Visit the Kentucky Opera in Louisville as the company prepares for a production of the American opera Susannah. A brief history of opera and descriptions of artistic styles help students develop an appreciation for this unique performance event. A backstage, behind-the-scenes tour shows the sets, costumes, lighting and make-up while providing insight into the many skills necessary to produce live musical and theatrical productions.
Grade Levels: 6-9
Resource Types: Video
Electronic Field Trip to the Kentucky Opera
A KET documentary that takes students backstage at the Kentucky Opera in Louisville as the company prepares a production of the contemporary American opera Susannah. Composer Carlisle Floyd gives some background on the work, and singers, musicians, the conductor, and technicians talk about the rehearsal and staging processes. The program also introduces some basics of opera and careers in the field.
Introduction to Opera and a look at Susannah and Die Fledermaus
What is an opera, anyway?
Opera is drama told through music. It is a play in which the dialogue is sung rather than spoken. It is usually presented on a very grand scale, with large, imposing sets, elaborate and colorful costumes, and stylized stage direction. There is often a chorus-an ensemble of singers who make up the townspeople and other supplemental characters. Often dancing (e.g., ballet) is part of the spectacle as well.
How did opera start?
The history of opera as it is presented today in America goes back to the late Renaissance in Italy (1500-1600), when a group of composers “invented” it to resemble what they thought music-drama was like in classical Greece.
Operas are usually sung in the language in which they were composed, which means that opera singers must be able to sing in Italian, German, French, and other languages, as well as in English. Most of today’s opera houses offer English supertitles.
What makes an opera different from a musical?
The biggest difference is the musical style. The singers who perform in a musical usually have mikes hidden in their wig or costume, while singers who perform in operas usually do not use microphones.
A musical is a drama told by interweaving songs and music with spoken dialogue, while most operas are sung throughout with little or no spoken dialogue.
Voice types in opera
Classically trained singers learn to use their voices so that they can be heard over a full symphony. They do this by learning to strengthen their diaphragms so they can project a steady stream of air that helps create a big sound.
Female voices are divided into three categories:
- Soprano (highest)
- Mezzo-Soprano (middle range)
- Contralto (lowest)
Male voices are divided into three categories:
- Tenor (highest)
- Baritone (middle range)
- Bass (lowest)
Elements of a performance (Glossary)
The lowest female voice. Sometimes this term is used interchangeably with Mezzo Soprano.
A musical phrase with an ornamental note that is added to the beginning of a main note. The musical phrase is resolved to the main note.
A chord whose pitches are played in succession, usually from lowest to highest.
The middle range male voice.
The lowest range male voice.
Elaborate ornamentation or embellishment of a phrase, either written or improvised.
Italian for painful or sorrowful.
The symbol within the musical score that signals that a note should be held longer than notated.
Italian for very loud.
Italian for humorous, comedic.
The relationships of tones as they sound simultaneously. The literal definition of harmony does not necessarily dictate a pleasing sound, as in the commonly used idea that harmony is a group of notes sounding good together.
Italian for slow.
The text of a work (as an opera) for the musical theater
A middle range female voice.
Italian for very fast
Italian for quiet.
A piece of music performed by four performers.
A collection of pitches arranged in order of lowest to highest or highest to lowest.
The highest female voice.
Notes marked by a dot, played or sung shorter, separate from the others around it, and with a light accent.
The highest male voice.
Rapid alteration of a note with the one next above in the prevailing key or harmony.
A piece of music performed by three performers.
From Script to Libretto; from Play to Opera-the Process of Adaptation
Used with permission from Washington Opera
The stories told by operas originate in a variety of places; they may be inspired by a historical figure or incident, be an original creation, or may be from a book or play. While it is not uncommon for a play to be made into an opera, it is rare for the script of a play to be set directly to music.
Instead, the script of the play is adapted to become the opera’s libretto. One of the advantages to telling a story through song is that music can be used to convey the underlying mood of any conversation or situation that may take place. As a result, ideas and relationships that could take pages of text to establish in a play can be conveyed in just a few moments of song in an opera. For this reason, the librettos of operas are typically much shorter than the scripts from which they were adapted. In addition to reorganizing the script so that the story will be most effectively told through music, the language used by characters may also have to be altered in order to flow with the music. An example of this would be of rewriting dialogue into rhyming lyrics.
