Operatastic!: an evening backstage with the SMC opera

On Friday night, stage manager Cinderella Cortas walked between two dressing rooms in the cavernous underground of The Broad Stage. "Five minutes!" she shouted with drill sergeant precision. Cortas, in a black dress proper for a fashionable dinner, was alerting male and female cast members that it was almost time to initiate "Operatastic," a showcase of SMC's best vocal talent interpreting the words of Mozart and Wagner, among others. Thirteen pieces ranging from the joyful to the utterly tragic were performed and, backstage the mood was a combination of discipline and jolly camaraderie. In the dressing rooms, students from SMC's Cosmetology department fixed performers' hair and makeup. Sudden, wandering notes from an aria would sound in the air as performers practiced their pieces while getting dressed or applying eye liner. Artistic Director and SMC instructor Janelle DeStefano walked around, carefully observing every detail as the curtain's opening moved closer.

Katherine Davis, an SMC theater arts student, was ebullient as she watched comrades prepared to join her onstage for the opening number, a rousing crowd performance of Act II from "Les Contes d'Hoffman" by Jacques Offenbach. "I hope that we get excited so we get the audience excited with our energy," she said.

As Cortas countinued issuing her clarion call for showtime's imminent beginning, student performer Jafet Bucaram discussed the preparation that went into his upcoming solo performance of "L'Elisir d'Amore" by Donizetti. "I've done a lot of research and translated the words from Italian, it's easier to get into the music once I know what the words mean," he explained.

The first piano notes resounded over the speakers. In the wings of the stage, silhouettes waited to appear before the audience. The stage design was truly operatic as colors, images, and outlines immersed a wide canvas, adding a cinematic texture to the performances.

One of the first notable performances was an exuberant version of "Papageno/Papageno" from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Die Zauberflote," performed by David Sanders and Yjiao Tian. The two played, in elegant dress, the roles of Papageno, the birdman, and Papagena, his beloved. The genius of Mozart's composition is the way the words are sung exactly how someone would expect two birds to sing opera. The vocal work was no doubt exhausting however, the pair pulled it off with a joyful power that had the audience wildly applauding.

The Sanders and Tian glided backstage, wide smiles all around, hugging and celebrating as their peers cheered them on over the impressive delivery. "This is just amazing" exclaimed Tian, barely capable of hiding her glee.

Next came a great moment of romantic tragedy during a selection from "Les Pecheurs de Perles." SMC students Nan Cui and Orson Van Gay played the star-crossed lovers Leila and Nadir. Cui was fashioned in a long, red veil to play the role of a priestess of Brahma hiding her lover Nadir from temple authorities. From the wings, DeStefano and others in the cast watched Cui from the wings as she gazed at the audience with eyes expressing a tempest.

Ben Plache, not a student but local artist who enjoys performing with the SMC opera program, did vocal exercises near the stage as he prepared to bring Germanic essence to a scene from Richard Wagner's dark, epic "Lohengrin."

"Opera simply reflects life, set from a different period and different stories," said Plache. "It really appeals to all of us. Opera is about stepping into an alternate reality and seeing life from another perspective," he added.

The performance of "Lohengrin" was pure Nordic mythology made real as vocalist Elizabeth Haefner, like a red-haired Valkyrie, sang from set pieces evoking stones as Plache emerged as the Grail Knight Lohengrin. They embraced in a climactic finale that was pure drama.

After the performance, as a classmate sang a tenor note down the hall, Haefner said, "I just let the music take over." She added that it's a labor of love to perform opera, especially since"it's full of drama and sex and desire and life and death."

Even SMC cosmetology student Molina Castillo, helping backstage with hair and makeup, could not help being taken in by the atmosphere. "I love it. I love how they have to change parts and we have to work with their outfits and make it all come together," she said.

The grand finale was a selection from Act 1 of the classic Italian opera "Cavalleria Rusticana," with a large cast in late 18th Century Italian costumes performing moments of comedy, tragedy and celebration. Thunderous applause filled the Broad as the audience signaled its approval.

Having conquered the stage, director DeStefano, flowers in hand given to her by her students, smiled and said, "We prepared all semester," adding "I hope the audience discovered the beauty of the music and the drama that's in it."

For DeStefano, there was no hesitation in her voice when asked if she viewed life itself as an opera; "Yeah, wouldn't you?"