interesting journey.”

Part of an opera is conveying a message and telling a story through music and song; on top of the acting and movements on stage, they must convey messages through their voice. Typically, operas are not in English. The languages that are normally found in an opera are French, German and Italian, according to the English National Opera. With these two operas being in English, there is more pressure for the message of both stories to be transferred more quickly.

“With it being English, now, we have to make sure that you understand the words that we’re saying. It’s very easy for opera singers to manipulate vowels,” Mitchison said.

The operas are complete with music in addition to the acting and learning the music is more challenging than it may seem. Preparations for these operas have been ongoing for many months before the premiere weekend. 

“The music in the Purcell is quite difficult. And I think the students have done a tremendous job learning the music because everything, of course, in an opera has to be done by heart. They’re not allowed to bring music to the stage,” said Fred Carama, adjunct professor, chorus director and coach for the operas.

Storytelling in an opera is crucial in conveying the story’s message, and for Carama, working with the chorus requires a plethora of work for the students.

“A chorus is a very important part of an opera. They carry on the storytelling. And not only do they need to know the music as an ensemble, but of course, they’re on stage a lot of the time, and they need to act and be participants, you know, reacting to the principles, and it’s a big collaborative effort to do an Opera Chorus,” Carama said.

Following this performance set a high bar for Matthew Stumpf, CBU music alumnus who plays the judge in the comedy “Trial by Jury.” Stumpf explained that going from the story of a tragedy and then transitioning to a comedy right after creates, a “cognitive whiplash” for the audience, and part of his job as someone in the comedy was to make sure that the comedic aspect did not get lost.  

Stumpf’s chosen genre for acting is comedy. He found that while working through the constraints of the opera, working within his role and trying to find moments that were organically funny to him and the rest of the cast was a challenge but also freeing.

“Within those constraints is where we find more freedom,” Stumpf said. 

For the opera’s ending, Stumpf’s hope for the audience is that they walk away and aren’t disappointed leaving the theater with a profound new perspective.

“I really want people to come away not having just laughed but also having a more critical understanding of the world they live in. Comedy is when the dissonance of the real world and our expectations comes in.  My hope is that by critically analyzing the comedy of this show, people start to look at the world through a similar lens,” Stumpf said.

Likewise, Joel Balzun, adjunct professor of applied voice and the head vocal coach for CBU opera, wants the audience to know that the opera has something in it for everyone.  Balzun hopes they notice the variety in the opera theater.

“For our attending audience, I hope they realize that opera can convey a wide variety of moods. ‘Dido and Aeneas’ is a dark tragedy with a devastating ending, while ‘Trial by Jury’ is like a non-sensical sketch,” Balzun said. “Opera is a magnified, elongated expression of the human experience. Aesthetically, it is the convergence of music, drama, visual art and dance. There is something for everyone, especially this production we are mounting.”

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