March 31, 2021

Opera Meets Mythology Meets Tinder as PU Presents State-of-the-Art Virtual Production

By Nancy Plum

Operas have been presented in unusual formats over the past year as companies think far outside the opera house, ranging from Zoomed recitals to a presentation of Wagner in a parking garage. Princeton University’s Department of Music joined the inventive performance arena this past month, with a virtual opera performance of 17th-century Italian composer Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto. Most academic years in January, students in the Department of Music fall course on opera performance have presented the fruits of their labor in a public performance at Richardson Auditorium. Princeton University operated remotely the first half of this academic year, but the students enrolled in the fall 2020 virtual class refused to be cheated out of their public performance. With the combination of a conductor, director, videographer, dramaturg, and its own collective imagination, the class created a virtual three-act opera production presented by the Department of Music over three Saturdays this past month.  

The University production of La Calisto began its technological path as University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt and voice faculty member Martha Elliott recorded the opera’s harpsichord accompaniment on piano. The videotape was then sent to harpsichordist Joyce Chen, who rerecorded the music on harpsichord to Pratt’s conducting. With the cast isolated all over the country, the University sent each singer state-of-the-art recording equipment and software to record their solo parts to Chen’s accompaniment. Students were allowed to submit as many “takes” as they wanted. The opera’s extensive recitatives were replaced with narration written by dramaturg (and Music Department chair) Wendy Heller and opera director Christopher Mattaliano and delivered throughout the opera by the cast members themselves.  

The University Department of Music presented the three-act production act by act beginning in early March, with Act I launched March 6, Act II March 13, and Act III on March 20.  The final broadcast reflected 17 singers and instrumentalists from the University student body using the spaces of their own homes, combined with the best technology the 21st century has to offer, to recreate a story from mythology set to music of the 17th century.  

Cavalli’s opera is based on the story of Calisto, the nymph daughter of King Lycaon and a follower of Diana, the goddess of the hunt. Calisto catches the attention of the thunder god Zeus, who transforms himself into a “fake” Diana to seduce her, and the complicated love story is on, with Calisto eventually set among the stars as the constellation Ursa Major. As was the custom of the time, Cavalli’s opera begins with an overture, played by strings and harpsichord and visually accompanied in the Princeton University production by artwork of the 17th century. University junior Emily Cruz started the vocal lines off well as the character Natura with a rich alto voice, visually accompanied by outdoor scenes of the University. She was subsequently joined by sopranos Ally Noone and Jamie Feder for a well-balanced and well-blended trio.  

Calisto was played by University Junior Marley Jacobson, who showed herself to be a solid soprano throughout the production, but particularly in the aria which opened the third act as she reminisced about Diana. Jacobson handled particularly well the difficult scales embedded in her vocal line, and her Act I duet with Diana, sung by senior Siyang Liu, was well-tuned and well-timed. Liu consistently sang with a crisp and clean soprano voice, and her character showed clever use of phone technology (especially Tinder) to convey the story. A secondary character with leading role vocal challenges and difficulty was the shepherd Endimione, sung by Mariana Corichi Gomez. Gomez demonstrated a solid lyrical soprano voice with a rich lower register and conveyed Cavalli’s melodic writing especially well in an Act II aria sung while recording the storyline’s drama in her diary.

The characters of Giove (Zeus) and Mercurio (Mercury) were well sung by Kevin Williams and Tim Amarell, respectively. The men in the cast often joined their love interests simultaneously onscreen, as all singers presented complex contrapuntal vocal lines accompanied by animated and imaginative facial expressions, even if they were not in the same space. The cast, among the best the University has had for an opera performance in recent years, was well rounded out by Leila Abou-Jaoude, Hannah Bein, Rupert Peacock, and Katelyn Rodrigues. Rodrigues, singing the role of Zeus’ wife Juno, sang with a sensitive lyric soprano as she advised women of the world on affairs of the heart, and Abou-Jaoude, portraying Linfea, conveyed her unrequited romantic feelings in a solid soprano voice to her ever-attentive cat.  

The University Department of Music’s production of La Calisto was accompanied by an instrumental ensemble of two violins, cello, and two harpsichords, led by conductor Michael Pratt. The string parts of the orchestra, played by violinists Allie Mangel and Joanna Kuo, as well as cellist Mika Hyman, were among the last to be added to the final production.  Combined with the harpsichord playing of Joyce Chen and Cameron Khan, the painstaking musical layering which became the orchestral accompaniment was always perfectly in time with the singers and observant of Baroque details and musical nuance. Key to making this production particularly relevant to these times was the use of today’s indispensable technology as props for the characters, with visual backdrops to the singing reflecting what the cast has missed most from pre-pandemic life, all seamlessly blended together by sound engineer Carlos Dias and editor Christopher McDonald.    

Opera has often reflected the times in which it was written, and although La Calisto was composed in the middle of the 17th century, Princeton University’s production well represented the current year. The 17th century in Europe was not without its epidemics, but as these 21st-century students created their own realities and dreams in Cavalli’s characters, La Calisto became an achievement of creating an opera under the circumstances of the past year, as well as the opera’s storyline itself — showing that timeless art is called that for a reason.