Fun and fabulous

- January 31, 2008

Catie Shelley as the housemaid Adele and Josh Whelan as Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus. "There's some very sexy parts." (Nick Pearce Photo)

What do people think of opera? Allyson Howlett doesn’t mince words. “The preconceived idea is the big lady on stage with the horns and the wobbly voice.”

Judging by that cliche, Dalhousie Opera Workshop’s selection from Strauss’ Die Fledermaus isn’t opera at all. The action takes place in a ballroom; it centres on a decadent champagne party with no rules but “each to his own taste.” The costumes reflect a modern elegance not far from fashion magazines. And Strauss’ plot — sung in English — strays far from the Wagnerian. Cutthroat chambermaids scheme their way into high society; Machiavellian revenges are meticulously planned; a disguised couple manage to commit infidelities… with each other.

See photo essay: Die Fledermaus

”There’s some very sexy parts in the opera,” student Catie Shelley grins. “Lots of seduction going on.”

If you go...

Die Fledermaus runs January 31 to February 3, at 8 p.m. at the Sir James Dunn Theatre in the Dalhousie Arts Centre. There's also a matinee performance Sunday, Feb. 3, 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 and $15, available from the Dalhousie Arts Centre box office. Call 494-3820.

Ms. Howlett, working towards a Bachelor of Music degree, and Ms. Shelley, a fourth-year musical performance student, are two of the budding stars featured in Die Fledermaus, double-cast as housemaid Adele.

Ms. Howlett has always wanted to be a performer. Why opera? “Being an opera singer has kind of a class to it. It makes you feel more regal,” she says, thoughtfully — adding that, in this age of pre-teen popstars and wardrobe malfunctions, that kind of class is sorely needed.

The other Adele swears she was introduced to opera “by a nun! When I was 13.” She’d always been a singer, and loved opera immediately – although, or perhaps because, it’s so challenging. There are no extra takes, no smoke and mirrors to hide behind. “It’s up close and personal. You get to see these characters come alive on stage.”

Die Fledermaus (conducted by veteran conductor and Dalhousie instructor Gary Ewer, and directed by Nina Scott-Stoddart) has been a learning experience for both students, though they’re already seasoned performers. “You’re just pushed into it… being pushed into something bigger really helps you grow,” muses Ms. Shelley.

Both students plan musical careers and are optimistic about the future of opera. Opera, Ms. Shelley believes, will soon reclaim its popular appeal.

“Directors want to modernize things… bring that traditional opera in a modernized setting…I think that opera is coming back. Everyone is young (now), and they’re approaching it in a modern way.” And, she adds, the influence of opera has never actually gone away; stars such as Kristen Chenowith (who recently appeared on Ugly Betty) are keeping the art new and vibrant.

“A lot of movies are based off opera, too,” Ms. Howlett adds, mentioning Moulin Rouge as being inspired by La Traviata. Plus, award-running musical Rent – which just finished a spectacular run on Broadway — draws more than a little inspiration from Puccini’s La Boheme.

Opera, then, is alive and well and living at Dalhousie; now all these students and the rest of the cast need is an audience.

“Even if you think you don’t like opera, come see it, anyway,” urges Ms. Howlett. “I want people to walk away not saying, ‘What a pretty dress,’ but ‘What a great performance.’”

“People don’t really know what we’re doing, down here in the basement (of the Dalhousie Arts Centre). But I think they’d… be exhilarated. You don’t have to be a musician to enjoy it.”


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