In Susannah, Carlisle Floyd has translated the apocryphal story of Susanna and the Elders. This parable is based on malice, hypocrisy and tragedy. A tale of unjust accusation and social ostracism, it carries echoes of the McCarthy era for some.
About Kentucky Opera
Kentucky Opera, State Opera of Kentucky, was founded in 1952 in Louisville, Kentucky by Moritz von Bombard. A native of Germany who had become a U.S. citizen, Bomhard masterminded the operation. He had vast experience in not only conducting but in the early days, he also designed the sets, trained the singers and chorus, directed the staging, and until 1970, even designed the opera brochures and sometimes sold tickets.
Operas were presented in the Columbia Auditorium, which lacked an orchestra pit until the 1963-64 season when they moved to the Brown Theatre. After a major restoration, it was renamed the Macauley Theatre, and after further restoration in 1998, it is now called the W. L. Lyons Brown Theatre.
In the 1950s, five operas were commissioned by Kentucky Opera and given their world premieres. In addition to the standard repertoire, Bomhard always presented one opera a year which was new to his audience. Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, Britten’s Peter Grimes and Janacek’s Jenufa were most successful, as was his first Wagnerian opera, The Flying Dutchman. He never repeated an opera more than once in five years and managed to do a Mozart opera once a year. Four operas were presented yearly.
Bomhard retired in 1982 and Thomson Smillie became general director. A native of Glasgow, Scotland, Smillie had worked for the Scottish Opera for twelve years in addition to being the artistic director of the Wexford Festival of Ireland. He left the Opera Company of Boston and was available when Kentucky Opera was searching for a replacement for Bomhard. Smillie served sixteen seasons with Kentucky Opera before leaving in 1997.
In 1998, the company hired Deborah S. Sandler, the general director of the Opera Festival of New Jersey in Princeton, New Jersey. She came to Kentucky Opera after having served the Opera Festival of New Jersey for twelve years as executive director and then since 1992 as general director. During her tenure with Opera Festival of New Jersey, the company more than tripled its budget and increased programming to include the production of internationally acclaimed performances of 20th century opera as well as standard works. She is committed to presentation of a balanced repertory, with representative pieces from all periods of operatic history.
The coming of the Kentucky Center for the Arts in 1981-82 season presented a real challenge to Kentucky Opera. The new center’s Whitney Hall contains 2,4000 seats – 1,000 more than the Macauley (now the Brown Theatre). Kentucky Opera met the challenge by presenting grand operas such as Aida, Turandot, and Don Carlo at the Center, medium-size works such as The Merry Widows, Cosi fan Tutte, and The Magic Flute at the Macauley, and chamber operas such as Albert Herring, The Barber of Seville, and The Impresario, in the Bomhard Theater at the Center.
The Louisville Orchestra plays for all performances and the Louisville Ballet has danced on a number of occasions when needed.
Statewide outreach and the essential cultivation of the next generation of opera lovers are the concerns of Opera-Go-Round, the educational wing of Kentucky Opera, which each year gives more than 100 performances in 20 counties to 50,000 students in the region.
The company is splendidly housed in two floors of a condominium building with custom-renovated administrative and artistic offices at the corner of Eighth and Main Streets on Louisville’s Avenue of the Arts. This location is within easy reach of the theaters where the company performs.
Kentucky Opera is run by a board of 43 members, plus an Honorary Council and National Council of members. Kentucky Opera Guild is the volunteer support organization and helps with fund raising and educational events each year. An office staff of twelve manages everything from finance, marketing and development, to public affairs. A production staff of approximately ten directs the myriad details of production. A group of at least 100 volunteers regularly support these efforts.
Kentucky Opera is financed by ticket sales, corporate and individual sponsors, the Fund for the Arts, a local agency, the Kentucky Arts Council, a state agency, and local fund raisers such as the annual Guild book sale, the annual car raffles, and the fantastically successful wine auction, In Vino Veritas.
From humble beginnings with a budget of less than $10,000 the first year in 1952, Kentucky Opera now operates on a budget of more than $2 million annually and is the 12th oldest opera company in the nation.
The following sections includes a guide and description of Susannah
Kentucky Opera’s Guide to Susannah
NOTE: Susannah is an opera containing some mature themes.
The Electronic Field Trip to Kentucky Opera is appropriate for grades 6-9. This Web guide is intended primarily for teachers and is also appropriate for high school students.
