Williams Opera opens with Mozart selections

Opera has the potential to reach out to an audience like few other kinds of performing arts. Williams Opera, a new student group organized last spring, brought its first performance of selected ensembles from Mozart’s Così fan tutte to Chapin Hall on Saturday evening.

“Opera is underrepresented in campus performances, which is really a shame. Vocal music is tremendously effective at conveying emotion to the audience,” Richard McDowell ’09, one of the founders of Williams Opera, said.

McDowell began the group with Augusta Caso ’09 and Eric Kang ’09, and Williams Opera has helped its founders document their growth as musicians. Caso and Kang major in music, Kang is a pianist and currently the student conductor for Williams’ choir and McDowell has studied classical voice for six years. All three have had experience with musicals and have a passion for performing. “We all wished to put on a large-scale performance as a culmination of our musical experience here at Williams,” McDowell said. With such credentials, there is hardly room for Williams Opera to fall short of its aspirations.

While the founders of Williams Opera wanted an outlet to showcase their own abilities, they were also concerned with promoting the talent of other students. The founders hope to encourage others in the College to create more student-initiated performances, all the while creating support for larger concerts. “The music department has really fantastic instrumental and choral ensembles, but there isn’t as much structure for vocal soloists or small ensembles,” McDowell said. In response, Williams Opera built on the precedent set by Midweek Music, a student concert series with performances each Wednesday in Chapin. Like Midweek Music, Williams Opera aspires to focus on student performance. The group, however, also wants to promote interaction between instrumentalists and vocalists.

Selected ensembles from Così fan tutte constituted Williams Opera’s debut performance. “[Mozart’s] music is very accessible and lively, and much of it was originally written for singers in their early 20s, so it is highly appropriate for college singers,” McDowell said. The cast’s ease on stage made the performance feel as if the group had been a part of Williams for years, instead of being newly formed. Così fan tutte follows the story of two soldiers who decide to test their girlfriends’ fidelity. Comedic interactions ensue as the soldiers lie about going to the army and return in disguise to see how their girlfriends react.

The vocals, performed by Caso, Kang, McDowell and Yanie Fecu ’10, were just as demanding as the orchestral parts, the majority of which is comprised of student players. Don Alfonso, played by Keith Kibler, a studio instructor of voice at the College, was a vibrant character whose booming voice fueled the group’s energy. The high point of Così fan tutte was the finale: it seamlessly merged the orchestra with the cast, producing a lively interaction between the instruments and vocals. The orchestra created a rhythm of sweetness and urgency, alternating between staccato notes on the strings and the soft shrill of the woodwinds.
While Così fan tutte may sound exclusive to students who are not familiar with opera, Williams Opera successfully showed that their goal is to appeal to a larger audience. The presentation of selected ensembles, as opposed to the entire opera, gave the audience a delightful taste of what is still to come. The ensembles were dramatic and humorous, which likely engaged both newcomers and veterans of opera alike. These elements created a performance that alluded to classical opera while extending accessibility to all students.

Even though the story was not presented in full, the energy of the performance was a fine substitute for the lack of a cohesive narrative. In fact, this preview of Così fan tutte effectively presented the orchestra and the singers as the focal point. Chapin was not bursting with visitors, but the visitors that did show support will surely remember the performers’ talent and spread the word. On May 16, when the Opera presents Così fan tutte in its entirety, the performance will be welcomed with even greater enthusiasm.