When Anela Thomas takes the stage in the Dennison Theatre during Mozart’s opera “Cosi fan tutte,” she won’t just be singing soprano.
She’ll be savoring a rare chance, and one that’s in English and not Italian, no less.
“It’s nearly impossible to have this sort of opportunity in the United States as an undergraduate,” she said.
Thomas, a senior earning a bachelor of arts and a major in vocal music at the University of Montana, said her main focus is choir singing. Early on she was encouraged to try opera and she has been “obsessed ever since.”
She loves the extravagant aura and flamboyance of the genre, how there’s “nowhere to hide,” and the family they create together working on the art form. All that together can “really affect who you are as a person and make a difference in your life.”
The plot involves young couples, mismatched fiancees, disguises, romance and comedy. At the UM Opera Theater’s production, the audience should be able to keep track of all that easily because of the English translation. It helps, too, that the composer was such a master of ensemble writing, said Anne Basinski, a UM voice professor and the theater’s director.
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“You hear each person and each person is very clear emotionally — where they are, what they’re thinking, and who is united with whom,” Basinski said. “That’s so difficult to do, and Mozart is the ultimate at making it sound easy and making it sound beautiful.”
The show runs Thursday-Friday, April 14-15, as a joint effort between the UM Opera program and the Symphony Orchestra, a collaboration that they put together every other year. It brings together 15 singers and 21 musicians, all led by Basinski, music director David Cody, and conductor Luis Millan.
The cast members are working toward music education, performance and bachelor of arts degrees. Thomas is particularly excited now that they’ve done a full-run through in advance of Thursday’s premiere.
The decision to sing in English has a few layers. For one, Basinski believes that’s mandatory for comedies, and also when working with undergraduate singers because Mozart’s music is fancy, elegant and complex. Adapting it for English removes one layer of difficulty, as they are singing and acting in a work that stretches across two acts that each last for around 80 minutes (there’s an intermission). In English, the audience can follow along with the jokes. Basinski added that composers of the era expected that their work would be translated into other languages for the benefit of the crowd.
Thomas thinks that anyone who likes movies or theater, and in particular musicals, would enjoy opera.
“The one main difference between musicals and opera is that everything is sung,” she said. “And so it adds this extra element of technique as well as story. You can tell the story through the notes you’re singing, and I think people can really enjoy that. Because it’s in English, people will be able to understand and play along with the nuances. I believe there’s a lot of subtleties in opera that make it really fun. As long as this opera in particular is comedy, and so it’s fun to get a good laugh.”
The production was originally selected for Valentine’s Day weekend, but postponed due to the omicron variant of COVID-19. Regardless of the date change, its light tone matches the mood in spring, post-COVID surge. This particular opera was picked because Basinski considers it her favorite work by Mozart.
“I love the story it tells, I love what Mozart’s music does to fill out every corner of the story,” she said. As examples, she mentioned the way the music matches the story’s many “flip-flops.”
“You have the silliness of the boys appearing in disguises and the music is boisterous,” Basinski said. “There’s a comical trio where the men are laughing together. The maid Despina has very pert and saucy music as she’s trying to get the girls to smarten up, and suddenly there are two romantic duets in the second act where things are starting to turn around in the story and they’re very heart-felt.”
The time and place for this story, however, are flexible. The UM team decided to set theirs in the late 1920s/early 1930s. The chief “conspirator” Don Alfonso is a studio mogul, the women are actresses, and the men are actors.
The plot goes a little something like this: It’s a “story of two young couples who are so sure nothing could break them apart: unbeknownst to the ladies, the boys agree to a test of their fidelity,” Basinski wrote in an email. The men are sent off to war and come back disguised, and flirt with each others’ fiancees, and “comedy of errors” material occurs.
The title translates to “Women Are Like That,” and Basinski is upfront that the writing bears its share of sexism, such as the “tests” of fidelity for the women, but not men.
To her, as long as she and the performers address those issues in their discussion and presentation, the work is still worthy of production and shouldn’t be mothballed.
“I can barely think of a Shakespeare play that does not have a will-she-or-won’t-she, did-she-or-didn’t-she plot line,” she said.
They’re helped along by Mozart’s plot, as Despina, the maid is “loudly from the very beginning going, ‘hold on, how come the women have all the rules that they have to follow? Why don’t we get the freedom the men do? Why should we have to behave when they don’t? She encourages the girls to explore and take agency and decide what they want, which they do,” she said. That sentiment is “pretty darn good” for a composer writing in 1790.
Thomas, who is UM’s Despina, said she thinks “her intention is get the sisters to loosen up a bit and have some fun, and so she kind of schemes with Don Alfonso and figures out ways to get the girls to loosen up and maybe be interested” in the swapped, disguised fiances.
While thus far it sounds like it’s firmly in the category of light Mozart, it “can go very many ways,” Thomas said. “There’s a tension at the end between the words and the music. The words in the situation could be played in a very cynical, dark, broken-down way.” Various productions have taken their own approach. They and the students talked about how to approach the tone of the ending.
No spoilers here; you’ll have to hear it sung aloud.