SFU choir members perform in local opera

Mark Pepe (left) plays the role of Turiddu as Santuzza watches on, played by Talia Ryne.

Alexandre Vasilchenko had a busy schedule last week. The criminology major had his regular classes, studying for exams, and also had two performances of Pietro Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana.

You could say it wasn’t a typical week for an SFU student.

Vasilchenko is in his third year at SFU, and has been a part of the SFU Choir for the past year. The director of the choir, Melissa Ratcliff, was a principal in Opera Opulenza’s rendition of the opera. When they needed more singers for their chorus, they drew from a familiar source.

“I’ve loved everything about being in an opera,” Vasilchenko said. “I have enjoyed learning Italian, because I don’t know it and the entire opera was in Italian. I have enjoyed acting on stage, because you don’t get to do that when you stand in a line with the SFU Choir.”

Five of the 12 chorus members are singers in the SFU Choir, with none of them ever having been in an opera before. They didn’t join in typical audition fashion, either.

“It was a little bit weird, actually,” recalled Vasilchenko, laughing. “[Ratcliff] posted on Facebook saying ‘This opera desperately needs people.’ I just liked the post with no intent whatsoever to sing the opera. I kid you not, 30 seconds later  she messages saying, ‘Hey Alex, we need you in the opera.’”

Ratcliff clarified that they weren’t just taking anyone — the SFU Choir members are a known quality.

“When I first joined [Opera Opulenza], they found out I was the director of a choir. I invited them to a show,” she said. “I told them they were all non-music students. None of them are musicians by trade or study music. And they were like, ‘Holy crap!’ and enjoyed the performance so much and were so impressed, they said ‘If anyone wants to join the chorus, we’ll take them without audition.’

“If you want to do a principal role or join the company, you still have to audition, but for the chorus stuff they were great.”

Not only did Ratcliff get to watch her choristers “lose their opera virginity,” she also had a debut of her own: this was the first opera that she was a principal in. She played the role of Lucia, the mother of Turiddu, a soldier who has returned from war to find his love, Lola, has married Alfio, a village merchant. In turn, Turiddu seduces Santuzza, a peasant girl from the village.

Lola becomes jealous of Santuzza, and begins an affair with Turiddu. Santuzza becomes suspicious and tells Alfio, who challenges Turiddu to a duel. It ends with Alfio killing Turiddu, with Lucia left to pick up the pieces.         

The opera was a very enjoyable performance, especially given the $20 it costs adults to see the show, which took place in Minoru Chapel. The voices sounded phenomenal, and the blend was pleasing both to musically trained and audience ears.

Andrew Greenwood, who played Alfio, was a commanding presence for every scene in which he was featured, and was a treat to watch. He brings out the best in other characters, and demands other performers match his talent when on stage. The tension leading up to the duel between him and Turiddu, played by Mark Pepe, was palpable and engaging.

Another standout moment was Ratcliff’s final moment in the opera where she learns her son has been killed. Her grief and despair brought the audience to tears, and was a powerful moment to close the show on.

The major difficulty seemed to be that the stage was too small for the ensemble, with the backdrop frequently being hit by chorus members and looking like it was in danger of falling over. Vasilchenko said they knew the stage was going to be small, and rehearsed in an even smaller space to try and prepare for the spacial limitations.

All in all though, this was a special experience for Vasilchenko. He said he never thought of himself as someone who could do opera, but now hopes to be able to do it again someday.

“Oh no, heavens no, I didn’t think I was the opera type,” he said. “I want to go take some classes, learn how to sing a little better, and then definitely return to it. If you have an opportunity to sing in an opera, do it.”

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