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Concert of American Music by the BU Chamber Chorus, Saturday, February 8, 8 p.m., Tsai Performance Center
Week of 7 February 2003· Vol. VI, No. 20

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Great Britten’s Shakespeare
Long Night’s Journey into Delight

By Brian Fitzgerald

What better way to inject a little summer into a long winter than a production of Benjamin Britten’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

David Cushing (CFA’04) as Bottom (left) and Tracy Wise (CFA’04) as Flute rehearse for CFA’s production of the Benjamin Britten opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Vernon Doucette
  David Cushing (CFA’04) as Bottom (left) and Tracy Wise (CFA’04) as Flute rehearse for CFA’s production of the Benjamin Britten opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Vernon Doucette

The opera has enjoyed much success since its first performance in 1960 at the prestigious Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk, England, which makes it an excellent choice for the College of Fine Arts’ first opera of the season. “It’s perfect theater,” says Sharon Daniels, a CFA professor and director of opera programs for the CFA school of music. “There is so much texture and humor in the opera. It’s a fantastic adaptation of the Shakespeare play.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is among the top three on Daniels’ list of favorite operas, will be staged by the BU Opera Institute and the BU Chamber Orchestra from February 13 to 16 at the Boston University Theatre Mainstage.

The 400-year-old comedy has seen probably thousands of productions (if one counts high school renditions), including a 1935 movie that many thought miscast Mickey Rooney as Puck and Jimmy Cagney as Bottom, and the 1982 Woody Allen film A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy -- an extremely loose reworking of the Shakespeare play.

Although the production’s costumes will range from late Victorian to contemporary, the presentation will stay true to Shakespeare. Britten brings the classic story to life musically, using what most critics feel was an appropriate abridgement of the Bard’s original. Britten simply “remade” the play to suit the operatic stage, and in the process composed a musical masterpiece.

What is it about Britten’s take on this Shakespeare comedy that earns so much critical acclaim? “He uses an orchestra to help paint the different groups of characters,” explains William Lumpkin, Opera Institute music director and an assistant professor, who will conduct the BU Chamber Orchestra. “The groupings of instruments, the orchestration, paint a musical and dramatic picture. The lovers’ orchestration, for example, is very rich, with strings and low brass, and very romantic. The fairies’ music has lots of harps and bells -- which creates a glistening kind of color.”

When he and Daniels pick an opera for their students, they make a decision after “getting a feel for the core group of singers,” says Lumpkin. “Then we choose the piece that best serves not only them, but also everyone involved. And I think that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a great opera for an institution like ours because it affords so many opportunities.” Lumpkin was the assistant director of a production of the opera when he was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, and he recalls that the comical chaos was a huge hit.

The play -- and the opera -- is a fantasy, a comedy, and a romance all in one. “It’s one of the most musical of Shakespeare’s plays,” says Jim Petosa, director of CFA’s school of theatre arts and the production’s stage director. “And Britten’s score is meticulous.” A tale of flirtations turned upside down by the hijinks of unseen fairies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream demands fine comedic and singing talents, and judging by a recent rehearsal, its cast of CFA students is ready to rise to the occasion. They are confident and loose, and Petosa is giving them the fine-tuning necessary to enchant the audience. “You’re lost in each other,” he tells the actors playing Titania and Oberon, guiding them to convey their characters’ love convincingly. “It’s a big moment of reconciliation.” And when they repeat the scene, they seem to have taken his advice to heart and to have indeed become those newly reunited lovers.

Of course, “What’s my motivation?” is about the oldest cliché in acting, but the director’s job is to provide guidance, and not just to college thespians. “It’s no different than I would do with seasoned professionals,” Petosa says, “helping that actor shape that particular moment into something special, to etch the performance more carefully.” He relentlessly coaches the actors, and they are eager to learn.

The stage set, Petosa says, will be impressive, taking its inspiration from visual images of the universe, such as those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The lighting design will play on the power of the sun and the moon.

Petosa says the audience -- and he hopes, the press -- will not be the only ones pleased with this collaborative production. “The Opera Institute students benefit because they’re getting a certain level of theatrical expertise,” he says, “and the theatre arts students benefit because they get to forge an appreciation of another dramatic medium.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be performed at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., on Thursday, February 13, at 7:30 p.m., Friday, February 14, and Saturday, February 15, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, February 16, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 and $10 general admission; $10 and $8 BU alumni and Huntington Theatre Company subscribers; $5 students and senior citizens; one free ticket for faculty and staff based on availability. For more information, see Calendar, page 4, or call the box office at 617-266-0800.


7 February 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations