Rider Musical Theater, WCC, stage spring opera

By Julia Train

Five women dressed in all white with ghostly makeup stood under a fixture with connected arches on the Bart Luedeke Theatre stage. They were portraying five of King Henry VIII’s wives. 

Westminster Choir College and the Musical Theater department collaborated for the first time with the production of “Last Words,” a 90-minute opera that contained two smaller ones. 

Normally, the Westminster Choir College performs the operas and the musical theater majors solely perform musicals. 

Auditions were open and held in December and rehearsals began in January, lasting three hours a day, three days a week. The final two weeks consisted of rehearsals every day. 

The first of the two operas, “Try Me, Good King,” was a collection of five songs based on the final letters and gallows speeches of the wives of Henry VIII: Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard. Henry also had a sixth wife, Katherine Parr, who outlived him, so she wasn’t portrayed in the show.

The opera represented how the queens might’ve interacted with each other. 

“We did some fun acting work, thinking about how our characters would relate to the other queens,” said Allison Christiansen, a first-year graduate student studying music in voice performance.  “There’s a moment where Jane Seymour has the baby, and Katherine of Aragon is sitting there crying because she didn’t have a baby, and then Anne Boleyn is pissed on the side.”

Christiansen played Katherine Howard, King Henry VIII’s fifth wife who was accused of adultery with Thomas Culpepper and beheaded.

As the women told the stories of their characters, their facial expressions could be seen from the back row. They showed anger, sadness, sympathy and even humor as they interacted with each other.

When they portrayed yelling, they sang louder; When they whispered, they sang softly. 

As the actors held out their notes, their voices filled the theater, even though they didn’t have microphones. 

There were subtitles above them on a screen so that the audience always knew what was being said. 

“Opera is about the voice and how your voice should be able to carry itself,” said Sienna Grinwald-Alves, a junior music education major. “Subtitles are common in operas because the style has proper vowels. We’re not used to hearing them, so they’re just making sure everyone understands what we’re saying.”

Grinwald-Alves, a member of Westminster Choir College, played the 1924 version of Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife.

To get ready for this role, Grinwald-Alves said read two books about the Fitzgeralds and researched them in depth online.

“It was honestly a lot of fun to read about her past because although it was crazy and had a lot of sad moments, within that was just a beautiful woman,” said Grinwald-Alves. “It was easy to put myself in the character, but it did take a lot of work to build the background and study her.”

Grinwald-Alves represented her character’s struggle with mental illness by shaking on the bed, running her hands through her hair as she yelled and cried, and twisting and contorting her body.

During the second to final scene, her character imagined the past and future versions of herself. 

“I played it off as her emotions just kept changing because each little word that someone would say would make this chain of reactions completely different,” said Grinwald-Alves. “So I built it up with anxiety and the panic attacks that I have. I think she deserved to be portrayed the way she actually was as a human, but I tried to incorporate everything I could in order to display the character.”

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