Lyric Opera Theatre: New leadership reinvigorates students' passion for performing

This is a revitalizing year for Lyric Opera Theatre, the program that combines musical theater and opera performance majors within the School of Music to put on professional performances. The first show of its season, the opera "HMS Pinafore," just closed, and it sold more tickets than any show in the past 15 years.

ASU opera professor and director of "HMS Pinafore" Dale Dreyfoos said he is excited to see attendance is up. 

"Lyric Opera Theatre used to be the best-kept secret in the Valley, but now the secret has gotten out," he said.

Dreyfoos attributed this to the passion of the students.

"They just have a great time, and it shows," he said. "They all took ownership in it, and it was very evident just how much every single person on that stage was enjoying themselves. That's the strong point of our program."

Dreyfoos said that this year's audiences have been more engaged and more eager to get involved with LOT than ever before. 

"There's nothing like live theater," Dreyfoos said. "As great as movies and TV and other forms of entertainment are, there's just something palpable and something real about live theater. For 'HMS Pinafore,' every night there was a different feel from the audience. It's almost like the audience is another player in the show."

Lyric Opera Theatre | Opera and Musical Theatre from ASU School of Music on Vimeo.

There are many exciting things happening on the LOT stage this season, but there are just as many exciting changes happening behind the scenes. This is Brian DeMaris's second year as LOT's artistic director, and he said he has put a big emphasis on getting students' feedback.

"I wanted to give everything a more personal touch," DeMaris said of his new vision for LOT. Last year, he created a student leadership team to act as a sounding board for the student body, to keep students in direct and constant contact with the LOT faculty.

The team also compiles students' suggestions for MainStage shows and presents them to the faculty, and this year, every MainStage show was suggested by students.

DeMaris said that this has really given students a sense of ownership over these productions.

"The students have gotten so involved and so passionate about the shows and they've really taken it upon themselves to share them with the world," he said. "We've only just closed our first production, and already the entire season has sold more than previous years.”

DeMaris's vision for LOT also includes giving students experience in the process of creating brand new works. 

"LOT does have a history of doing new works and world premiers and performing cutting edge things, but I didn't see students getting experience with actually developing a piece, seeing the writing process first-hand," he said.

DeMaris is giving students exposure to new works in two ways: with the new works readings series, in which students perform in small, intimate productions of new works that have gained some recognition but haven’t had a big-budget production yet, and with the new, completely student-run LOT Lab program.

Students can submit proposals to mount their own productions of existing works, or they can submit new works they’ve written and get them workshopped and develop them along the way.

“The students really value an environment where it’s safe to risk,” DeMaris said. “It’s called the Lab because it’s a place for students to experiment — try new, cool things, do things that are new to you, add new ideas to the process of how we produce shows — and if they work, we’ll adapt those ideas into the MainStage process.” 

DeMaris’s initiatives don’t stop there: he has retooled the Lyric Opera Outreach Program by sending LOT students and MainStage cast members out to schools around the valley to talk about theater, and inviting students in grades K-12 from all over the valley to attend the MainStage shows.

“It has been very successful at connecting us with the schools in our community, and it is a great recruitment tool," said DeMaris. "We’re getting students excited about theater and about LOT years before they’re looking at colleges.”

DeMaris said he is excited to bring LOT to larger audiences in the years to come.

“My biggest goal is to bring the program the national attention it deserves,” DeMaris said. “What we offer that no one else does is the amazing passion and energy of our students. You just can … feel it from everyone. You can feel how passionate and excited they are, and it’s as good as being in the front row of a Broadway show because of all the energy that’s coming at you from onstage.”

DeMaris has also streamlined the MainStage productions by adding a new staff position, production stage manager Kate Leonard. She manages every show in the LOT season, working with the directors of each show throughout the rehearsal process to make things run smoothly.

An ASU alumna, Leonard said she is very excited to be able to provide stability to all the LOT productions with her new position. 

"LOT had a need for a production stage manager that would stay consistent," she said. "In the past, no one was here consistently, so no one was firm on all the rules and enforcing them, there was no one source for all the information. It's good to be able to look at one person and ask your questions. It gives a face of authority and you have to have somebody that knows all the rules."

As someone who's been with LOT for years, Leonard said she has seen positive change in the program.

"Brian [DeMaris] is the greatest thing that's happened to LOT," Leonard said. "Just in a year, it's crazy how much we've turned things around."

The next show that will appear on the LOT stage is "Guys And Dolls," directed by musical theater professor Toby Yatso, who described the show by asking the question, “What if a fairy tale took place in Times Square?” 

“It’s a postcard, not a documentary," he said. "It’s what we see when we close our eyes and idealize everything.”

Yatso plans on putting a special spin on the classic musical while remaining true to the original script. 

“I needed to give myself a reason to see Guys And Dolls again, in 2016. Why?” he said. “I’ve brought some exciting new perspectives that 2016 audiences might find refreshing.”

He said he is excited to see where LOT is headed, and that LOT students have put as much into LOT as the faculty have this year.

“The students are working harder than ever, it’s inspiring," Yatso said. "The productions are reflecting that. Students have sincere pride for them, and want to share them with their community again and again, and that is a wonderful, magical thing."

"Guys And Dolls" runs from Nov. 17 - 20, and tickets are $8 - $21. Details for all the events in LOT's current season can be found here.

Anyone interested in performing with LOT can look for audition announcements on LOT's website; non-performers and people interested in the technical side of theater should contact Linda Bennett.


Reach the reporter at bavining@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @ben_vining.

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