Professor’s comic opera features faculty, students

May 11, 2012

The Music Department will debut an original opera by Lee Johnson, Fuller E. Callaway Professor of Music, on May 14–15 at Callaway Auditorium. The shows will be at 7:30 p.m. and admission is free.

A pre-performance lecture and demonstration will be at 6:45 p.m. each night. It will include a discussion with the composer, director and cast members about the opera and the entire creative process.

“Demopera” is a joint effort between Johnson and his longtime collaborator, Clay Powers of Columbus. In addition to the partnering work on the libretto, “Clay has created unique, narrative and engaging pieces of art that are fully integrated into the production,” Johnson said.

The performance will feature Dr. Toni Anderson, Department Chair, as Olga, a Russian immigrant actress. The lead role was written specifically for her, and Johnson said it has been fun to watch his fellow faculty member take the part and run with it.

“Toni is so great in this,” he said. “She has done a fantastic job.”

The cast also includes Dr. Michael Koon, Assistant Professor of Voice at Auburn University, as well as LaGrange students D.J. Thomas, Austin Burns, Erin Hazelrig and Kristoffer Appel. Each role was written specifically for each singer, Johnson said.

“This follows an established opera tradition. Composers of old would write pieces for their colleagues to perform. Since they were familiar with their voices and talents, the composers would write to match and highlight the singers’ strengths.”

Dr. Anderson said it “is a rare honor to premier an operatic role written specifically for me.”

“The same holds true for my students. Lee had the students’ talents in mind when he created their characters, challenging them to a high performance standard,” she said. “Being a part of the creative process from start to finish is something they may never experience again in their entire careers.”

Austin said the experience has been valuable.

“It is an honor to have the characters written specifically for us,” he said. “It does mean a lot to us as students and will look very good on our resumés. It is another step in preparing us for careers in music and grad school.”

Anne Duraski, an Instructor in the Music Department, is serving as director and creative collaborator.

“She’s making this show come alive,” Johnson said.

Duraski calls the process interesting and challenging.

“It is a wonderful honor and pleasure to work with the composer of a new operatic work,” she said. “Lee is a very thoughtful, accessible composer.  This piece is a masterful mix of humor, whimsy, pathos and sobriety.”

Duraski said one of her challenges has been working with the multimedia component of the show.

“The video portion of the presentation has equal emphasis with the stage action,” she said. “One cannot overshadow the other, so it is a balancing act to bring both to the fore with the proper emphasis.”

Duraski said working with the students has been a joy.

“They have worked hard to grasp their characters and to find the nuances of each,” she said. “Each one of them has grown tremendously as actors and singers through the experience of learning and performing ‘Demopera.’ ”

Dr. Anderson said it has been a treat to share the stage with her students and Dr. Koon.

“Michael and I bring our past performance experiences to the creative process, and we in turn benefit from the students' youthful energy,” she said. “The symbiotic relationship has yielded great results.”

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