Smile Politely

An evening of earworms at the opera

Whether or not you know it, if you have functioning ears, you’ve heard music written by Verdi. I don’t care what rock you live under or if you don’t have TV or music doesn’t interest you… even if all those things are true, somebody  somewhere has whistled “La Donna e mobile” in your hearing, and gotten it stuck in your head. It’s freaking catchy. For those of us who do indulge in pop culture, Verdi has over 600 composer credits for films and video games, and that does not even begin to include commercials. During the grand finale of Pretty Woman, the Grand Theft of Autos, the sale of Doritos and the “Anvil Chorus” of Looney and/or Tiny Toons, we are absorbing Italian opera along with our pop culture.

And there’s good reason for it. Verdi was incredibly prolific and influential, making him the perfect subject for the upcoming production of Lyric Theatre @ Illinois. His music has been shaping culture, not just opera, for more than 200 years. All of this is to say that if you’re not so sure about sitting through a long and elaborate story sung in a foreign language – Viva Verdi! may just be the introduction to opera that could win you over. And if you already love opera, then you should come and hear 2017’s Krannert Debut Artist, soprano Yunji Shim, sing “Libera Me”.  Director Kyle A. Thomas and conductor Donald Schleicher’s evening of “greatest hits” by this composer to be performed by the UI Symphony Orchestra and the UI Oratorio Society should be highly accessible and enjoyable.  

In order to find out more about how this production was conceived and will be presented, Rebecca got in contact with “theatre artist and scholar” Kyle A. Thomas. 

SP: The press release states “…Thomas has cohered these scenes and choruses into an exploration of national identity and the cultural significance of opera, and specifically Verdi, from his time right up to the present day.” With the mention of scenes, it sounds like there will be staging, but from the description of the offerings, it strikes me like a revue or recital. Will you tell us a little more about the format and why you chose it?

Kyle A. Thomas: Traditionally, a collection of scenes and arias would simply be referred to as a “scenes show” – designed to provide a performance context for some of the most important music students should know but may not get the opportunity to experience before moving into their professional careers.

We decided that a night of scenes and arias centered on Giuseppe Verdi could turn into a full production that touched upon the musical, historical, and cultural impact of Verdi and his music. The hope is that audiences will not only enjoy the beautiful music and fantastic performances of the cast, but will also be surprised by how much they already know of Verdi’s music and just how often they come into contact with opera in their everyday lives.


SP: How did the format influence the costumes and scenery? Can the audience expect modern, traditional, a mixture?

Thomas: The aesthetic approach is mixed, but unified under a concept in which we work to expose the mechanisms of opera performance. So, while we have our cast dressed in comfortable street attire at times, their physical effort, training, and virtuosity with which they enter their roles on stage becomes the foremost element of the performance. But this exposed theatricality also allows us to point to the means by which the technical elements of performance collaborate with the performers. Thus, we can choose to perform a scene or aria within the context of the original show or utilize contemporary contexts and aesthetics to provide new perspectives on Verdi’s operas.

SP: I think this promotional video that KCPA put on facebook really demonstrates that:

SP: There’s a lot of debate in the opera world surrounding Verdi’s politics. Is that an element you incorporated into the selection of scenes and arias?

Thomas: Verdi’s music and his operas weren’t overtly political, but his personal sentiments certainly were. He was instrumental in the Italian unification movement of the mid-nineteenth-century by supporting, in words and in music, those that wished to see Italy unify as a single nation. His name, Verdi, even became a part of the cry of the nationalists: “Viva V.E.R.D.I.,” meaning Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia! (Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy!). Even recently, politicians have introduced legislation to make this chorus the national anthem of Italy.

We certainly gesture to this political history, and we even used some of that history to frame our approach to particular scenes within the show. The focus of Viva Verdi! is the music, though we also bring in contextual elements like the Risorgimento movement or Verdi’s letters in support of the unification movement to provide a broader picture of the man and his music. 

I don’t want to give away too much information, but there are questions we explored in the rehearsal process – e.g., how women approach the performance of political issues – that undergird aspects of the show, such as movement. For example, we will perform the “Witches’ Chorus” from Verdi’s opera based on Macbeth. Most people know the source material, but during the staging rehearsals we worked to explore the position of women in society and how to perform such a concept. This allows for the performers to build a character whose inner emotions, desires, and fears are driven by being a woman in our society. 

There’s no directorial statement made here; I do not impose an ideology nor an aesthetic concept upon this scene. Each and every performer brings a piece of themselves to the show and to their performance; it is those pieces that inform what you’re seeing on stage. So, perhaps their movements and motivations are driven by personal social and political issues, but, just like the world in which we live, the drama of the moment is found in the negotiation of how to inhabit the same stage/world and find different paths to the same goal: an entertaining, engaging, and excellent performance.

SP: What’s been your favorite part of directing this production?

Thomas: In particular, this show requires a trust of the collaborative process from performers, production team, and producers to be successful, and all have embraced this idea with inspiring results. But, if there’s one simple thing I could point to that I love most about directing this production, it’s the ear worms! I’ve spent many years working in musical theatre and the music that gets stuck in your head from those shows can be…well, very annoying. Each time a song from Viva Verdi! pops into my head, I can’t help but enjoy it being there.

Whether you want to hear some beloved favorites, or are interested in seeing exactly how much opera you already know, enjoying the earworms should be easy at Viva Verdi! performances running Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with a Sunday matinee at 3 p.m. Tickets start at $35 with discounts available for groups, seniors, students and youth, as well as the always affordable $10 University of Illinois student ticket. “Dessert and conversation” will happen before the Saturday and Sunday performances and just add $7 extra to the ticket cost. Make reservations online or by calling the ticket office at 217-333-6280 or 1-800-KCPA-TIX.

Images via Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. 

Related Articles