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Edward Tavalin and Eva Tamsky ’17, ’18, perform in Pacific Opera Theatre’s presentation of “Dido and Aeneas,” which won third place in its category of the annual National Opera Association Production Competition.Edward Tavalin and Eva Tamsky ’17, ’18, perform in Pacific Opera Theatre’s presentation of “Dido and Aeneas,” which won third place in its category of the annual National Opera Association Production Competition.

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Arts and Culture

Pacific Opera Theatre’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’ takes third in national contest

Jan 9, 2018

Crossing "Games of Thrones" with "Lord of the Rings," Pacific Opera Theatre's production of "Dido and Aeneas" grabbed third place in its category of the annual National Opera Association Production Competition.

The recognition, presented at the association's annual convention over the weekend in New Orleans, is not the first time the association has honored students, faculty and staff from the Conservatory of Music. Pacific Opera Theatre's production of "La Cenerentola" (2000-2001) and "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (2012-13) each received first-place prizes in previous competitions. Performers from those operas have gone on to do well in the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions, perhaps the most prestigious opera singer development competition in the country. Yelena Dyachek '13, who was in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," was a MONC winner in 2016.

"Pacific attracts great students, just look at the example of Yelena, Hannah Ludwig '14, Andrew Dwan '13 and Ted Pickell '14 - an incredible quartet," said Peter Witte, dean of the Conservatory of Music. "Of course, opera requires teamwork. This latest honor from the National Opera Association demonstrates our faculty's gifts in developing a true sense of ensemble. The NOA recognition is another indicator that Pacific is a wonderful environment for undergraduate singers."

Witte praised the students and their "incredible mentors" on the achievement.

James Haffner, professor of opera, was the director of "Dido and Aeneas," as he was with "La Cenerentola" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor"; Nicolas Waldvogel, director of the University Symphony Orchestra, conducted "Dido and Aeneas" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor"; and Burr Phillips, an associate professor of voice, was the musical coach.

"We are an incredible team," Haffner said of Phillips, Waldvogel and others working behind the scenes to prepare the production. "We're all on the same page. And it's all about the students. I brag a lot about the cooperation we have, because many programs don't have that. ... It takes a lot of people to get this done."

The entire production is judged in the competition, including musicianship, quality of singing and diction, dramatic credibility, characterization, production concept, staging and execution, and overall quality of the production. Placing in the competition is a significant accomplishment.

"This is a very competitive contest and it really is a way to showcase our talented students and the very dedicated professors who help to guide those students in performing opera," Haffner said. "Mostly, I wanted them to have fun. I even told the set designers to think "'Games of Thrones" meets "Lord of the Rings,'" and that's what we ended up with. ... For us to place third in our division behind University of Cincinnati's opera program, which is quite prestigious, is a big deal for us."

Haffner said the National Opera Association, one of two major national organizations promoting opera in the United States, focuses on excellence in opera training programs. OPERA America, on the other hand, provides resources, workshops, conferences and other information to support the creation, presentation and enjoyment of opera.

The productions in this year's competition were grouped in divisions based on the size of the production budget, so it was a bit of a surprise to Haffner that "Dido and Aeneas" was judged against opera productions from Oklahoma State University (first place in the division) and University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (second place in the division). Performances across the divisions came from such other institutions as University of Alabama, Texas A&M University, University of Houston and University of Colorado-Boulder.

Pacific's 22-student cast was supported by a 16-musician orchestra led by Waldvogel and a 30-member University Choir, directed by Yejee Choi, Pacific's director of choirs. Since "Dido and Aeneas" is fairly short, seven singers performed two Purcell compositions — "The Fairy Queen" and "King Arthur" — between acts. Adding such intermezzos was a fairly common practice of the time to lengthen the overall performance.

"Dido and Aeneas" is a baroque musical by London-born Henry Purcell that was first staged in 1689 as the three-act opera. It's based on "The Aeneid" by Virgil.

The opera, one of England's earliest, follows the romance of Dido, the queen of Carthage, and Aenaes, a Trojan hero going off to war. His departure spurs Dido's suicide. Dido normally dies of a broken heart, but in the Pacific Opera Theatre version, Haffner had a sorceress provide Dido with a fatal cup of poison.

View this YouTube video of the Pacific Opera Theatre's performance of "Dido and Aeneas" used to judge the competition.

Learn more about the conservatory students, faculty and staff who worked on "Dido and Aeneas" by reading the program.

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