Full of character

Jarrett Ott, playing Gianni Schicchi, leads fellow cast members of the School of Music’s Voice Program in tonight’s performance of Puccini’s comic opera Gianni Schicchi. Photo by Megan Tan.

School of Music’s ‘Gianni Schicchi’ has a Chautauqua spin

Leah Rankin | Staff Writer

Magic flutes, valkyries, rampant consumption — some themes in opera can be hard to relate to, and not just for the audience.

Singers, like actors, perform best when they can lose themselves in a character — when they can find that common thread that connects them with their role. But how do you find something in common with a 13th-century family in Florence?

If you’re stage director of the School of Music Voice Program, Jay Jackson, you transport that Florentine family to a 1950s Chautauqua. The Music School Festival Orchestra concert at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater will showcase Jackson’s updated interpretation of Giacomo Puccini’s comic opera, Gianni Schicchi.

“Some of the references (in Gianni Schicchi) don’t have a connection to our day and age,” Jackson said.

This interpretation will be “immediate to the audience and something they will be able to connect with,” he said. “The Chautauqua spin on it will make the comedy exponentially more.”

In the original opera, the scheming Gianni Schicchi tricks the Donati family into bequeathing everything in the dying Buoso Donati’s will to him. The Donati family trusts Schicchi to imitate Buoso, who has left all of his money and possessions to a monastery — or in this production, to the Chautauqua Institution. But Schicchi goes back on his word, claims the fortune for himself and makes himself at home in Chautauqua’s Packard Manor.

Schicchi is played by Jarrett Ott, a graduate student at the Curtis Institute of Music, and in order to fall into character, Jackson told him to think of a combination of Big Daddy from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and Boss Hogg from “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Ott said it’s easier to relate to characters like these, especially when there are only three weeks to rehearse.

“Character development is very important on your own time,” Ott said, “because it’s hard to cram all these (practice) sessions into such a short amount of time.”

Jackson said it is crucial that the voice students in Gianni Schicchi learn the original Italian libretto. That way, they can easily perform the opera again in the future. The audience will never hear the singers proclaim, “Oh, Chautauqua!” but they will read it in the English supertitles above the stage.

Inexperience is the biggest hurdle when working with young artists, Jackson said, but it allows him to experiment with ideas he would be hesitant to try with a professional troupe.

“It becomes my summer laboratory,” Jackson said. “These kids are willing to do anything.”

Jackson said that every rehearsal is a discovery process, and that students are given support in every facet of the performance. Jackson directs the cast, while the singers receive instruction from Voice Chair Marlena Malas and support from the Chautauqua Opera Company. There are seven professional coach accompanists, a coach to help with Italian pronunciation and MSFO music director Timothy Muffitt attends rehearsals to work out the musical kinks.

“The orchestra is as integrated into the entire product as in any piece of music,” Muffitt said. “It’s not merely a foundation in Puccini’s music.”

Muffitt said the greatest challenge for the MSFO is to learn an accompaniment role — how to move with the singers in a supportive way. Muffitt explains the process as “turning the orchestra into a vocal organism so it breathes the way the singers breathe and phrases the way the singers phrase.”

For the cast, the intense process has transformed the family onstage to a family off the stage.

“They are all a family in the story line,” Ott said, so connecting and building friendships in between rehearsals is just as helpful.

Shaking students out of their comfort zone also is an integral part of the learning process, Jackson said. While the Metropolitan Opera House seats about 4,000, the Amphitheater seats 5,000. This could be an opportunity for these singers, who may very well go on to grace the greatest opera stages in the country, to perform for one of the largest audiences they ever will have, Jackson said.

Jackson said the trick to getting singers out of their comfort zone is to make a situation even more awkward. The confidence and energy he draws from the singers makes the whole experience more relatable.

“If you whittle it down to the most personal level and build it around the seed that you’ve planted,” Jackson said, “the opera doesn’t seem so grand and old-fashioned.”

That’s a good thing, Jackson said.

Telling the cast members in Gianni Schicchi to envision themselves as Gene Kelly in An American in Paris or a retired Mafia Don or even the dad in “Leave it to Beaver” breaks the barrier between high, unattainable art and an experience with which singers and the audience can connect.

Tonight’s all-opera concert also includes Beethoven’s “Fidelio Overture” and Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten, conducted by the David Effron Conducting Fellow Sarah Kidd.

Tonight, it’s all about drama.