The sound of music

By REBECCA SCHWAB

OBSERVER Staff Writer

Singing nuns will always bring the house down.

The SUNY Fredonia Student Opera Theatre Association’s “Opera Scenes” production never disappoints its fans, but this year, local opera lovers can expect a unique experience. Maestro Benton Hess, senior vocal coach and music director of the Eastman Opera Theatre of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, has composed an original opera, “Felice,” which is among this year’s selected works.

Hess, who started playing the piano at 5 years old, did not start composing until his college years, when classes in theory exposed him to the technique of composition. In 1998, he was commissioned by Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. to write the opera. Meredith College is an all-girls school, and needed an opera that featured mostly female roles.

“They had to bring in any men, so there are only two male roles,” Hess explains. “That was part of the motivation for choosing this story.”

Roy Dicks was the librettist (the person who writes the words to go with the music) for the project, and the story is based on the novel “Felice” by Angela Davis-Gardner. The story’s setting is a remote convent in Nova Scotia in the 1920s. The orphaned protagonist, Felice, is convinced that she is going to become first a nun, then a saint.

“There is this horrible tyrant of a nun, Sister Agatha,” Hess relates. “She has Felice convinced that she needs to take her vows and fulfill this destiny. But Felice is also the musician of the convent. And everyone talks about how good she is.”

Felice’s talents end up reviving a sailor who has been rendered unconscious by a shipwreck, and when the two meet, sparks fly, trouble starts, and Felice’s saintly future is jeopardized.

Hess is a good friend of Dr. Robert Strauss, director of this production of “Felice,” respected tenor and vocal teacher at SUNY Fredonia. It is due to this fortunate connection that audiences can experience Hess’s composition this year.

“I brought the idea of ‘Felice’ with me to auditions,” Strauss says. “I had already met Maestro Hess when he was composing it, and as he played me snippets that he’d written along the way, I remember falling in love with the story and the score.”

However, the idea to perform scenes from “Felice” had practical motivations, as well.

“Since it was written for undergraduates, the roles, although difficult, are not inaccessible, and there is a wealth of female roles, something that fits our population – and the populations of many voice departments – very well,” Strauss explains.

“Felice” premiered in 2000 at Meredith College to enthusiastic reviews. It is “through-composed,” meaning the opera is not broken into separate songs. The music is continuous, flowing from one scene to the next and changing with the story’s emotions. The full production is one hour and 20 minutes.

Hess worked on the music for “Felice” for two years, writing in such places as Italy and Tel Aviv, Israel, as he traveled. His favorite part of the score, a duet, was written in Israel in just one day.

“There was just some sort of magic in writing that part,” Hess says. “I just knew it was right; it was like something preordained, meant to be.”

Scenes from “Felice” will be featured along with scenes from “Little Women,” “Gallantry,” and “Vagabond King” in this year’s production, and with such a variety of scores, audience members are sure to connect with the music. Nicole Peets, vice president of the Student Opera Theatre Association and this year’s “Opera Scenes” producer, is excited about the accessibility of these selections, and about the enthusiasm of the cast.

“This year’s selections are particularly exciting because they appeal to the general public,” Peets says. “In other words, you don’t have to walk into the opera house having any experience with or knowledge of opera. All of the scenes are in English with modern language. In addition, working with the composer of ‘Felice’ enabled us to really capture the original intent of the work. Due to the extraordinary opportunity to work with the composer, the casts have worked harder than ever to make the production the very best that it can be.”

Strauss also feels that this year’s production will be memorable.

“I am very excited about ‘Felice,’ a piece I’ve known almost from its inception, and I am so very proud of my cast and the work they have done,” Strauss says. “I have known ‘Gallantry’ for some time, and find it so very funny, I know ‘The Vagabond King’ is going to be hugely entertaining – although I hesitate to give away why – and ‘Little Women’ is such a classical story and a wonderful operatic setting of it, that those scenes will be so moving and passionate. It is really wonderfully balanced too, since each night presents something more humorous and then something more serious and moving.”

Peets explains the format of the shows, and why this combination works so well.

“This year, audiences can see two different productions – one on Thursday and Saturday and the other on Friday and Sunday. In this way, we are providing a varied experience with scenes,” she says. “Audiences will see everything from intense stage combat and sword fighting in ‘Vagabond King,’ to the healing power of music in ‘Felice.’ People will have the opportunity to view a mid-century soap opera style production with commercial interruptions in ‘Gallantry,’ followed by a heartbreaking death scene in ‘Little Women.’ There is truly something for everyone.”

“Little Women” and “Gallantry” will be featured March 7 at 7 p.m. and March 9 at 2 p.m.; “Felice” and “Vagabond King” will be featured March 8 at 7 p.m. and March 10 at 2 p.m. All performances will be held at the 1891 Fredonia Opera House in downtown Fredonia. Tickets are $5 for students and seniors; $8 for adults. Call the box office at 679-1891 Tuesday through Friday from 1 to 5 p.m. The box office accepts cash or check only. Tickets will also be available an hour before each performance in the lobby.

Send comments on this story to rschwab@observertoday.com