Washburn history professor has talent in opera

Dr. Tony Silvestri, a beloved professor in the history department, has been described as a Renaissance man of the Washburn campus. While he is most well-known on campus for his uniquely taught history courses, he is also a successful artist and lyricist. Silvestri’s first full-fledged opera, “The Pastry Prince,” opened Jan. 29 in Houston, Texas.

Silvestri was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera to write the libretto for the opera as per suggestion by Mark Buller, the commissioned composer. Houston Grand Opera has a program called Opera to Go! that brings opera to schools in the community.

“It brings children’s opera, or adaptations of adult operas, to elementary school, middle school, and high school audiences,” said Silvestri. “They’ve been doing it for twenty-some-odd years and they’ve commissioned a lot of new works written specifically for children.”

While this is Silvestri’s first complete opera, he has published more than twenty collaborative works with composers, such as his friend, Eric Whitacre.

Houston Grand Opera contacted Silvestri in the fall 2013 about commissioning him for the project.

“They contacted me and reviewed me and wanted to make sure that I could work with a composer,” said Silvestri. “So I explained to them that this is what I do, I accommodate to composers’ needs. I’m a singer so I understand opera and I understand what I’m up against.”

Silvestri was officially commissioned in Nov. 2013 and delivered his libretto in May 2014. Then the editing process began.

“I didn’t really understand how long 45 minutes would be,” said Silvestri. “So I wrote something that when I said it and sang it to myself it lasted about 45 minutes. Well it turns out that it was almost an hour so I had to cut 15 minutes out of what I had written.”

In Aug. 2014, Silvestri travelled to Houston for a workshop, where the entire team gathered together to get the show running smoothly.

“The actors had been hired, the singers were there, the director had been hired. They had the creative team in place – the set designer, the costume designer, the stage manager – and they had the composer and the lyricist all together in one room for one week to practice the show and to see what it needs and to develop character work and so on,” said Silvestri. “I left the workshop in August really happy that we had something that was great.”

The show itself is an opera within an opera, as Silvestri described. A troupe of actors is preparing to perform for a duke that night and finds that their baritone has gone missing. Their panic is overheard by the duke himself who decides to have a bit of fun with the troupe. In disguise, he offers to play the baritone’s part, so that the show may go on.

The actors and the duke in disguise begin to rehearse their performance of “The Pastry Prince” about a baker’s daughter who makes for herself a husband out of pastry. When a magic queen decides she wants the pastry prince, she locks him in her castle and the baker’s daughter has to rescue him.

“It’s a gender reverse on the normal fairytale,” said Silvestri. “He’s locked in the tower and she as to rescue him…there’s some tango music and funny stuff…and yay and all things work out fine.”

The acting troupe is excited in anticipation of the performance until the duke in disguise bails on them as well. When he reveals himself as the duke, he tells the troupe how pleased he is with them and that he will make them permanent entertainers at his palace.

“Kids loved it and the teachers loved it,” said Silvestri. “I tried to build in enough jokes for adults, sort of like ‘Shrek’, so that kids would laugh at the more slapsticky stuff, but then adults laugh at the clever lyrics.”

Silvestri is grateful for this opportunity he had to work with a creative team and to experience the process of putting an entire opera and performance together.

“I’m very proud of what I wrote and the music that Mark wrote just matches so perfectly what I envisioned,” said Silvestri. “When you bring in other creative minds you have to compromise and you end up seeing that together you can form and create a work of art that is better than any one individual could create on their own. In terms of that process it was very valuable.”

“The Pastry Prince” is scheduled to be performed at 70 different schools around the Houston area and expected to reach about 25,000 students. But Silvestri’s work with the Houston Grand Opera will not end here with “The Pastry Prince.”

“They commissioned us to write another one so we’ll be going through the whole process again next year,” said Silvestri. “I’ll sign the contract soon. They want a libretto by May. We’ll have another workshop in August and another premiere in front of school kids in January.”