Produced by Edward Hernandez | Multimedia Reporter
The Lyric Opera Theater, which opened its doors to students 50 years ago, closes its anniversary season with the production of “Rent” this weekend.
Dale Dreyfoos, professor of opera and musical theater, said that the program holds a diversity of talent in high esteem.
“The fun thing is students that come in that are primarily completely belters and sing very much in a pop style, and they start working with the voice teachers in order to have vocal longevity,” Dreyfoos said.
The program presents a world of opportunities to students because of its immersive education. The combination of opera productions and musical theater productions gives students a unique position to explore both sides of the art of acting on stage.
“I think its also part of our job to broaden student’s knowledge about all of the avenues that are open to them so they don’t get pigeon holed,” he said. “I think we’re trying to give as broad a base and as many possible skills as we can because they used to say you used to be a triple threat to be able to sing and dance and act. Now you have to be at least a quadruple threat.”
Each season, the Lyric Opera Theater produces seven shows: three operas and four musicals, with one musical being a “workshop,” or completely student-run. This past season, the Lyric Opera Theater produced, among others, Mozart’s opera “Così fan tutte” and “A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine,” a student-run musical.
The program began in 1964 by Kenneth Seipp, with the production of “Westside Story,” written by Leonard Bernstein for Broadway. Seipp was honored at the opening production of the Lyric Opera Theater season, “La Périchole”
The program boasts a wide range of opportunities for music students, from operas to musicals, and operettas to revues. The program offers four distinct degree programs. The sole undergraduate program is a bachelor’s of music in musical theater performance, while the graduate programs offer a master’s in musical theater performance, opera performance and musical theater music direction.
The undergraduate level Lyric Opera Theater program requires an audition. The class of 2018 in music theater allowed 16 out of 44 applicants into the program after a taped and live audition. The master’s level audition program is similarly involved and more selective. Separate from the degree program, Lyric Opera Theater productions are open for audition to all majors.
“Rent,” the last show this season, will be held in the Evelyn Smith Music Theatre from April 24 to 27. The show comes with a disclaimer that the show should be seen by mature audiences only, and that there could be content that was “charged.”
LOOP, or the Lyric Opera Outreach Performance, allows K-12 students the opportunity to see the cast and crew in order to gain an understanding of what musical theater and opera actually means to the people that study it.
According to a recent article in the Arizona Republic, the Lyric Opera Theater came under fire for performing “La Vie Bohème” for the All-State music festival on April 11 without a disclaimer that it would be for mature audiences.
William Reber, professor of music and artistic director of Lyric Opera Theater, said that a new process would review the productions not shown in the Evelyn Smith Music Theatre.
In the future, Lyric Opera Theater will “make sure that we have the appropriate content advisories in place. It will not change the mission or nature of the program,” Reber said.
The students are thankful for the program, a program that gave many alumni stardom on stage.
“The students have gotten better and better and better,” Reber said. “I’m fond of saying it. I don’t just say that to make students here feel good, but I think it’s true. Not all students, but a lot of them in the program in 1991 would not be able to get in now.”
The program has about 50 people in New York, living any musical theater or opera performer’s dream. When some students move to New York, they are almost immediately hired to perform in productions.
Kaivan Mayelzadeh, a sophomore theater major, stage managed and acted in Lyric Opera Theater productions, including “Rent,” where he is an ensemble member.
“Especially with Lyric Opera Theater, you learn to roll with the punches and you learn to make do with what you have and not sell yourself short for things that are out of your control,” he said. “(You) put your best out there no matter what’s going on around you.”
The nature of the program is demanding of students, because of the relatively short amount of time taken to put the pieces together. The cast is allotted five to six weeks to take what they know and apply it to production. For “Rent” specifically, the cast shadowed the Phoenix Theater as they put their program together. The Lyric Opera Theater cast then spent the last eight months with the roles in mind as they prepared for the last production of Lyric Opera Theater’s 50th anniversary show.
Devin Barad, an ASU alumnus who studied in the graduate opera theater program, played Collins in “Rent” and gained many skills from the program at ASU, but one in particular stuck out to him.