Music and Libretto by Carlisle Floyd
Premiere: Florida State University; Tallahassee, Florida; February 24, 1955
Time: The Present
Place: New Hope Valley, Tennessee
Kentucky Opera’s production of Susannah is conducted by Ward Homquist, with stage direction by Rhoda Levine.
It is a summer night, and the people of New Hope Valley have gathered for a square dance. Susannah Polk, who is prettier than the other girls, is obviously the center of attention. The Elders are attracted to Susannah while their wives discuss the new preacher, Olin Blitch, whom they expect to arrive in the morning. The wives turn their attention to Susannah, and voice their disapproval of her pretty face, her dress, and her manner. The dancing comes to a stop when Blitch arrives. He immediately notices Susannah.
Later that evening, Susannah returns to the Polk farmhouse, followed by simple-minded Little Bat. He adores Susannah, but he is afraid of her brother Sam. As Susannah sings of the beauty of the night, Sam returns home. Little Bat runs off at the sight of him, while Susannah tells Sam about the dance.
The following morning, as the four Elders search for an appropriate spot for a baptismal pool, they come upon Susannah bathing in the creek. They freeze in shock and outrage, and return to town, proclaiming her wrongdoing.
That evening, there is a picnic supper at the church. The entire town condemns Susannah’s actions at the creek, and they repeat the words of the Reverend Blitch, demanding a public confession. Susannah enters quietly and is stunned when no one will speak to her. The Elder McLean informs her that she is not welcome, and the confused girl runs blindly away.
Later, Susannah is seated on the steps of her house. Little Bat enters, and he tells her what is wrong. The Elders have spread the word that they saw her bathing in the creek, and they intend to run her out of the church and maybe even the valley. Susannah gasps with indignation, stating that she has always bathed in the creek and resents being spied upon. Little Bat also reveals that the Elders induced him to confess that he had been involved with her. Susannah is angry at Little Bat for telling such a lie, but he says he was too scared to resist them, and she angrily sends him away. Susannah notices that Sam is on the porch and has heard the whole story. He tries to calm her. She begs him to explain why this is happening to her, but he can only answer with silence.
A few days later, Susannah attends the New Hope Church prayer meeting, sitting alone on the last bench. The Reverend Blitch begins his sermon about a man who was good, but not “saved.” The choir sings, and above the voices, Blitch urges all sinners to come forward. After a number of people go up to him, he stops the choir with a wave. He speaks of the one sinner who has not approached him, and the congregation turns and stares at Susannah. Blitch concentrates his attention on her and she slowly moves forward, transfixed. As she comes to a stop before him, he smiles triumphantly. The spell breaks, and Susannah rushes from the church.
An hour later, at the Polk farm, Susannah sings a mountain lover’s lament. From behind her comes the voice of Blitch, complimenting her on her singing. He explains that he has come to talk about her soul. Susannah accuses the Elders and Little Bat of lying. Blitch is impressed, but as she continues to describe her loneliness and her misery of that week, he insists that the sin is in her heart. She denies this vehemently. He approaches her, and lays his hand on her shoulder, but she is too weary to react. Blitch then speaks of his own loneliness, and upon discovering that Sam is away, he leads her into the house.
The next morning at the church, Blitch prays, begging for forgiveness of his sin against God and Susannah. She enters, along with the Elders and their wives. Blitch has called them, he explains, to right a wrong. He proclaims Susannah’s innocence and asks them all to forgive her. The Elder McLean stubbornly demands to know why Blitch has had a change of heart. Blitch responds that the Lord spoke to him in prayer, but the Elders reject this. Blitch pleads with Susannah that he has tried to make amends, and asks for her forgiveness. She responds that she no longer knows what that word means.
When Sam returns home, he learns of Blitch’s actions with his sister. Enraged, he kills the preacher at the baptismal pool. Susannah hears the shot and realizes what has happened even before Little Bat rushes in with the news. The people of the valley come after Susannah, but she greets them with a shotgun and derisive laughter, and drives them away. She is left a lonely, embittered woman.
