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Mozart Meets 'The Princess Bride' in Youth Opera Workshop Concerts


Published October 30, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.

Sarah Cullins directing the Youth Opera Workshop of Vermont rehearsal of The Magic Flute - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Sarah Cullins directing the Youth Opera Workshop of Vermont rehearsal of The Magic Flute

At a recent rehearsal for an upcoming performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Magic Flute, the energy and focus were palpable. In the small South Burlington studio, voice teacher and soprano Sarah Cullins observed closely as three soloists, singing the parts of Pamina, Tamino and Sarastro, sang a trio to pianist Mary Jane Austin's direction from an electric keyboard.

Austin suddenly interrupted one singer to point out that her character would never soften her last declaration with an extra grace note. Cullins urged another to correct a single vowel. Just as quickly, Austin had the group back on track to singing Mozart's lyrical melodies as written.

The intensity was akin to that of a professional group, but these opera singers were high schoolers. They are part of the Youth Opera Workshop of Vermont, a satellite program of the Middlebury Community Music Center. The group will present public performances of The Magic Flute in abbreviated English translation in Middlebury and Waterbury this weekend, followed by three school performances.

The production is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. As imagined and costaged by Joshua Collier, founder-director of Barn Opera in Brandon, Youth Opera Workshop's Magic Flute recasts the story using the framing device of The Princess Bride, the 1987 hit movie in which a man reads a fractured fairy tale to his grandson. The format enables the cast of seven teenage singers to tell Mozart's story without needing to fill such roles as the Queen of the Night, her attendants or the evil Monostatos.

Collier's company inaugurated a longer version of the production in September using a full cast of professional singers and three Youth Opera Workshop singers as the Spirits: Grace Lane, a sophomore at U-32 High School in East Montpelier; Emma Greenwood, a senior at Harwood Union High School in Moretown; and Isabella Dunn, a recent graduate of Essex High School. Greenwood and another Youth Opera Workshop trainee, Samuel Thompson, also did role studies of Pamina and Tamino. (That is, they learned the parts in full without the understudy's pressure of being ready to play them onstage.)

For the Youth Opera Workshop production, actors Allan Nicholls and John Buck will serve as narrator on separate nights. They'll read to Jack Greenwood, Emma's 13-year-old brother. Lane, Greenwood and Dunn will reprise their roles as Spirits, and Greenwood will also share the role of Pamina with Magner Amsbary, a junior at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg.

Lane and Dunn will do double duty as Papagena and the Priestess, respectively. Thompson sings Tamino, and his fellow senior at Rice Memorial High School, Fred Pohlen, is Papageno. Thomas Buckley, a sophomore at Colchester High School, will sing Sarastro.

During a phone call on his return from a rowing event, Thompson — a coxswain with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum rowing team — said the production will be his first experience singing opera. The tenor had sung leads in Rice's musical theater productions and in its chorus, led by tenor Kevin Ginter, before the latter suggested he audition for the Youth Opera Workshop.

Now, as a result of studying classical voice with Ginter and witnessing professionals pulling together the Barn Opera production, Thompson is applying for college music programs as an aspiring vocal performance major.

"Oh, gosh, I love it," he said of opera. "I love every part of this process."

Greenwood, too, has decided to major in voice next year. Part of the inaugural group of singers when Cullins founded the Youth Opera Workshop a year ago, the soprano enjoyed the experience of working among professionals.

"I had so much fun, and it was really cool to work with people who had their master's in singing," she enthused.

Both young singers are excited to bring opera to the public and their peers, who, Thompson said, "have a lot of opinions about opera, but either they've never done it or they've never seen it." They hope to dispel disparaging stereotypes about the art form.

"It's not about the fat lady with the horns," Greenwood said. Thompson added, "You don't have to wear a tuxedo and opera glasses."

Costumes will not get much more complicated than pajamas for the bedtime-story-like production, and sets will include only "what I can fit into my Jeep," Cullins said.

Instead, the focus is the story, she continued. A professional soprano, Cullins started Youth Opera Workshop in part to make opera more accessible and enjoyable for teenagers and general audiences alike.

"Once you strip all that pomp and circumstance away, it's just a simple story," she averred.

As a teenager, Cullins recalled, she saw "lush, expensive" opera productions in New York City and Montréal that put her to sleep every time. "I think it was because they didn't actually focus on the story," she said. "It was about how many horses and extras were onstage."

After training at the New England Conservatory and Mannes School of Music, Cullins spent 10 years in Bogotá, Colombia, where she started Central University's undergraduate voice program and the Opera Workshop. In the latter, she began experimenting with story-focused productions using minimal sets and costumes.

When she returned to her hometown of Burlington, Cullins was delighted to find that telling stories was the primary focus of Doug Anderson's Opera Company of Middlebury. Collier modeled Barn Opera on the Middlebury company, and Cullins is now spreading the word among teens through the Youth Opera Workshop.

She started the program after learning from Buckley — her Sarastro — that the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association was terminating its choral program. As a result, those "one or two star singers" per school had no opportunities for development beyond soloing in their choirs and, when available, in musical theater.

The Youth Opera Workshop identifies those singers through Cullins' connections to school choral directors in Chittenden, Addison and Washington counties. Such singers already study with voice teachers, so Cullins' role is to offer "the same kind of intense, high-energy, high-expectations training for singers" that teen athletes receive. "Even if that's not your career goal, it's this great reward," she noted.

The program is also highly impactful. Buckley is a seasoned chorister — he began singing in the Essex Children's Choir in second grade — but said he hadn't heard of The Magic Flute until joining the Youth Opera Workshop production. Now he's learning his part in German for New England Music Festival Association auditions.

"I became familiar with the opera through Josh's interpretation. He has a pretty novel take on it," the bass singer said in a phone call. "It's a very small production. It focuses on the singers and on the story and doesn't let anything else get in the way. I think it will be fun."

Mozart's The Magic Flute, Youth Opera Workshop of Vermont, Saturday, November 2, 7:30 p.m., at Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Middlebury; and Sunday, November 3, 3 p.m., at Waterbury Congregational Church. Donations.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Mozart Meets The Princess Bride in Youth Opera Workshop Concerts"