ITHACA, NY – Ithaca College’s production of Semele, which ran from February 26th to March 5th at Hoerner Theatre, caught the audience off-guard. People did not expect to see cross-dressed characters and showers of dollars and glitter when they purchased a ticket for a musical drama by George Frideric Handel.
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“When it was first produced, it was so scandalous that it had like four performances and then it disappeared for hundreds of years until the 1970s […], but even now it’s very rarely produced,” publicity associate Arielle Rubin said.
Guest director and Ithaca College alumnus R. B. Schlather wanted to create the same effect that the piece had in Handel’s time.
“To me Handel was writing the pop music of his age. He was writing the most popular music of the time, so I think there’s no reason not to try to make it an experience today that is as relevant and as central to the culture as it was back then,” Schlather said.
Catching people off-guard is also Schlather’s particular directing style.
“I sort of don’t like acting. A lot of what I do is just sit and watch people and wait until they do the things that are really real to them…. the way they really stand or the way they communicate with their body language. Often I’ll tell them ‘That’s amazing! You have to sing the aria doing that with your body’,” Schlather said.
A lot of moments in the show emerged in this random way and the audiences really responded well to such moments, saying that the show was “hysterical” and “the funniest thing they had ever seen.”
According to Schlather, Semele is “a timeless story about an ambitious girl who wants to move beyond her lot in life and she does so by taking up an affair with the most powerful man around (actually a god, Jupiter) and then gets punished by his wife (Juno).”
Everybody can relate to such a story and to “the emotions of this girl, who desires so intensely to get out of where she is in life.” However, the story has a sad moral.
“The moral of the story that the chorus sings is basically ‘Don’t try to do that or you are going to get burned’,” Schlather said. “That’s a very upsetting moral for contemporary people because we don’t want to be told ‘You can’t get out of where you are at or you can’t do better.”
The production of Semele — technically an “oratio,” not an opera, and not originally intended to be staged — took a long time. The production team included conductor and musical director Geoffrey McDonald, scenic designer Daniel Zimmerman, lighting designer Erik Herskowitz and costume designer Greg Robbins.
The singers were selected according to their specific vocal skills. For example, Semele is sung by a soprano and she has to sing a lot of “coloratura,” which, according to Schlather “is an Italian word that basically means intricate, colorful singing.”
“We needed to cast someone who was able to do that and we did with Laura McCauley, who is a senior and a vocal performance major. We saw a lot of sopranos who had fantastic voices but, as we call it, their voice couldn’t ‘move’ the way it has to in order to build this very fast, virtuosic work,” Schlather said.
Schlather also “wanted to get as many students on stage as possible,” so he casted about 30 members for the chorus and some actors.
They started rehearsing on January 23rd and opened on February 26th. The students had already memorized the songs the previous semester, but started working on the stage and in the rehearsal hall this semester.
“The staging process is about working with me and my ideas and what the designers have come up with. The designers and I started working on this back in June, so it’s been a long time. Working with the singers it’s sort of like choreography, it’s about how their bodies move around, in the space that we have made for the performance,” Schlather said.
Schlather, who is now based in New York City and has directed operas nationally and internationally, enjoyed coming back to his alma mater. He said he tried to “make the sort of show that [he] always wanted to see” during his time as a student at Ithaca College.
He has been going to theater since he was five years old, and has always been especially passionate about opera.
“I’ve just been obsessed with it and there was never anything else that I wanted to do, so I’m very lucky to have made that my career,” he said.
This is his advice for students who aspire to find a job in show business:
“I think you should only go into this business if you can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s really hard, but if you can’t imagine doing anything else it’s what you have to do. And I would also advise that you don’t have to be a performer to work in the arts. We need creative people to work variously in all aspects. That’s what’s so great about the training program here at Ithaca College: it trains people in all facets of theater production.”
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