Characters in Susannah
Character Name Description, Voice Type, Artist’s Name
Mrs. Gleaton Elder Wife, Soprano, Teresa Dody
Mrs. Hayes Elder Wife, Soprano, Dana Beth Miller
Mrs. McLean Elder Wife, Mezzo-Soprano, Diana Heldman
Mrs. Ott Elder Wife, Mezzo-Soprano, Dorothy Byrn
Elder McLean Elder, Baritone, Steven Condy
Olin Blitch Evangelist Preacher, Bass-Baritone, Mark Delavan
Elder Hayes Elder, Tenor, Gary Seydell
Elder Ott Elder, Baritone, Ryan Allen
Elder Gleason Elder, Tenor, Jared Fenske
Susannah Polk Young Woman, Soprano, Jennifer Casey Cabot
Little Bat McLean Son of Elder and Mrs. McLean, Tenor, Jon Kolbet
Sam Polk Brother of Susannah, Tenor, Jay Hunter Morris
Characteristics of Susannah
“I’ve talked to many people who want to label Susannah a folk opera. I say, ‘That establishes the locale, but I hope that is only the beginning of it.'”
– Carlisle Floyd
Susannah is an American folk-type opera. It has often been characterized as homespun. It is about mountain valley intolerance. The opera depends greatly on word, action, and dramatic intensity with American dances and revival hymns. It skillfully imitates Appalachian square dances and folk songs. Susannah combines poetry and music in a way that brings seemingly unremarkable characters to life, showing the depth and passions of human emotions and the tragedy of human weaknesses, real and perceived.
Susannah is so thoroughly Southern that she could not live anywhere but in her valley of New Hope, Tennessee. Though the emotions in Susannah are universal, most people who encounter the opera today probably find the action somewhat removed from their own everyday existence. Few operas match the story, diction, and music so perfectly.
Sources: “Intermission,” Ticket to the Opera pp. 575-576 (1996); Mitchell, “Susannah,” Opera pp. 33, 36 (1956); Opera News 1999 pp 23 – 23; Martin, “Susannah,” The Opera Companion to Twentieth Century Opera pp 558-564 (1970).
Who is Susannah?
From Who’s Who in the Bible 1994
According to the book of Susanna in the Apocrypha, Susanna and the prophet Daniel were among the Jewish exiles living in Babylon. Because Susanna rebuffed two elders with dishonorable intentions, they accused her of sinful behavior, and she was condemned to death. Upon being led to her execution, Susanna prayed to the Lord for help. The boy Daniel came to her defense by asking each elder separately under which tree they had witnessed Susanna’s sin. Their contradictory evidence convinced the community of Susanna’s innocence, and the elders were sentenced to the very death they had planned for Susanna. Everyone rejoiced for Susanna “because nothing shameful was found in her” and from then on “Daniel had a great reputation among the people.” (Susanna 63, 64)
Susanna: Hebrew: Shoshanna – Lily
Daniel: Hebrew: God has Judged
About the Composer: Carlisle Floyd
Known as one of the foremost composers and librettists of American opera, Carlisle Floyd was born in Latta, South Carolina on June 11, 1926. In his works, he has created a distinctively American idiom for opera, drawing on national folk and religious music traditions.
Floyd earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music at Syracuse University. He began his teaching career in 1947 at Florida State University, remaining there until 1976, when he accepted the prestigious M.D. Anderson Professorship at the University of Houston. He is a co-founder of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, a training and performance program for young singers and coach/accompanists, jointly created by the University of Houston and the Houston Grand Opera.
In addition to his talent as a composer, Floyd serves as his own librettist. His librettos combine penetrating social commentary with astute psychological insight. His themes, such as the aftermath of the Civil War, the Great Depression, and rural fundamentalism, are used as backgrounds for the personal dramas of characters whose stories unfailingly engage the interest and sympathy of the audience.
With Susannah, Floyd first achieved national prominence as an opera composer/librettist. Premiered in 1955 at Florida State, the work has become a standard of the opera repertoire and has been widely staged in the United States and Europe.
Floyd’s other operas include Of Mice and Men (1970), Bilby’s Doll (1976), and Willie Stark (1981). Recently, the composer has gained increasing attention for his non-operatic works. The 1993 New York premiere of Floyd’s orchestral song cycle, Citizens of Paradise, is based on the poems and letters of Emily Dickinson.
His musical style has been referred to as “eclectic and conservative.” Floyd’s operas contain powerful dramatic segments, and they continue to flourish. Unlike so many opera composers of other generations, Carlisle Floyd has been able to achieve success and acclaim for his works while still alive.
The story of Susannah appealed to Floyd, who received a strict Methodist upbringing. His father, a Methodist minister, had been posted to a series of small rural Southern towns, and Carlisle was able to draw on these experiences and memories for his opera. The dramatic possibilities inherent in a revival meeting inspired what Floyd called “the catalytic event” for Susannah, the scene around which all the rest of the work flows.
