Westminster Opera Theater presents a new take on an old tale

By Megan Pendagast

An evening of culture and music for laymen and opera aficionados alike is offered this weekend when Westminster Opera Theater presents Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The performances will occur tonight and on Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Princeton Regional Schools Performing Arts Center at Princeton High School.

“Britten adapted Shakespeare’s play and cut it down to fit within the opera,” Music Director William Hobbs said.

All of the performers are Westminster Choir College students, which took stage director Kara-Lynn Vaeni by surprise.

“The performers have put in such good work,” she said. “I can’t believe they’re students.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells the tale of four star-crossed lovers. Hermia (Hannah Strong) is in love with Lysander (George Ross Somerville), while Helena (Kelsey Stark) is in love with Demetrius (Brian Mextorf). Both Demetrius and Lysander initially love Hermia. All the actors involved in the love triangle are graduate students except Strong, who is a senior.

They are inadvertently caught in the crosshairs of a dispute between Oberon, King of the Fairies (James Kenon Mitchell) and Tytania, Queen of the Fairies (Marissa Mae Chalker), who are both played by graduate students. The king instructs fairy court jester Puck (graduate student Victoria Schwindsackl) to douse the queen’s eyelids with a love potion in order to make her fall in love with an animal when she awakens. This plan goes awry, making Lysander and Demetrius fall in love with Helena, causing mischief and hilarity.

“It’s written as an ensemble piece with the fairy world, four lovers and six rustics,” Hobbs said. “It’s an interesting theatrical take replete with a little bit of skin and sex. It’s great for the singers and forces them to physicalize their dramatic art in an innovative way.”

Britten, the composer, and Peter Pears, the librettist, adapted Shakespeare’s classic comedy into an opera in 1960. Since then, the work has been performed in the Royal Opera House and at the English National Opera, among other places. Pears adapted Shakespeare’s words into a libretto, aiming to tell the beloved story through song.

“It’s a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s story,” Vaeni said. “We had to imagine: What are modern fairies? We decided that they were ultimately nature spirits. But what does that mean when nature is so awry and messed up? We made the costumes reflect this; they’re sort of rock ’n’ roll and torn up, but also glamorous. Think David Bowie glam rock era. The opera is gorgeous and will make you laugh.”

According to Vaeni, this adaptation is not without its challenges.

“Britten is sort of evil for the director,” she said. “He starts off the opera with three minutes of music without singing. It’s like, why do you kill the action? It doesn’t necessarily translate well to modern time with iPods and cell phones but it made us work to figure out how to keep the audience’s interest. There’s a lot of background action and character development.”

According to Hobbs, the music enhances the original text. Britten distinguishes between the different sets of characters, making the lovers sound romantic and the fairies sound mystical and ethereal.

“All worlds are kept separate with distinct sounds,” he said. “It’s a fantastic piece.”

According to Vaeni, there are key differences between the opera and the play, including streamlining Shakespeare’s first act and giving the fairies more prominence. This modern interpretation aims to attract those who are familiar with opera as well as those who are not.

“The words ‘fun, physical and exciting’ are not traditionally associated with the opera,” Vaeni said. “This may not be for people with traditional expectations of opera unless they want to have these preconceptions challenged. But if you think you don’t like opera, this one’s for you.”

Admission to this performance is $25 for adults and $20 for students and seniors. For tickets, call 609-921-2663 or order online at rider.edu/arts.

Contact this writer at pendagastm@theridernews.com


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