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. more