“My confidence grew tremendously (during) my time at ASU, and just not caring so much if I screw up,” he said. “When I got here it felt like life or death — like the world was over — now, I’ve learned how to, if I mess up, move on, move forward.”
Brittany Howk, a music theater sophomore, had high hopes for her future and was thankful for the opportunity to be a part of Lyric Opera Theater.
“I think the program is really structured around making us well-rounded, which we have to be, because you have to be a triple threat,” she said.
With such a diverse skill set taught to each student, the curriculum was re-done this past year in order to accommodate the changing market dynamics that are a hallmark of every job market these days.
“You have to be yourself; you can’t try and be something that you’re not,” Howk said. “Be the best at everything that you can, but you also have to know your strengths and capitalize on them.”
This past year, the program’s curriculum was revamped to include more flexible courses in the course listing. This way, the program can keep up with the job market and the real world. Freshmen are taught audition techniques so that they can achieve roles in Lyric Opera Theater productions. Seniors are taught how to audition for professional roles.
While the dynamics are changing, there’s hope within Lyric Opera Theater to prepare its students for the real world. Student workshops and the opportunity to succeed are numerous in a learning environment.
“If ‘Rent’ flops, then we have a problem,” Reber said. “The student workshops don’t necessarily need to (succeed). I like to give them the right to fail. Their job is to try things. If they succeed, wonderful, if they don’t, it’s still a learning experience.”
However, some constraints are placed upon the program by the University. The older curriculum required a liberal arts-based approach, leaving students without the skills required to succeed in the job market. While the need for a multi-faceted program is imminent, Lyric Opera Theater was updated to confront this new challenge.
Future of the program
Music theater and opera have always been a part of the performing arts circuit, and it shows no signs of slowing down in the 21st century. However, what does this mean for current students given the breakdown in stable jobs in theaters and the change in how productions are run?
Lyric Opera Theater boasts many successful alumni, from New York to Berlin. One alumnus went on to record with the record label Deutsche Grammophon. Locally, however, just about any Valley theater will have a Lyric Opera Theater alum singing, dancing and acting in a show.
“Our Kiki,” a show written and directed by Seth Tucker, a Lyric Opera Theater alumnus, was funded in part by Kickstarter. That’s one of the challenges that Lyric Opera Theater’s graduates must confront in the new era of productions gracing the stage today.
“This is also part of the reason why we have student productions, so that we can help them begin to get used to the idea of what it means to be a producer or director or whatever and actually have other people,” Reber said.
As for current students, after graduation Mayelzadeh wants to stay in the Valley and try to perform. But he expressed a desire to venture out of the state, possibly performing in New York.
“I feel like I might to move out to a bigger city and, you know, of course everyone talks about New York, and that’s always somewhere to look forward to,” he said.
Students in the program said they would like to be a part of stage productions full-time without needing a second job to support themselves.
Howk said she was hopeful of the job prospects post-college.
“I would love to get a job on a cruise or a tour, because I would love to travel,” she said. “Honestly, to make a living in this business and to not have another job is the ideal situation.”
The transition into the digital age is one that is fraught with challenges for performing arts of all strata. While there is an emphasis put on the oldies, which will continue to be performed and demanded by audiences, there must be a transition into new forms of media in order to keep productions successful.
“One of the things we were talking about and at some point need to figure out a way to do is live multimedia, webcasts, things of that sort,” Reber said. “One of the things we’ve been toying with, and I have no clue how to get there yet, is actually audience participation.”
Reber said that there is a new trend in reforming how music theater students learn the craft. Music schools historically have not realized that there is a need to teach for tomorrow while preserving the past’s productions.
Reber stressed the need for graduates to be able to take risks, as stable performing jobs have dried up. Today, everything is contract-based and, he said, that means more risks. It also means new and exciting performance opportunities.
“One thing you can be certain of half a century from now: the whole thing is going to be very different,” he said.
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Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated which program performed at the All-State music festival on April 11.