The LMU Opera Workshop (1990-1999)
The Francis Albert Sinatra Opera Workshop (1999-present)
Dr. Virginia Saya, Director
The opera program at Loyola Marymount University began in Spring 1990 with staged performances in Murphy Recital Hall of scenes from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute. Preceding that production, in the Fall of 1989, a group of interested students had gathered in the living room of new Assistant Professor Virginia Saya to watch director Franco Zefferelli's film of Verdi's La Traviata and to discuss a vision of putting student opera on the stage at LMU. Present that afternoon were, among others, soprano Margaret Rose Koenn, for whom opera at LMU would be the first step in a major professional opera career in Germany as principal soprano in both Coburg and Darmstadt, as well as soprano Mary Carroll, who years later would send her own talented high school students to LMU to sing in the opera program imagined that day.
Student artistry, creativity, and sensitivity to historical settings were always a part of the vision. Reaching back into music history was natural, as Professor Saya, who had worked as an operatic soprano, director and designer, librettist, and music critic, became Dr. Virginia Saya in December 1989 with the awarding of the Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. It had long been clear to scholars that the Jesuit academies of Europe in the 1600s were the first places to incorporate opera performance into a curriculum. It was treated as a musical and theatrical art, but also as a liberal art. In his book Companions of Jesuits, Joseph McDonnell, S. J. writes of the contributions of the Jesuit academies, as well as the knowledge that Jesuit educators held before them: That these endeavors would bring students into close, collaborative, learning and working contact with the faculty, and that productions would bind students and parents meaningfully to the schools.
At LMU, the strong Marymount tradition in the Arts was forwarded by the new inclusion of operatic training, as opera absorbs and blends many arts, including music, drama, poetry (in diverse languages and dialects), singing, acting, dancing, and all the visual arts needed for productions. There was no budget for the new program, so creative design, costumes, sewing, prop and set construction, and acquisitions were done by the director and students, as well as by Joel Howard, the Manager of Murphy Recital Hall, whose background included serving as Technical Director for the Opera Company of Boston under director and conductor Sarah Caldwell. The Murphy Recital Hall budget proved invaluable for helping early productions make it to the stage.
In Fall of 1990, the 200th anniversary of Mozart's Così fan Tutte was celebrated with scenes from that opera, but the coming of age of the program was really marked by two subsequent productions: A 90-minute version of Mozart's The Magic Flute in Spring 1991 (the 200th anniversary of the work), and Puccini's complete Gianni Schicchi in Spring 1992. The die was cast: Major student productions would be one-act operas in their entirety, or, alternately, longer operas (the originals are often three to four hours in duration) in the director's versions carved from the whole and featuring full or nearly full casts, with parts the story provided by narration or printed text. The current vogue among professional opera companies for "90-minute Mozart" or "90-minute Rossini" is a testament to the fact that these versions have a value all their own.
Immediately in 1990-91 the basics of the annual performance calendar would be established: Various staged scenes each November and a major production every February or March. Casting for the forthcoming academic year was and still is done through an audition process every April. To convey these operas most vividly to the audience, the major works would be studied in the original languages, but sung in carefully hewn English translations.
The rehearsal times for the course MUSC 343: Opera Scenes/Workshop settled into Mondays and Wednesdays, 3:30-5:30 to allow students the option of night rehearsals in theatre and dance, or church jobs in the region. The program was thus designed to achieve interdisciplinary goals within the College of Communications and Fine Arts, in that student performers outside the Music Major could appear in opera and, conversely, Music Majors could grow as performers through experiences gained in the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance. To achieve the goals of an ambitious performing schedule and multiple performance experiences for each student annually, two pianists were engaged for opera, so two rehearsals or more could go on simultaneously in that limited time frame.
The issue of a budget for the program, however, still loomed large in the early years. In 1995, Loyola Marymount University President Thomas P. O'Malley, S. J. approached the renowned Frank Sinatra with an idea. Mr. Sinatra had donated a property in Montecito, California to LMU, and it was proving difficult to use the house for retreats due to its distance from Los Angeles. Opera, brought from Italy by Mr. Sinatra's immigrant parents, had been the music Frank Sinatra grew up with. The singer welcomed the idea of an opera program at LMU named after him and endowed by a portion of the money generated through sale of the property. His daughter Nancy Sinatra said in her presentation at the dedication of the Francis Albert Sinatra Opera Workshop in March of 1999 that her father's first printed biography had read, "Francis Albert Sinatra, American baritone."
The gap between Frank Sinatra's agreement with LMU in 1995 and the actual dedication in 1999 was due to the state of the famous singer's health. The hope was to have a ceremony that he could attend; however, his death in 1998 finalized the vision of a posthumous ceremony celebrating his life and career and his generosity to LMU, which included the gift of his Bösendorfer piano, now in the piano teaching/opera coaching studio, Room 116 in the Burns Fine Arts Center.
Frank Sinatra's generosity led to growth in experiences and training. Existing productions were reworked, including the director's new designs for period costumes, prop, and set holdings, while numerous scenes and new productions were added to the repertoire. Beginning in 2004, the income off of the endowment had grown sufficiently to pay for LMU voice majors in the program to audition for roles in summer opera and vocal training abroad, notably with the Operafestival di Roma (Italy) and The Frost School of Music Salzburg Program (Austria). If accepted, transportation and fees have been covered by the Endowment. With this, opera at LMU could become a year-round program for talented singers, providing opportunities to perform complete operas with orchestra. Foreign language classes, diction training, acting training, as well as encountering young singers from around the world now expand the horizons of LMU singers on a regular basis.
