In opera news last week, a 68-year-old Plácido Domingo took the stage in the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Francisco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. On the opposite coast, the Los Angeles Opera unveiled the first installment in its $32 million production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, complete with avant-garde costumes and a giant glowing eyeball.
And in Independence, Kansas, a town of 9,000 people just north of the Oklahoma border, a cast of four college students and two local residents brought an entirely new art form to a struggling rural community.
The Medium, a 1946 opera by composer Gian Carlo Menotti, opened in Independence the evening of Thursday, February 26. The project was the brainchild of Kelly Webber, a classically trained vocalist and professor of vocal music at Independence Community College (ICC). Webber, who taught at an international school in Switzerland before moving to Kansas in 2007, said that she wanted to expose the people of Independence to something they hadn’t seen before.
“When most people think of opera,” said Webber, “they think of really large sopranos with horns and staffs. But opera’s more than that. It isn’t just one thing.”
In some ways, The Medium was an unlikely choice for the college’s first opera; only one of Webber’s singers had performed in an opera before, and her students spent long hours in rehearsal mastering Menotti’s demanding polyrhythms and uneasy, faltering melodies.
Then, too, the subject matter of The Medium is decidedly dark, revolving around an unstable woman named Flora who holds séances in her home and beats the orphan boy who she has rescued from the streets of Budapest. In a small Kansas town with more than forty active churches, the occult is always a dicey subject. And the violence that Madame Flora visits on young Toby is wrenching, at times; members of the audience gasped, audibly, as the actor playing Toby was thrown down the steps of Madame Flora’s lavishly appointed living room.
Yet Webber insists that she chose The Medium because, in other ways, the opera is quite accessible. “Look, it’s an hour long, and it’s in English,” she said flatly. “I didn’t want to scare people off.” Webber said that she also hoped to pique the curiosity of her audience, encouraging them to familiarize themselves with some of Menotti’s other work.
Gian Carlo Menotti is perhaps best known in the United States for Amahl and the Night Visitors, a 1951 one-act opera that was commissioned for television by NBC. But Menotti’s career as a composer spanned more than six decades, and included full-length operas as well as libretti that he wrote for his longtime companion, Samuel Barber. Menotti also founded the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, an annual summer music festival that continues to this day.
If the cast of the Independence production lacked in experience, then they more than made up for it with their energy and poise. Terri Barbera was a commanding presence in her role as Madame Flora, and Lisa Gerstenkorn shone as Flora’s daughter, Monica. But Webber’s most unorthodox casting decision must have been the role of Toby, who was played by Ji Yoon Park, a slender female student originally from South Korea. Opera has a long tradition of casting female singers in “breeches roles” like Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and Park’s shy, expressive features brought a lovely subtlety to the silent role of Toby. Yet Park admits that it was a challenge to embody the physicality of a troubled teenage boy, especially without being able to use words to tell Toby’s story.
“In class,” Park explained, “I would watch the way that the boys walk, the way they sit, the way they eat.” Chuckling, Webber recalled that Park still could not perfect her walk as Toby—until she started wearing an athletic cup to rehearsal.
Independence is by no means a town unacquainted with the arts. It’s home to the William Inge Theatre Festival, which attracts luminaries from Broadway and Hollywood each April, and ICC was recently featured in a book entitled Cool Community Colleges: Creative Approaches to Economic Development. Yet Independence is no Marfa (Texas, that is)-style artists’ colony, either; local residents often shy away from the college’s theatrical productions, leery of the strong language, and an ever-growing number of vacant storefronts along Main Street testify to the impact of recent job cuts at the Cessna plant.
So how, I wondered, would this moody, atmospheric production be received by the people of Independence? Would there be an audience for 20th-century opera here in that part of America that so many patrons of the Met would dismiss as “flyover country”?
On opening night, during intermission, I struck up a conversation with a group of middle-aged women sitting in the back row of the theater. “I’ve never seen an opera before,” confessed Marcia Carvalho, of Independence. “I was expecting Italian and all that stuff. I didn’t really know what to expect.”
Carolyn Follmer, sitting to her right, had a different perspective. She told me that she’d been to an opera before, and she commented on the spareness of Menotti’s libretto, as well as the skill of the guest accompanist, Dr. Ji-Sook Park. Duly impressed, I returned to my seat and settled in for the grisly denouement of Act Two.
On the way out, though, I found Follmer again and asked her, out of curiosity, where she had gone to see an opera in the past. Tulsa, I figured, or maybe Kansas City.
“Well,” Follmer replied, “I saw Aida in Des Moines. And then, where was I, that other time?” She paused for a moment, trying to remember. “Oh, yes, I was in Vienna.”
It’s a long way from southeastern Kansas to the European capital in Follmer’s memory. But, as the lights came up on the set of The Medium, “flyover country” started to look like a pretty good place to stage an opera.