OperaTerps gives undergraduate vocalists a chance to shine

This blog post is by Emily Schweich, junior broadcast journalism major.

Masterclass with Dr. Phil Collister

Dr. Phil Collister from Towson University works with Daniel Hopkins, Amanda Staub & Carl Hengen; photo by Carlos Howard

Analyzing musical text and preparing opera roles are big parts of the School of Music curriculum for vocalists, but it’s often hard for undergraduates to have the opportunity to put these skills to use.

That’s why School of Music students Daniel Hopkins and Carlos Howard decided to found OperaTerps, the University of Maryland’s first undergraduate opera company. Their first production, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, opens this Saturday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

“Because it’s an independent project, we’re all really strongly invested in it…This is something we can say was totally our own.”

“We said if we want to learn this kind of stuff, instead of waiting for this to be handed to us by a company or by a program, why don’t we just do one ourselves?” said Hopkins, a senior piano performance major and the music director of OperaTerps. Howard and Hopkins pitched the idea to School of Music faculty and secured advisors, and OperaTerps became a Student Government Association-recognized organization in April 2014. They held auditions in September and October, and through a Kickstarter fundraiser, raised 560 dollars to rent a harpsichord and hire pit musicians.

“This project gives us the chance to also do the other side [of performing] that we never get to experience – booking schedules, putting the program together, leading the rehearsals,” said Howard, a junior vocal performance and public relations double major and OperaTerps’ artistic director.

Instead of juggling rehearsals with classes and other commitments throughout the semester, Howard and Hopkins decided to hold rehearsals over a three-week period during the winter term in January, a schedule modeled on intensive summer opera festivals. The first week included music rehearsals and one-on-one meetings with principal coach Ruth Bright, a senior piano performance major. The second week included blocking rehearsals with stage director Emily Riley, a second-year master’s student in vocal performance. OperaTerps also incorporated masterclasses and workshops with professionals to help singers with their music, movement and British diction.

Undergraduates performers involved in the opera say that the opportunity to sing lead roles instead of just singing in an opera chorus has helped them to grow as musicians and artists.

“I had more space to develop an actual character, rather than [just] a person who is part of the plot,” said Amanda Staub, a junior music education and vocal performance double major who will be singing the role of Belinda. Staub sang in the chorus of the Maryland Opera Studio’s production of Die Fledermaus last April.

Sophomore Caleb Lee, a sophomore music education and vocal performance double major, said that being involved in such a small, intimate production encouraged him to take more responsibility for his part.

“I felt much more like, ‘Okay, I really have to act and nail my part,’ especially since our chorus is only a quartet,” Lee said.

Fully embracing his role as a tipsy sailor was a challenge, but stage director Emily Riley said Lee’s performance – along with those of the other singers – has grown throughout the process.

“Even in a short time frame, you can really grow leaps and bounds if you’re given the chance to,” Riley said.

And giving undergraduate students a chance to grow as artists is an opportunity that Hopkins and Howard cherish.

“Because it’s an independent project, we’re all really strongly invested in it,” Hopkins said. “This is something we can say was totally our own.”

Dido and Aeneas runs Saturday, January 31 at 8PM and Sunday, February 1 at 3PM in the Choral Rehearsal Room (Room 2201) at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Both performances are free.