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Vol. LXIV, No. 49
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Wednesday, December 8, 2010
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Westminster Opera Program Shows Off Its Best Students in Winter Opera Gala

Nancy Plum

Westminster Choir College is understandably renowned for its choirs, but not everyone is interested in a choral career. The opera program at the college has produced a number of fine singers in recent years, many of whom are forging careers in the national and international arena. Representatives of current voice students presented a “Winter Opera Gala” this past weekend at the Princeton Regional Schools Performing Arts Center, showing off some very talented singers who study with Westminster faculty.

One potential problem with an opera “gala” is knowing when to end, and on such a campus as Westminster, no doubt many singers wanted to participate in Saturday night’s performance. The evening was long, placing the most burden on the orchestra (which played every number) but also possibly leaving some talented singers under appreciated because their performance spot was so late. Music Director William Hobbs, who has been on the faculty at Westminster since 2008, compiled a very full night of mostly ensemble numbers, giving an incredible number of singers the chance to perform. By opening with a well-known overture and closing with a popular “Finale” incorporating all the performers, Mr. Hobbs created an “opera” which traversed many time spans, plotlines, and musical styles.

All of the Choir College singers sang with the precision and clarity the institution is known for, but as with any program with more than twenty-five performers, there were certain stand-outs. Mezzo-soprano Melissa Fajardo, a senior performance major, sang with richness and maturity in a trio from Ariadne auf Naxos with sopranos Sarah Leidereiter and Kate Winchester. Ms. Fajardo returned for several other selections, including scenes from Peter Grimes, Falstaff and a humorous Ice Cream Sextet by Kurt Weill. In all of these scenes, Ms. Fajardo proved herself to be an outstanding singer with a good sense of poise and drama.

Soprano Lauren Liddicoat sang only one aria, but it may be considered the most beloved three minutes in opera — Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Gianni Schicchi. Ms. Liddicoat studies with Laura Brooks Rice, and Ms. Rice must be proud of this particular student, who sang with a voice full of color, capturing the aria’s style well. Conductor Hobbs took a slower tempo to the accompaniment, drawing out the expressiveness of both the aria and Ms. Liddicoat’s singing.

Another stand-out was tenor Brandon Motz, who put a great deal of verve and style into his ensemble pieces from L’Elisir d’Amore and a quintet from Carmen. Mr. Motz demonstrated significant stage presence, and his light lyric tenor blended especially well with the other voices in the Carmen quintet.

Sopranos abounded throughout the evening, and one distinctive voice was Erin Winker, singing the role of Donna Elvira in a quartet from Don Giovanni. Ms. Winker, a graduate student in voice performance and pedagogy, sang with a sharp vocal edge which cut well through the orchestra. One of the most pleasant surprises of the evening was an apparent last minute substitution — soprano Justine Claire Aronson, who sang an aria from Handel’s Alcina. Ms. Aronson moved her voice well through the coloratura and showed flashy ornamentation in the aria’s repeated sections.

A true collective star of the night was the orchestra, which played every number (working the strings especially hard). Mr. Hobbs took a quick tempo to the opening overture to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, requiring the winds to play very fast. The performing Arts Center auditorium was a good acoustic for the orchestra, and even at its fullest, the ensemble was not overpowering in the hall. Also adding significantly to the performance was imaginative use of digital backdrops behind the singers, as well as supertitles translating the text.

The evening moved through opera history, returning from time to time to Mozart, whose music is always a pleasure to listen to. The Gala closed with an extensive scene from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, calling all the performers back to the stage to participate as either principals or chorus. The beginning of the scene moved a bit slowly (more the fault of Offenbach) but obviously the cast was aiming for a rousing “can-can” conclusion to the night. A number of singers impressively maintained animated stage character, despite the lateness of the evening. What was also clear from this “Gala” was that some of these singers will be heard from again — most likely on the major operatic stages of the world.

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