By Elisabeth Hulette '03
LEWISBURG, Pa. — Twenty years ago, the Bucknell Opera Company took its first steps out under the bright lights of a stage.
Since then, the company has kindled a love for opera in a generation of students and propelled many through the upper echelons of American performance. Now, on April 17, about 35 alumni will gather to blend their voices with those of current students and bring their talent back to Bucknell.
Like the education that company students receive in opera, the performance will blend traditional and modern music, from Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" to Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking," which premiered in 2000.
That range is the company's cornerstone. Students not only perform older, more traditional operas but also learn new works, sometimes working directly with visiting composers including Heggie and Milton Granger.
"The students have an opportunity to experience what is happening with the art form today, in addition to learning the traditional operatic literature," said founder and director Catherine Payn.
The April 17 performance will include chamber operas "Talk Opera" by Milton Granger, who will conduct the program, "may i feel, said he" by Bright Sheng, and excerpts from three Mozart operas.
"The current Bucknell Opera Company also will be joined by company alumni in scenes from 'The Marriage of Figaro,' 'Don Giovanni' and 'Cosi fan tutte,'" Payn said. The performance begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Weis Center for the Performing Arts and is free and open to the public.
Payn's vision for opera at Bucknell was an opera education program that culminated in performances each semester.
"Up to that point there had been a program at Bucknell where they occasionally would do opera scenes, but there was no formal opera education," said Todd Griffith, a 1991 graduate and original company member, who now owns an intelligence business in Williamsport and remains an active performer.
Since its inception, the company roster has included auditioned undergraduate musicians whose fields of study represent many of the curricular areas of the University. As continuing members of the ensemble, students sing roles each semester that support their individual vocal, musical and performance development.
Alumni who have continued with professional singing careers say the scope of their education and the experience they received as members of a small company catapulted them as high as graduates of major music conservatories. Members of the Bucknell Opera Company have gone on to study at schools including the Manhattan School of Music and to intern at the Metropolitan and Washington operas.
"You get those roles. You're not always waving a palm frond in the back," said Amanda Robie, a 2003 graduate who earned her master's degree in performance from the Boston Conservatory. "That's a huge asset Bucknell gives its students."
Kierstie Drumm Whitehead, a 1998 graduate, turned her experience with the opera company's school outreach program into a career with Imagination Stage in Maryland, one of the largest youth theaters on the East Coast.
As a Bucknell student, she performed the opera "Noye's Fludde" in the Weis Center for the Performing Arts with the opera company and students from the nearby Greenwood Friends Middle School. Preparation for the performance allowed her to teach them to love opera as much as she does.
"You're telling this beautiful story, and the emotion is so over the top that it has to be sung," she said. "As a singer, that's what it all comes down to."
Opera as an avocation
Not everyone who participated in the company chooses a career in music. For some, the company was a brief chance to enter a world they otherwise might never have discovered.
For Kyle McGee, a 2004 graduate and now a lawyer in Pittsburgh, it was an escape from stressful engineering classes. But looking back, it means much more.
The chance to work with students who have become top vocalists, he said, is an experience few people outside the music profession can boast.
"As you grow up, you appreciate it even more," McGee said. Returning to sing on April 17, he said, "is going to be a great time and a phenomenal performance."
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