Classic Italian opera takes a ’50s twist

Ryan Thompson

Washburn Opera Studio brought a “Grease” interpretation to “L’Elisir d’Amore” April 8 and 9 in White Concert Hall.

Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti and librettist Felice Romani wrote “L’Elisir d’Amore” and the opera premiered in 1832. It has since become a consitently popular comic opera in modern times. Its melodies featuring the bel canto vocal style, fun humor and all-around lighthearted nature make “L’Elisir d’Amore” the standout romantic comedy of opera.

Across two acts, the opera follows the story of Adina, a wealthy landowner in rural Italy, and the two men competing for her love: Nemorino, a peasant, and Belcore, a sergeant in the military. In the first act, Nemorino buys a purported elixir of love from the charlatan Dulcamara.

Andrea Garritano, director of opera at Washburn, chose to update the opera’s setting to a small American city in the 1950s, changing Adina into a diner owner and Belcore into the leader of a local street gang, complete with leather jacket and greased hair.

“I was thinking what would be cute, what would be entertaining, what would be visually stimulating,” Garritano said. “That’s why I chose a ’50s diner – for the colors, for the boldness, for the visual picture more than anything else. The opera needs that. It really hinges on a setting that is interesting. We played up on pop culture to help make the opera relevant.”

“L’Eliser d’Amore” was a major production for the Washburn Opera Studio, which was accompanied live by the Washburn University Orchestra. Martha Placeres, director of orchestras, conducted the student and faculty personnel.

“Every spring we have a big stage opera with sets and lighting and orchestra taking part in it as well,” said Marya Feldt, junior vocal performance major. “They choose [an opera] based on what vocal majors we have. There is a big tenor role and a big soprano role and we had students who were able to fill those parts. They chose an opera that was fitting for our voices.”

Feldt started performing during her sophomore year in high school and became interested in opera when she began taking classes at Washburn. She played a chorus member for the production, which starred Clare Bryan as Adina, Zachary Cope as Nemorino, Caleb Marcus as Belcore, Quinton Church as Dr. Dulcamara and Rachel LaMothe as Gianneta.

Garritano held auditions in the fall semester and students began learning their parts before the spring semester began. Musical rehearsals began in January and staging rehearsals began in March.

Vocalists performed the opera entirely in the original Italian. A screen displayed translations of some of the lyrics to help the audience follow along, though there appeared to be some major technical difficulties. Fortunately, the cast gave strong enough performances to convey the essentials of the narrative through gestures and body language. They were more than capable of keeping the audience enthralled by expressing the intent of their words, even if the audience did not understand the exact meaning of those words.

Topeka Opera Society and Concert Association and the Washburn Student Government Association supported the production.

“We are a registered student organization and we do make a proposal and receive funding,” Garritano said. “I would like to thank student government for their support of this art form on campus.”