Monday, March 30, 2015

Opera in excerpted form gets a thoroughgoing professional boost with James Caraher at Butler University

What was in evidence with developing singers Sunday at Butler University's Schrott Center recalled the polish and care that James Caraher gave for three decades to Indianapolis Opera productions.

The former IO artistic director has been brought onto the Butler music faculty in the part-time capacity of music director, and last weekend provided the community with a chance to savor the results of his inaugural semester in that role.

James Caraher elicited from student performers nicely finished work.
Enlisted to assist Butler's operatic progress by Thomas Studebaker, Butler University Opera Theatre music director, Caraher conducted students in a wide range of scenes and selections for between one and five singers, accompanied by the university's Symphony Orchestra.

The selections reflected practical choices for the 13 students ready to perform publicly, given that all but two of them were women. The imbalance brought to mind the situation facing the music school down the road: Casting challenges of Indiana University opera productions can be summed up in the phrase "200 sopranos." I don't know how accurately that number reflects enrollment in that voice category at the Jacobs School of Music, but the quip offers some idea of one of the difficulties of providing fair experience and advancement for at least some voice majors.

From opera seria through bel canto and verismo to folk-influenced American modern (Carlisle Floyd), the range in the two-hour program was considerable. There can be no faulting any gaps in the survey when the main idea was to showcase current vocal students in pieces whose accompaniments were within the orchestra's capability. I note the absence of Richard Wagner (except through a composer he strongly influenced, Engelbert Humperdinck, whose Evening Prayer duet from "Hansel and Gretel" was included) only to indicate the good sense in generally not putting burgeoning voices into that crucible.

All the capable young women available probably had something to do with the fact we heard some lower-level Mozart (the Finale of "Mitridate, Re di Ponto"), as it gave five of them an ensemble opportunity. All the singers were well employed in the program finale, "Va, pensiero" from Verdi's "Nabucco."  Always a stirring piece as long as one doesn't hear it too often, its main section is in unison and thus well-chosen for a group having just one singer each in the tenor and baritone categories.

A delightful novelty was an arrangement of the coloratura aria, "Una voce poco fa," spiffily played by two student bassoonists.

There were many places where Caraher's guidance really paid off. Tempo changes were always smoothly handled, as in the coordinated slowing of pace before the da capo return in Handel's "L'angue offeso" (from "Giulio Cesare"). A nicely modulated orchestral crescendo behind Dorabella's self-pity was the highlight of a beautifully balanced scene for the three women, chiefly the servant girl Despina (whom one inevitably calls "pert"), in Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte."  Top-drawer Mozart was most welcome here, as it was in quite a different piece, the pained soprano aria "Ach, ich fuhl's" from "The Magic Flute."

Caraher opened the program with something that always gets the pulse racing — the William Tell Overture, though only the galop portion (inevitably known to baby boomers as the Lone Ranger theme). And the frenzied, intermittently lyrical Bacchanale from Saint-Saens "Samson et Dalila" made for a smart conclusion to the first half.

It was so good to hear a bunch of opera in one afternoon presented under such expert control and with such well-considered insight into the nurture of some splendid young voices.