Sonic View

I n the “letter scene” of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, based on a book by Alexander Pushkin, the young and inexperienced Tatiana composes a heartfelt letter to a man she barely knows but has decided she loves, a friend of her sister’s fiancé named Eugene Onegin. Tatiana asks her nurse, Filipyevna, to have the letter delivered. But it doesn’t meet with the response Tatiana has hoped for. Instead, Onegin returns her letter in person and essentially gives her the old line: Let’s just be friends. Tatiana is devastated.

The rest of the story will have to wait for Yale Opera’s full-scale production in February at the Shubert. For now, you can see the famous letter scene and seven other “greatest hits” from the world of opera in its annual two-night series of “Fall Scenes” this weekend, performed by Yale Opera’s elite coterie of graduate students. Only eight of them are admitted to the program each year.

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As I stand outside the opera’s Hendrie Hall rehearsal space with Yale Opera manager Erika Niemi, the astonishing voice of soprano Lauren McQuistin fills the corridor. But she’s inside, behind two sets of doors. We sneak in for a peek at the work in progress.

There’s no set—just a table with three chairs, and lots of little colored tape corners marking the floor. Vocal coach Tim Shaindlin plays a grand piano at the far side of the room, while director Chris Murrah perches on a stool, watching the scene. Stage manager Tess Naval and assistant Sylvia D’Eramo, herself a graduate of the program, sit at a table equipped with the libretto in hard copy and the score on a laptop, along with a slew of notes, a mug of pencils, a box of tissues, a set of headphones, travel mugs and other assorted necessities. A colorful poster on the wall advertises the opera’s 2008 production of Die Fledermaus. At the end of each aria, everyone claps gently, as if a baby were sleeping nearby. Or as if they’re handling something valuable.

Something valuable does, indeed, seem to be in the works. I may be hearing voices that will one day be known by everyone who knows opera. Yale alumni have gone on to sing at “all the major opera houses in the world,” Niemi says, including La Scala, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera.

The small size of the graduate program allows faculty to tailor scenes for the talent at hand, Niemi says, and choosing those scenes is always fun. “A lot of the constraints of doing a full production are not there, so we can just choose what we think will showcase the singers the best,” she says. This year, that selection includes scenes from Thomas’s Hamlet, Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann and another scene from Eugene Onegin on Friday; and scenes from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, Verdi’s Rigoletto and the Eugene Onegin “letter scene” on Saturday.

“‘Scenes’ is wonderful because it’s the first big project we do with them of the year,” Niemi says. “We can really make sure that everybody has their two or three scenes to really gain something, whereas [a full-scale production] is not ‘fair’… But with ‘Scenes’ we can really pick things for them to… give everybody as fair a shot as possible and to try to expose them to different styles.”

McQuistin’s scene includes a demanding 15-minute aria, sung in the original Russian. (Supertitles for the audience will be projected above the stage.) A second-year student, her voice is bold and gorgeous, her performance convincing. “We obviously have a lot of confidence in Lauren both as an actress and a singer,” Niemi says. “She has to hold the stage for 15 minutes of the most gorgeous Romantic music by Tchaikovsky you’ll hear.” McQuistin is joined by the equally talented baritone Matthew Cossack in the title role and mezzo-soprano Julia Orosz in the role of Filipyevna.

When the first run of the Russian scene ends and Murrah gets up to run through some notes, I’m surprised to hear a Scottish lilt in McQuistin’s speaking voice. Murrah demonstrates how he’d like her entrance to look. “All you have to do is look for the thought, find the thought and sing it,” he tells her. Then it’s back to the top for another run-through, followed by a conversation about one particular scene. McQuistin has an idea about the emotional content, and Murrah asks her to try it out.

Trying it out is part of the point for audiences at “Fall Scenes” as well, Murrah says when the rehearsal is finished. “If you’re new to opera, it’s a great opportunity to start to learn what you’re excited about,” he says. “If you’re familiar, you’re getting the greatest hits. You get to come and see… the best parts of all of these. And it’s in two and a half hours an evening.”

In other words, it’s a relatively brief sampler that works well for everyone. And, Murrah adds, they’re “sung by the best singers, I think, around. If I can brag.”

With voices like this? You can.

Yale Opera “Fall Scenes”
Morse Recital Hall – 470 College St, New Haven (map)
Nov 2-3 at 7:30pm
(203) 432-4158
www.music.yale.edu/concerts/series/yale-opera

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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