L'etoile gives students a night at the opera

Lazuki (music master's student Courtney Elviram sitting) is a poor peddler who falls in love with the beautiful princess Laoula (junior vocal performance major Stephanie Ramos, standing) in _L'etoile_. (credit: Courtesy of Christine Lee and Shane Moon) Lazuki (music master's student Courtney Elviram sitting) is a poor peddler who falls in love with the beautiful princess Laoula (junior vocal performance major Stephanie Ramos, standing) in _L'etoile_. (credit: Courtesy of Christine Lee and Shane Moon)

There is only one word to describe Carnegie Mellon School of Music’s production of their most recent opera: fabulous. Flamboyant personalities came together with terrific costume design to form a bizarre rendition of Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’etoile. Stage director Gregory Lehane fully transported the audience to 1877 France.

L’etoile, which literally translates to “The Star,” tells the story of Lazuli, a poor peddler who falls in love with a princess, Laoula, who is destined to be married to the king, Ouf. When Lazuli denounces the king and slaps him, Ouf orders Lazuli dead, but his royal astrologer explains that with Lazuli’s death, the king’s death follows closely. Through a series of dramatic events, Lazuli ends up marrying Laoula, only to appear dead shortly after, having apparently been shot by officials. When Lazuli reappears alive after swimming in a lake, Ouf is so overwhelmed that he gives his blessing for Lazuli and Laoula to live happily together — a rare happy ending for an opera.

At typical opera houses, the audience’s hair tends to be gray. Many have expressed worry that the listeners of opera are slowly dying out. One look at the Philip Chosky Theater in Purnell Center for the Arts would tell anyone otherwise. Students from all different backgrounds came together to watch the production. For some, opera is a way of life; they live and breathe the music. But that’s not true for everyone. L’etoile was many people’s first experience with opera, such as freshman computer science major William Howard Matchen. “_L’etoile_ was a thrill!” said Matchen. “Hearing the orchestra while watching the colorfully-costumed actors interact in dialogue, song, and dance is an experience that will surely bring me back to the theater.”

Because L’etoile was originally written in French, the singing was all done in French with English supertitles to make it more understandable. To learn the French words, senior vocal performance major Olivia Vadnais (Lazuli) recommended sitting down with a dictionary to translate all the text. The dialogue, however, was spoken in English, creating an interesting mix of languages in the performance.

The students in the School of Music were pleasantly surprised by the decision to perform this classic opera, said Vadnais. She explained that with young voices, it is often difficult to find an opera suitable for the cast, so they often must resort to contemporary operas.

The Carnegie Mellon voice majors were cast as early as last May. L’etoile is double-cast with some principal roles changing on a Thursday/Saturday and Friday/Sunday schedule. The cast included Vadnais and master’s student Courtney Elvira Lazuli, junior Joanna Latini and junior Stephanie Ramos singing Laoula, and senior Nigel Rowe and junior John Teresi singing Ouf. Between May and November, they worked on becoming familiar with their roles, learning their lines, and practicing their French, according to freshman vocal performance major and chorus cast member Guillaume Poudrier.

For some, like Rowe who has been performing in operas since high school, the characterization was natural. “I saw Ouf in a way that’s not entirely different from the way I see myself, as a person,” said Rowe. “He’s pretty flamboyant, very high energy, and that suits me.”

For others, however, it was more difficult. Vadnais, who performed in last year’s Into the Woods, had to step into the role of a male for the first time, and that took quite a bit of practice. “I actually had my boyfriend observe and he’d tell me, ‘No, you need to do this with your hips’ or ‘Boys never move their hands like that,’ but it was definitely weird,” she said.

Since November, they have been rehearsing every day, perfecting both their voices and their interactions with one another and the audience, said Poudrier. Despite popular belief, opera singers are responsible for much more than singing; they also have to put on an act. In this aspect, the School of Music was incredibly successful, with every member of the cast performing brilliantly.

However, it’s not only the cast that makes up an opera. Master’s drama student Daniel Tyler Mathews, the team’s costume designer, produced radical pieces that, in some dramatic way, gave meaning to the atmosphere of L’etoile. “His costumes are perfect for the show,” said Rowe. “It’s kind of like walking into a French cabaret at the time when the opera was written.” The costumes also added a sense of good humor to the show, helping to make it the lighthearted, happy opera that it was written to be.

Overall, the piece was colorful, tasteful, and wonderfully performed. The amount of hard work put into the performance was evident, but the amount of fun the cast had was also clear. “The stressful moments never outweigh the fun I have on stage,” said Rowe. “We just have a dynamic on stage where it’s just really fun to be on stage with them.” Rowe is unsure of his future plans, but he’s happy to have gotten the chance to perform in L’etoile this semester.