IU Opera Theater opens season, Fisk organ makes its debut


By Peter Jacobi

The Webb-Ehrlich Great Organ of Alumni Hall in the Indiana Memorial Student Union is ready to debut.

The Webb-Ehrlich Great Organ of Alumni Hall in the Indiana Memorial Student Union is ready to debut.

When the Musical Arts Center curtain rises Friday evening for the IU Opera Theater’s season opening performance of “The Marriage of Figaro,” it will mark the 12th time in the institution’s history that this Mozart favorite has earned an IU production. Only the composer’s “Magic Flute” equals that record, and only Puccini’s “La Boheme” surpasses it, having been staged 13 times.

“Figaro” is always a welcome presence: the nature and qualities of its music suit young voices and the beauty of its music causes listeners to succumb, an unbeatable combination. The gentlemen in charge of the production, Jacobs School conductor Arthur Fagen and visiting stage director Chris Alexander, express their pleasure at having been given the opportunity to prepare what we’re about to hear and see.

“It’s one of my favorites,” says Fagen, a highly experienced hand at opera. “Mozart’s score is perfection. The story has not aged and still engages. The characters are winning.” Alexander, last here for IU Opera Theater’s production of Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” in 2008, says directing “Figaro” means working hard “while listening to the most gorgeous music in the world” and recognizing that “Mozart was unbelievably shrewd as dramaturg. He totally understood the story and set it to music that, at all points, makes dramatic sense.”

Both seem to be aiming for authenticity in performance. Maestro Fagen has reduced the Concert Orchestra’s size to chamber proportions, “which suits the classical, 18th century dimensions and allows for transparent textures.” He says he also favors Alexander’s choice to follow a traditional staging, “not only because we’re using Robert O’Hearn’s traditional sets but because ‘Figaro’ belongs where it was. ‘Don Giovanni’ and ‘Cosi’ may lend themselves to contemporary treatment but not ‘Figaro.’ It needs to be period valid.”

“The story, comic but with dramatic background, foreshadowed the French Revolution,” Alexander adds in explanation. “Figaro is an outspoken servant who outwits the Count. We’re witnessing the dawn of 1789. The opera should play out where history and tradition have placed it.”

Though the production’s packaging has been limited to the very few weeks of the new school year, Fagen notes that he spent “many summer hours” coaching members of the cast. “We have some very good singers, and what we’ve been working on are flow and mood. I want the mood of every scene to be captured. For that, the humanity of the characters must emerge. The singers have been working very hard on that.”

Alexander, a seasoned American-born director who has made Germany his home base, says the challenge is “to take two casts of students and, in a two-week period, transform them. They’ve been working very hard. They have the talent and the drive. I’m having an awfully good time.”

Fagen says Alexander is “an excellent stage director who relates extremely well to the students. I must say also that we’ve had no conceptual disagreements on what we want this ‘Figaro’ to be.” In response, Alexander calls Fagen “a very fine musician. It’s been great teaming with him. Musically, he’s accomplishing what I’m looking for, an approach of elegance and lightness but also emotional impact.”

From opera to organ

The opera begins its four-performance run next Friday and Saturday. An organ, the newly installed Webb-Ehrlich Great Organ of Alumni Hall, can be heard earlier, this very evening, when seven esteemed organists, one after the other, test its keys and innards during an inaugural recital, one that’s to be repeated tomorrow.

The name was bestowed on this C.B. Fisk organ last June when, in a renovated Alumni Hall, IU President Michael McRobbie presented the University Medal to one of his predecessors, Thomas Ehrlich, for causing “a renaissance in academic programs” and “tirelessly advocating for the university and higher education through his public outreach.” Ehrlich and his wife, Ellen, McRobbie added, “were passionate supporters of the arts at Indiana University, and so it was especially fitting to honor the Ehrlichs and their longtime friend Charles Webb and his late wife, Kenda, by naming this magnificent organ in their honor.”

Charles Webb, dean emeritus of the Jacobs School of Music, will be one of tonight’s performing organists, the others being Colin Andrews, Janette Fishell, David Kazimir, Marilyn Kaiser, Bruce Neswick and Christopher Young, an illustrious lineup, indeed.

The impressive organ — with its three manuals, 44 stops, and 2.838 pipes — is the third Fisk instrument on campus, the others being the much-used and admired one in Auer Hall and a practice organ recently installed in the Music Addition facility.

Says Webb, in anticipation of the recital and beyond: “To have a second concert organ is a great opportunity for the school’s stellar faculty and outstanding students. Until the Seward Organ came along in Auer, we didn’t have a first class instrument, no Steinway-class organ to measure up to our program. Now, to have two great instruments: that’s a real boon. And the location is wonderful. In Auer, a multi-use hall, our organists sometimes have to practice on it at 2 or 3 in the morning. The Alumni Hall organ is in a venue that’s not used as much. So, we can use it at better hours and, of course, there can be recitals. I think it will be kept very busy. As for me, I look forward to the inaugural recital. It’s always a pleasure to play a Fisk.”

The inaugural concerts coincide with a three-day “Organ at the Crossroads” conference, most of it in Alumni Hall, featuring recitals, master classes and lectures.

Reach Peter by sending an email to features@heraldt.com with “Jacobi” in the subject line.

© Herald Times 2013



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