—Julius Rudel, “My Susannah,” Opera News, April 1999
Carlisle Floyd profile from Boosey & Hawkes
In English, ‘Susannah’ takes the mystique out of opera—article from the Augusta Chronicle, including an interview with Carlisle Floyd, from April 25, 1998
The Music of Susannah
From “My Susannah” by Julius Rudel Opera News April 1999
Susannah draws on traditional and popular music sources, but it also has some full blown arias and rousing choral moments
- Opera Prelude – Referred to by Floyd as “Opening Music” – is short and passionate, introducing the audience to the people of New Hope Valley. In three parts: jagged chords suggesting conflict, a lyric broad lament implying tragedy and a coda of dying phrases.
- Square Dance – Opens Act I – the cheerful square dance is in contrast to the nasty comments made by the Elder’s wives in “She’s a Shameless Girl.” This fast-paced music comes to an abrupt halt with the entrance of Olin Blitch.
- A hymn-like melody, dignified and pensive, brass chorale establishes Blitch immediately: “I am the Reverend Olin Blitch, and I’ve come to New Hope Valley to cast out devils and conquer sin and bring sinners to repentance….”
- “Ain’t it a pretty night?” – Susannah’s aria is the centerpiece of Act II – The piece is filled with dreams, desires and the acknowledgment that there is a wondrous world beyond the valley.
- Sung by Sam Polk, Susannah’s brother, “Oh, Jaybird Sittin’ on a Hickry Limb” is an authentic-sounding folk song that brings the audience back to the valley.
- The rustle in the orchestra that opens Scene 3 captures the sonic essence of the flowing, shimmering stream. This music leads us to the stream where Susannah bathes. The elders chant in unison “This woman is of the devil. It is a shameful sight to behold” upon intruding on Susannah’s privacy.
- The mood of Scene 4 of Act I is instantly established by the mysterious orchestral introduction – tainted by the dark clouds that pervade the minds of the elders and their wives.
- Act I finishes with Little Bat admitting to Susannah his false confession to the Elders and Sam’s tender, brotherly observation “They’ll turn this valley into hell.”
- Act II opens musically with static chords dominating the music, supporting the waiting of Susannah and Sam.
- “Are you saved from Sin” – The revival meeting is dramatic realism at its best – American verismo. The chorus singing as the congregation’s participation drives the event to a religious frenzy.
- “The trees on the mountain” – One of the most heartbreaking of all opera’s arias – captures Susannah’s loneliness, fears and tenderness. Sad chords of the solo harp, lonely and cold, introduce this incredibly beautiful song.
- “I’m a lonely man, Susannah” – Blitch abandons his religious demeanor, reaching out to her in this human aria.
- “When the congregation gathers” – The music conveys an implicit tension when Blitch tells them he knows that Susannah is innocent
- “Oh Lord, I Never Meant Him to Die” sung by Susannah – The opera’s shocking ending weaves together all the strands, textual and musical, in a catastrophic conclusion that is the exclamation point to an ideal dramatic curve.
Historical Context for 1955
(the year in which Susannah was written)
Government and Politics
- The Korean War had just ended.
- The House Un-American Activities Committee was holding its hearings.
- Albania entered the Warsaw pact.
- Peron was ousted in Argentina by a military coup.
- Ireland and Austria joined the United Nations
- Ben Gurion became Prime Minister of the new nation of Israel
- Dag Hammarskjold became Secretary General of the United Nations
- AFL-CIO was formed by the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
The Literature & Culture of the American 1950s
The following sections includes a guide and description of <i>Die Fledermaus</i>
About Die Fledermaus
Kentucky Opera’s Guide to Die Fledermaus
Note: While most of the Electronic Field Trip to Kentucky Opera features the opera Susannah, viewers also get a peak at a scene from Die Fledermaus and learn a little about the props, costumes, and other aspects of Die Fledermaus that set it apart from Susannah.
- Excerpts from Kentucky Opera’s Guide to Die Fledermaus
- Music and Libretto by Johann Strauss
- Libretto by Carl Haftner and Richard Genée after Meilhac and Halévy’s Le Revillon from Roderich Benedix’s play Das Gafaengnis
- Premiere: Vienna, Theatre an Der Wein; April 6, 1874
- Kentucky Opera’s production of Die Fledermaus is conducted by Daniel Beckwith, with Stage Direction by Michael Albano
Synopsis (summarized from Kentucky Opera Guide)
Time: 1874 Place: Austria
This opera, in three acts, concerns mistaken identities and schemes centering on Gabriel von Eisenstein, his wife Rosalinda, and the people around them.
