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Opera Company Finds Plenty of Talent for ‘Boheme’

July 31, 2008

By Mark Kanny, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 31–In one respect, Undercroft Opera is the boldest company in Pittsburgh. It presents great operas using volunteer singers and instrumentalists. Whatever the level of talent and training, none earns his living as a performer.

Undercroft Opera presents Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme” in performances Friday through Sunday at Bethel Park High School and Aug. 8 through 10 at Synod Hall in Oakland. Woody Brown is the conductor and Sally Denmead the stage director.

“La Boheme,” which premiered in 1892, was the international hit that made Puccini the leading composer of Italian opera of his time. It is the story of impoverished lovers Mimi and Rodolfo, whose tender and harmonious relationship is contrasted with the stormier affair between Musetta and Marcello. Puccini’s music is emotionally direct, but also sophisticated in harmony, rhythm and impressionist color.

The company’s music director, Rebekah Hill — who is coaching the singers and preparing the adult and children’s choruses — says there was so much talent that the show is double-cast for many of the leading roles. Mimi will be sung in turn by Charlene Canty and Gail Novak, with John Sereno and Gene Stegner alternating as Rodolfo. Amy Stabnau and Jacqueline Bezek each will get to sing Musetta’s Waltz, the Act 2 aria that leads to one of most thrilling climaxes in opera.

“We’re doing it in English, but there are still Italianate stylistic elements to be learned, such as the way to do portamenti (sliding from one note to the next). I’ve tried to help them get the style into their bodies,” Hill says. Undercroft is her fourth production of “Boheme.”

Another challenge Hill cites is that the opera is “through composed,” which means there are no breaks from singing for spoken dialogue. More muscles are involved for such endurance, she says. And there also are the matters of memorization and character development across four acts of drama, both big changes for people used to singing arias.

Conductor Brown’s experience with “La Boheme” includes performances in the pit as a trombonist and onstage singing the secondary role of Chaunard. He also has worked on the opera as a production manager for Cincinnati and Pittsburgh Operas.

“Boheme is irresistibly great stuff but very challenging, with a lot of give and take artistically,” he says. The opera will be performed in its full orchestration.

Some of the volunteer instrumentalists have never played “Boheme” — or any other opera.

“Most know it as audience members, and don’t come encumbered with preconceptions,” Brown says. “But for ones who haven’t played Puccini before, I stress his characteristic sweetness and lots of rubato (pacing that rushes ahead and holds back rather than strict tempo). That’s why the players really need to know their parts and not have their heads buried in them.” They have to be able to watch the conductor, he says.

Brown says he’s thrilled to be conducting “La Boheme.” There are lots of delicate and wonderful things in it. We’ve got six performances to mine as much of that as we can.”

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