# HCO conjures David Lynch in Stravinsky opera

The Rake's Progress gets a makeover with "neo-noir seedy" setting.

By Olivia Munk '16

Ah, the opera. Is there any other art form more entrenched in stereotypes? It’s hard to hear the word and not conjure up images of tiny binoculars on a stick, shattered champagne glasses and women in Viking hats.

Though it’s likely that one could wander into the Metropolitan Opera tonight and experience a variety, if not all three, of those themes, more often than not, modern operas are subverting expectations. Sometimes they’re about the poetry of Walt Whitman (American Repertory Theater’s Crossing); sometimes they’re about talk show hosts (Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s Jerry Springer: The Opera). And sometimes, they’re about bachelors who fall in with the Devil and end up in a mental institution.

For anyone wary of opera stereotypes but intrigued by the form, Harvard College Opera Society’s The Rake’s Progress might be an antidote. Notably, the show is created and performed entirely by undergraduates, a feat rarely undertaken outside of conservatories and graduate programs. Music director Jake Wilder-Smith ’16 and director Joule Voelz ’17 were inspired by the aesthetics of David Lynch films when constructing a setting for this 1953 opera (music by Igor Stravinsky, and book by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman).

I sat down with Voelz and Wilder-Smith before a technical rehearsal to discuss the challenges of directing a production of this nature, the musical conversation that Stravinsky imagined with Mozart, and how an opera and Twin Peaks can be similar.

How has it been directing an opera as your first directing project at Harvard?
JV: It has been extremely daunting, because I've never directed anything before. It made me pay attention to the things you can and can't pay attention to. If you were directing a small show with four characters, you would spend a lot of your time talking about character work, and physicality. But the reality of [an opera's rehearsal schedule] is that you just don't have time to do that. I approached it much more about how things are arranged, and how things look visually. It made me much more mindful of how people receive rehearsals than I've ever been before.

JWS: Something that is especially daunting for an opera director is knowing how to deal with voices, especially in the sense that there are voices onstage, and then that those voices in space interact differently, like anything else, like with musical theater. Working with singers is such a different thing, especially how singing interacts with acting and physicality. Singing is such a physical thing. I think Joule has a very good eye and ear for that.

You've music directed an opera before (Così fan tutte in 2014). What did you learn from previous processes that you're implementing now?
JWS: I learned so much. What's great about HCO is that you're thrown into something huge. The idea of an undergraduate-driven opera is kind of insane. There are so many things I learned from Così from the process of doing it. This is also such a different project, though. I’ve been surprised by that. In some ways it's similar, since the size of the orchestra is similar to that of a Mozart opera. Stravinsky very much had Mozart in his head, and was kind of in a conversation with Mozart, and was poking fun at him in it. The biggest thing is that the music is much more challenging vocally and technically, for the orchestra musicians, for the singers, and for me. It’s very rhythmically difficult. It's been thrilling for me, and thrilling for the singers and musicians. However, it has also been frustrating at times, just because the rhythms are so intricate, and it really is just tremendously difficult. But, it's so good once it fits together. We’ve had some moments where things just come together, such as tough quartets, and pieces for the orchestra, where suddenly everything clicks. You hear the Mozart in it, then you hear the Stravinsky in it –all of these elements glimmering off of each other.

Harvard College Opera will present The Rake’s Progress 7:30 p.m. Feb. 3-6 at Agassiz Theatre. The runtime for the show is 2.5 hours. Tickets are $10 for students,$20 for the public. For information on tickets, click here.