In Act 1, set in Eisenstein’s home, Rosalinda is being wooed by Alfred. Eisenstein faces a short stay in jail because of an altercation with a policeman. And their maid Adele is trying to find a way to escape her duties and attend a ball at Rince Orlosky’s. The act concludes with Rosalinda caught having dinner with Alfred. She persuades him to pose as her husband, and he is escorted off to jail.
Act II, Prince Orlofsky’s Villa. Adele, Eisenstein, and Rosalinda all turn up at the ball and assume other personalities. Adele, as Mademoiselle Olga, is dressed in Rosalinda’s clothes, thus arousing Eisenstein’s suspicions. Rosalinda, as a Hungarian Countess, is introduced to Marquis Renard, really Eisenstein, who attempts to charm her. She convinces him to give her his watch. By the party’s end, Eisenstein laments the loss of his watch and realizes he must head off to prison.
Act III, At the Prison. Over the course of the act, all the principals arrive at the jail and spend a good deal of time either in disguise or trying to straighten out who is who. Eventually Eisenstein, disguised as as his lawyer Dr. Blind, learns his wife dined with Alfred. She says her husband was out of town. When he reveals his true identity, she in turn produces his pocket-watch, and he learns that she is the Hungarian Countess. As others from the party arrive, Eisenstein learns that his friend Dr. Falke has been playing a prank and believes Rosalinda’s rendezvous with Alfred was a part of the prank, and all is forgiven.
Characters in Die Fledermaus
Character Name, Description, Voice Type, Artist’s Name
Dr. Falke Eisenstein’s friend, Baritone, Erich Parce
Alfred A singer , Tenor, Richard Drews
Adele The Eisenstein’s Maid,Soprano, Jami Rogers
Rosalinde Eisenstein’s Wife, Soprano, Carolin Whisnant
Gabriel Von Eisenstein Citizen of Vienna, Tenor, Daniel Malis
Dr. Blind Eisenstein’s attorney, Tenor, Matthew Di Battista
Ida Adele’s Sister, Mezzo, Soprano, Rebekah Bortz-Hardin
Prince Orlofsky A rich Russian, Mezzo Soprano, Jean Stilwell
Frank Jail Warden, Bass, James Kleyla
Frosh The Jailer, Comedian
PLUS 40 members of Kentucky Opera chorus
Johann Strauss' Life and Music
1825 – Born in Vienna, October 25
1831 – Writes first 36 bars of waltz music at age six
1841 – Begins his studies at the Polytechnic School
1842 – Begins musical study
1849 – Upon death of his father, combines his dance orchestra with his father’s
1856 – After an extended illness, begins an European tour with his orchestra
1867 – Composes The Blue Danube
1872 – Begins his American tour
1874 – Composes Die Fledermaus
1899 – Dies of pneumonia in Vienna, June 3
Additional resources to expand the learning opportunities
Outline and Special Thanks
Electronic Field Trip to Kentucky Opera Outline:
♪ Welcome to Kentucky Opera
♪ History of Kentucky Opera
♪ A brief history of opera and descriptions of artistic styles
Producing an Opera
♪ How an opera is selected
♪ Meet the composer: Carlisle Floyd
♪ Sets, costumes, lighting, and make-up
Careers in the Opera
♪ Singers working with the orchestra
♪ Last minute changes
Special thanks to Gerald Farrar, Director of Public Relations for Kentucky Opera. His help was invaluable to this field trip.
Special thanks to Amy Brooks Hoffman, Education Coordinator for Kentucky Opera, who creates the Opera’s teacher guides and contributed a good deal of the material for this guide.
Also thanks to other members of Kentucky Opera staff for their assistance and support.
This project is funded in part by contributors to the W. Paul and Lucille Caudill Little Arts Endowment.
Careers in the Opera
So you want to be an opera singer?
Men and women who are professional opera singers study music, performing arts, and vocal performance. Their on-stage performance is the culmination of years of work with private vocal coaches, musicians, and directors.
The best route leading to a professional career in opera is academically based. A young singer should apply to colleges or universities with strong vocal music departments. It is crucial for a young person to work with a voice teacher with whom they can progress artistically, academically, and professionally.
