Opera singers find new voice with musical theater

Josh Cooper | Staff Writer

When the average person thinks of American musical theater, the names Rodgers and Hammerstein no doubt come to mind.

However, in the Musical Theater Revue, put on by Studio Artists of the Chautauqua Opera Company at 10:30 p.m. tonight and next Tuesday in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall, Richard Rodgers will be nowhere to be found.

The program is titled “Angel Glow: Hammerstein Before Rodgers” and features the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein with music by a pantheon of songwriting giants, including Sigmund Romberg, Jerome Kern and Arthur Schwartz.

Andy Gale, the director of tonight’s program, said it was a big task to choose songs that fit well together.

“You should see the sheer number of songs that we didn’t include, not because we didn’t like them, but because they just didn’t seem to fit the evening right,” Gale said.

“It’s a fantastic group of songs. For America, this is our Shakespeare.”

Some songs, like “All the Things You Are” and “Wanting You,” will be familiar for the audience. Others may be entirely new.

Baritone Errik Hood, one of the singers in the performance, said the evening’s songs don’t follow one storyline, with the same characters and plot across each song, but rather, a more subtle continuum of sentiment that flows throughout the performance.

“For most musical theater revues, the songs are all of one composer, or all on one theme,” Hood said. “But this one features music of all one lyricist, which creates an interesting through-line of different statements coming from one voice.”

For mezzo Kaitlin Bertenshaw, that theme is plain: love.

“This show is about all the different ways we can express, experience and feel love,” Bertenshaw said. “It’s interesting because there are elements of it that are different for everyone, but it’s also very universal.“

Bertenshaw said Gale and musical director Sterling Price-McKinney have challenged them to sing from personal experience.

Because she’s not singing songs from one single character’s perspective, Bertenshaw said she has more liberty to sing from a place of personal experience.

“The challenge for us is being generous with conveying our own experience, which makes us very vulnerable,” she said. “But it’s important for us as young artists to learn how to do.”

All the singers said that singing these songs is teaching them skills that are applicable to opera performance.

“We’re learning that it’s not just about notes and rhythms,” baritone Matthew Klauser said. “It’s about the story we’re telling. And that’s a lesson that we’re taking back to the operatic repertoire that we’re working on now too.

“I think all of our performances this year will reflect the lessons we’ve learned here.”

Hood said the directors’ vision makes this revue a unique experience.

“These directors have a way of making something I’ve heard a million times before sound like it’s the first time,” Hood said. “And that means that every single performance is unique and honest, which is unfortunately rare in the operatic world.”

For most of these singers, the opportunity to sing musical theater pieces is a homecoming of sorts.

“A lot of us got our start singing musical theater,” Hood said. “I think for most of us, it’s not an addition of something new, it’s returning to our roots.”

Bertenshaw said that process is not always easy, however, after singing a very different style so seriously for so many years.

“After being in the opera world for so long, coming back to this is like relearning how to ride a bicycle,” Bertenshaw said.

Technically speaking, singing these songs in this style is very different from the operatic style in which the singers are now immersed, Klauser said.

“Most of the time when opera singers sing musical theater songs, they sing it like opera singers, no offense to opera singers,” Klauser said. “But here the directors yell at us things like, ‘You’re using your opera voice; don’t do your opera voice.’”

For Gale, who has directed four Broadway shows and three national tours, this program has particular personal significance. Gale has a personal relationship with Hammerstein’s son James, and he said many of these songs were very important to the younger Hammerstein.

“These are the songs about which his son would say, ‘This is one of my favorites,’ or ‘I wish more people knew about this one,’” Gale said. “In a very real sense, there’s a lineage that we have in performing this work.”

Gale said that despite the age of some of the works, they are timeless.

“The oldest piece of music we’re doing is pre-1920s, and yet it all feels so contemporary,” Gale said. “It speaks freshly.”

Price-McKinney agreed.

“It’s really poetry that captures the human condition,” he said. “Despite being almost 100 years old, the situations that he addresses are still dilemmas that our audience and artists can relate to.”