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Opera Theatre Director Hank Hammett Talks about the “Opera Free for All” and the Meadows Opera Theatre

Hammett Provides Look Inside the Opera Theatre Program as 2010-20111 Season Kicks Off

By Chris Calloway (B.A. ’12 - Music, Journalism Minor)
Opera Free For AllThe Meadows Opera Theatre presented their first Opera Free for All of the year on Friday, September 17 with “New Faces and Old Friends” in the Hope Lobby. Hank Hammett, director of the Meadows Opera Theatre, explained the premise of the Opera Free for All series and how he organized the first performance of the 2010-11 season.

What was the theme of "New Faces and Old Friends"?

Our first Opera Free for All of the year always showcases both familiar, returning singing actors in our program and ones who have just started their work at Meadows. So our audience gets to hear some of their favorite young artists and also has the opportunity to get excited about the new talent on the block. And there’s lots of that this year! Every year Meadows Opera Theatre has a new, fresh face.

How were the singers who performed selected?

During the first week of school, as a way of introduction and saying “This is who I am as a singing actor,” each one gets up and performs an opera aria or musical theatre selection of their own choice for the entire class. We call this “First Sing.”

How was the repertoire selected?

After “First Sing” is wrapped up, we use the next two weeks to work on as many of these selections as we can fit in. Whoever wants to get up, take some risks, and learn some new skills jumps up and we work together. It is from this group of singing actors that a line-up for the first OFFA is chosen, a good mix that gives our audience a look at the variety and diversity we have to offer and also provides an interesting, stimulating program.

There were both arias from operas and selections from musical theater. Even though this was an “Opera Free for All,” the inclusion of musical theater suggests new boundaries in what might be considered part of the “opera repertoire.” How do you decide what works from musical theater are appropriate for a program of mainly opera arias?

International opera companies regularly program many works that might technically fall under the genre name “musical theater.” The works of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Rodgers & Hammerstein are among these, and they require singing actors to sing beautifully, lyrically and expressively, with skill and poise. Many of the young artists at Meadows have particular and special talents for this music. It is essentially an American art form, one of the few we can call our own. They’re going to be singing these fantastic pieces out in the world, so they need to learn their chops while they’re here. At this time, Meadows doesn’t offer a formal training program in musical theater, so we do our best to provide these important opportunities for our students.

How does the Opera Free for All help in the performance education of the singers?

As you know, in just about every field, true learning only comes from hands-on experience. Opera Free for All gives our singing actors, who have a tremendous range of skills and experience, the opportunity to perform for a large and diverse community, in a space outside of the opera house. They’re responsible for electrifying singing and compelling, engaging storytelling without the help of spectacular scenery and beautiful costumes and wigs. It’s pretty much just them on their own out there. They learn to focus and do their work out on the stage.

What skills are required for a professional opera singer (besides their technique)?

Singing on the stage requires a multitudinous range of skills. Passion and focus are vital. Singing, acting and performance technique are the foundation for success, of course, as what we do must be believable to the audience in order to draw them into the story we’re telling. Without a great skill set in these areas you don’t have a chance. We also need to be fluent in English, Italian, French and German, and sometimes in Russian and Czech. When you have an international career, you sing in all of these languages and converse in them as well during rehearsals and out on the street. Onstage we have to fight, run around, make love, faint, and die, all while staying in sync with the conductor and never missing a note! It’s also a very challenging life, being away from home and family for long stretches at a time and being alone. It’s not going to make everyone a happy person, but for those it does it is a remarkably fulfilling and rewarding profession.

Are there other performances given by the opera program besides the Opera Free for All series and the Offenbach opera in February?

In addition to our busy performance season at Meadows, which also includes a performance of selections from Bernstein’s Candide at the Meyerson Symphony Center in April as part of the Meadows at the Meyerson gala, we partner with The Dallas Opera in the Emerging Artists Program. A small select group of graduate students are chosen each year by Jonathan Pell, the artistic director of The Dallas Opera, to tour the Metroplex in a specially selected chamber opera as part of education and community outreach programs of The Dallas Opera and SMU. These young artists also have wonderful opportunities to perform at various Dallas Opera functions throughout the year and serve as ambassadors in our ever expanding community. Many of them have subsequently been given roles in Dallas Opera productions, where they gain invaluable experience and exposure.

If you missed out and want to attend the next Opera Free for All, the Meadows Opera Theatre will be presenting “Tell me the Truth about Love!” free of charge in the Hope Lobby at 1:00 p.m. on Friday, November 12.

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