Music Schools in Kentucky
Area colleges/universities with vocal music/opera theater departments:
• University of Louisville
• University of Kentucky
• Bellarmine College
• Kentucky State University
• Indiana University
• University of Cincinnati
• Southern Baptist Seminary
There are other colleges and universities that have vocal music departments. Consult your high school choral director or music teacher for additional information.
Types of careers
There are also lots of other jobs with an opera company. To prepare for these, several universities offer programs in arts administration. At the graduate level, these programs are highly selective. Undergraduate programs are offered at the University of Kentucky and Bellarmine College. Graduate programs are offered at Indiana University and the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. Other universities that offer graduate arts administrative studies are New York University, University of Wisconsin, and UCLA.
With any career in the performing arts, a young person should get involved with the company of his or her choice. Volunteer!
Following are descriptions of jobs within an opera company. With any career in the arts, an understanding of the artistic process and a dedication to the arts is necessary for success.
General Director: The general director is responsible for the administrative and production aspects of an opera company. Responsibilities include selecting and casting operas for upcoming seasons, and budgeting for all aspects of the opera company.
• Skills needed: leaderships; an understanding of arts marketing, budgeting and finance; and an understanding of performing arts production
• Academic major: arts administration or performing arts
Director of Finance: The finance director oversees the administrative and production budgets for the opera company, monitors the company’s income-expenditures and is responsible for reporting all financial aspects of the organization.
• Skills needed: accounting
• Academic major: accounting or business
Director of Public Relations: The public relations director communicates with the local and national media publicizing the programs and productions of the opera company. Responsible for the public relations stories in print and electronic media.
• Skills needed: oral and written communication skills
• Academic major: communications or journalism
Director of Marketing: The marketing director is responsible for all media “buys” used in the advertisement of programs and productions offered by the company. This person also oversees the box office function, subscriber relations and ticket sales.
• Skills needed: oral and written communication skills
• Academic major: communications or marketing
Director of Development: The Development Department is the fundraising arm of an opera company. All income that is not made through ticket sales and subscriptions must be granted or given to the opera company. It is the development director’s responsibility to make the requests for these gifts or grants. This person works closely with the company’s board of directors.
• Skills needed: public speaking, presentation skills, and budgeting
• Academic major: communications or visual/performing arts
Tickets Services Manager: Ticket services include subscription sales, single ticket sales, maintaining reports of tickets sold, and customer service. The tickets services manager works with other in setting the price of subscriptions and single tickets.
• Skills needed: an ability to talk with the public, sales
• Academic Major: communications, or visual/performing arts
Director of Music: Oversees the artistic aspects of the productions. Works closely with the general director in the selection and casting of opera produced by the company.
• Skills needed: music, vocal coaching, an understanding of the artistic process
• Academic Major: music
Production Manager: This person works with all elements of the technical side of an opera production. The production manager is responsible for communication between the stage director, orchestra conductor, and technical staff.
• Skills needed: Leadership and budgeting; also a technical arts background
• Academic major: a technical arts degree
Costumer: Responsible for the maintenance of each costume worn in an opera. The costumer often needs to make alterations to costumes to achieve a perfect fit for the singers.
• Skills needed: excellent tailoring and sewing skills; organizational skills
• Academic major: a technical arts degree
Stage Manager: Coordinates the cast, chorus, and technical staff in production. During the show the stage manager is responsible for all lighting, staging, and set cues.
• Skills needed: communication; leadership
• Academic major: stage management or a technical arts degree
Operatic All Stars
Today’s superstars come from many countries and many backgrounds. Here are short biographies on some of today’s most prominent stars in the opera world.
Her parents were both professional singers, and Bartoli has continued the family tradition, becoming one of the new opera superstars of today. She was born in Rome and attended the Music Conservatory of Santa Cecilia. Her talents were first noticed when she appeared in an Italian television program introducing young talent and “rediscovered” in 1988 during a French telecast dedicated to the memory of the late Maria Callas. Immediately thereafter, Bartoli was sought by two famous conductors and her international career was launched.
An ex-lawyer and piano-bar singer, Bocelli learned the great operas by ear and by heart. Born in rural Tuscany, he was fascinated with the great Italian tenors as a child—especially his idol, Franco Corelli—and dreamed of becoming a great tenor. Not sure that dream would come true, he first became a lawyer, then sang in piano bars at night while studying under Corelli. International fame for Bocelli came with “Time To Say Goodbye,” a duet arrangement with Sarah Brightman. His debut international album, Romanza, went platinum and has brought many new fans to the world of opera.
