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ISSUE 119 VOL 19 PUBLISHED 5/5/2006

Student operas herald new era

By David Benson-Staebler
Contributing Writer

Friday, May 5, 2006

Two new operas, “The Nirvana Sutra” and “The Binding of Isaac,” debuted April 31 and May 1 in Urness Recital Hall. The operas have christened St. Olaf's burgeoning emphasis on lyric theater.

Christopher Renk '05 composed the music and libretto for the first opera on the program, “Nirvana.” The second opera, “Binding,” was composed by Matthew Peterson '06 and the libretto was written by Jason Zencka '06.

Roughly 50 students were involved in the performances, many in both chamber operas.

The music in “Nirvana” betrayed a fascination with humming sounds and used dissonance and harmony to show the self-embattlement chosen by the Buddha.

Though based on a weighty tale in Genesis, “Binding” almost treated the Abram story with the style of a sitcom. In the program notes, Peterson wrote that he and Zencka wished to deliver visceral scenes of “domestic strife, marital infidelity, and terrifying infanticide.” The opera challenged how we think of God, and tears down obscurity caused by the limited picture of Abram that The Bible presents. Peterson and Zencka suggest that we should see the characters of Biblical stories as real people. They felt secure in elaborating on the scant details provided by the text.

The opera culminated with a dramatic, sacrificial scene, as Abram tied his only son Isaac to a pile of rocks that served as an altar. The recital hall was jet black save for a screen flooded with crimson light around Abram's silhouette.

The chorus screamed in tongues acting out the sound of God in Abram's head. Abram was clearly mad at this point, almost schizophrenic, and a harmonious resolution seemed impossible. The scene closed without resolution.

It is only the first act of the full three-hour opera that Zencka and Peterson plan to finish. So far, “Binding” has the genius of two creators. It was a production well done.

The stage director and producer of “The Nirvana Sutra,” Professor of Music James McKeel, said lyric theater is just beginning to flourish at St. Olaf. McKeel said that the music department plans to support three lyrical theater performances a year for the next four years.

Justin Merritt, professor of music composition, spearheaded the effort to get students involved in the composing operas while they are undergraduates of St. Olaf.

“There absolutely is the possibility that this project [student composition of chamber opera] will continue, but only if there are other student composers such as Matt and Chris with the talent, experience, and drive to take on such an ambitious project,” Merritt said.

Here at St. Olaf, opera is not simply something Mozart, Verdi and Wagner did. It is something students do.

“This [performance] says to us who dabble, to keep doing it, so that one day our efforts may come to fruition like this,” Conor Cook '09 said of the impact this project has had on young music majors.

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