In a conversation outside their studios in Fall of 1999, Dr. Tania Fleischer mentioned to Dr. Saya that, while awake with her then-infant son Oliver in the middle of the night, she had thought that some of the November opera scenes and some of the piano chamber music which she directed could be performed again in January. This would give LMU students a welcome second opportunity for public performances of their repertoire in Murphy Recital Hall, since neither staged opera nor chamber music with grand pianos tours easily to other locations.
Thus the vision of free concerts of opera and other classical music for children was born. It has continued unabated for 16 years, due to Dr. Fleischer's expertise, energy, and innovative programming as well as to the endowment funds. This has led to appearances by esteemed local performers, such as members of actor Tim Robbins's theatre company "The Actors' Gang," as well as regular appearances by the Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Company. The LMU Family of Schools now links their efforts to these concerts, and local school children participate each year.
Dr. Karl Snider of the Applied Voice faculty had filled in during the director's sabbatical, and joined as permanent Guest Director and teacher of Alexander Technique in 1999. His innumerable contributions have included designing and directing scenes for the Children's Concerts and directing and designing his signature operas in the repertoire, Menotti's The Old Maid and the Thief and Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance.
No account of the history of the opera program would be complete without prominent mention of the pianists who provide support in every rehearsal and lead the musical portion of performances, for without a conductor (the Murphy Recital Hall stage does not accommodate one for staged opera), the pianist is truly the orchestra. The orchestral reductions played for opera do not lie under the hands as piano scores do, but present unique, at time extraordinary, difficulties. Several pianists contributed to opera's success in the early years: Kathy McGrath, Barbara Wilkinson, Joseph Lawson, Bruce Olstad, and Dr. Mark Saya.
Beginning in 1995, Valeria Morgovskaya became primary performance pianist, switching to rehearsal pianist soon after 2000 when Dr. Wojciech Kocyan began his tenure as principal performance pianist for the Sinatra Opera Workshop. Their internationally acclaimed talents have shaped the repertoire, particularly the inclusion of difficult modern scores, such as Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (2006) and Britten's Albert Herring (2010).
The Sinatra Opera Workshop mounted the West Coast Premiere of John Cage's Europera 5 in 2011. Kocyan's performances, which included Liszt's Liebestod and the Rigoletto Concert Paraphrase, were crucial to the work's critical success. Europera 5, which requires not only a cast of singers but also a concert pianist performing virtuosic operatic transcriptions, was and is an offering unique to LMU, fitting perfectly the special qualities of the LMU opera program and the facility of Murphy Recital Hall.
Recent progress has included greater technical theatre support, an expansion of Aria Fests and Master Classes, and the initiation of a work study position through the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance for an Assistant Director for opera. This person handles several important aspects of the production, which has included a greater Web presence on social media for 2015 events than ever before.
The vitality of opera in Los Angeles in the past 25 years has been extraordinary. The Los Angeles Opera is only five years older than the opera program at LMU, and the emergence of that company as a major international force in the art form has given LMU students the opportunity to attend and study world-class opera performances. It has also given alumni opportunities as professionals in the LA Opera chorus and as administrators with the company. Two alumni of the LMU program have served as personal assistants to Placido Domingo as part of their LA Opera careers.
When all is said and done, opera begins and ends with the human voice. It is an exciting art form that brings singers to new levels, that compels us with great theater and great music, and informs the liberal arts students of LMU. When one encounters a student singer performing with vitality, with total immersion in the role, one encounters, in the words of former LMU President Robert Lawton, S. J., "The human being fully alive."
Major Works Performed
- (Monteverdi, Mozart, Sullivan, and Stravinsky in abbreviated versions)
- Cage: Europera 5 – West Coast Premiere
- Menotti: Amahl and the Night Visitors
- Menotti: The Old Maid and the Thief
- Monteverdi: The Coronation of Poppea
- Mozart: Così fan tutte
- Mozart: The Magic Flute
- Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro
- Puccini: Gianni Schicchi
- Schütz: Die Sieben Worte
- Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress
- Sullivan: The Pirates of Penzance
Major Scenes Performed
- Bizet: Carmen
- Blitzstein: Regina
- Britten: Albert Herring
- Cimarosa: The Secret Marriage
- Copland: The Tender Land
- Delibes: Lakmé
- Hanlon: Spreading the News
- Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel
- Mozart: Don Giovanni
- Puccini: La Rondine
- Puccini: Il Tabarro
- Rossini: The Barber of Seville
- R. Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
- Sullivan: H.M.S. Pinafore
- Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin
- Verdi: Un ballo in maschera
- Verdi: Falstaff
- Weill: Street Scene
Complete Operas Performed
- Overseas in Original Languages (Participation funded by the Sinatra Opera Endowment)
- Bizet: Carmen
- Lehár: Die lustige Witwe
- Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro
- Mozart: Die Zauberflöte
- Purcell: The Fairie Queen
- J. Strauss: Die Fledermaus
- Viardot: Cendrillon
Children's Concert Repertoire
- Duarte: Hark, Hark, the Arc
- Fine: Childhood Fables
- Hoiby: The Serpent
- Le Jenue: Revecy venir du printans
- Prokofiev: The Chatterbox
- Purcell: Hark, the echoing air
- Purcell: Sound the Trumpet
- Rossini: Duetto di due gatti
- Salerni: The Old Witch and the New Moon