Born in Barcelona, Carreras’ true first name is Josép, the Catalan version of José. He loved to sing as a child and started voice and piano lessons with the mother of one of his childhood friends. His first major role was singing with Montserrat Caballe in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. By the age of 28, when many opera singers are just starting to make their mark, Carreras had already sung the tenor lead in 24 different operas in both Europe and North America and had made his debuts at the world’s four great opera houses. In 1987, at the height of his success, Carreras was diagnosed with acute leukemia. He recovered and gradually returned to the opera. He is often known as one of the “three tenors” for his concerts with Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti.
Born in Madrid, Domingo is one of the world’s leading lyrics because of his unique combination of vocal techniques and acting abilities. Best known for his roles in works by Puccini and Verdi, he has made numerous recordings and film versions of operas. Domingo is a tenor who made his debut as a baritone in 1959. He first sang in New York City in 1966, at La Scala in 1969, and at Covent Garden in 1971. His first role as a tenor came in 1960. He studied piano and conducting at the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City.
This American mezzo-soprano is best known for her portrayals of the title roles in Carmen and Samson et Dalila. The young singer opened the 1997-98 Metropolitan Opera season as Carmen, the same role in which she made her Met debut in 1995. Graves has sung her signature role of Carmen in major opera houses around the world and is often considered the definitive Carmen by opera fans and critics. USA Today identified her as one of the “singers most likely to be an operatic superstar of the 21st century.”
A soprano, Norman made her operatic debut in 1969 at the Deutxhce Opera Berlin as Elisabeth in Tannhaeuser. She made her American debut at the Hollywood Bowl in 1972. Unlike many opera stars, Norman actually prefers recording in a studio to performing on stage.
Pavarotti was born in Modena, Italy, and his voice reflects his heritage. He is a traditional and powerful Italian tenor. Internationally known as a concert performer, he also has a large popular following through his recordings and television appearances. He appeared in the film Yes, Giorgio in 1981 and published an autobiography the same year. Pavarotti won the international competition at the Teatro Reggio Emilia in 1961, making his operatic debut there in La Bohème that same year. He made his U.S. debut in 1968.
Frederica von Stade
Von Stade is endowed with a supple mezzo-soprano voice of shining radiance and a presence distinguished by its genuine warmth and elegance.
Past Great Opera Stars
Anderson, born around 1900, overcame prejudice to become the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
KET and KET2
You can turn to KET and KET2 to see operas and many of the great opera stars such as Luciano Pavarotti, Cecila Bartoli, and Placido Domingo. Check KET’s program guide, Visions, or your the television listings in your local newspaper for times and dates.
These prompts can be adapted to any opera, not just Susannah. We have used Susannah as an example.
Writing to Learn Prompts
Writing to Learn activities are written by students to capture his or her own reactions to a variety of experiences with themselves as the primary audience. Connections can be made to the following Kentucky’s Academic Expectations: 1.3 Construct meaning through observing 1.11 Communicate via writing 2.23 Analysis of artistic products 6.3 Expand knowledge Following are possible pre and post performance prompts for students.
Pre Performance Prompts
• What do you know about opera?
• What do you want to know about opera?
• What questions do you have about the storyline?
• What concerns do you have about attending the performance?
• What stereotypes about opera specifically, and the arts in general, are commonplace in late 20th century American society?
Post Performance Prompts
• What aspects of the performance interested you the most? (music, costumes, scenery, singing, storyline, etc.)
• What did you learn from attending the performance?
• If you were to consider a career in the performing arts, what aspects of the arts would you choose? (writing sample based only on your opera attendance)
• With which character did you identify most? Why?
Writing to Demonstrate Learning
Writing to demonstrate learning activities provide students with the opportunity to show teachers or other assessors what they have learned. Connections can be made to the following Kentucky’s Academic Expectations 2.23 Analysis of artistic products 2.24 Appreciation of the arts 2.25 Understanding of influences on the arts 2.26 Demonstration of diversity awareness
Open response questions invite students to apply their knowledge of concepts to new situations.
1. During a performance of a play, ballet or opera, the audience is usually given clues about the time and location of the action. If you saw Kentucky Opera’s production of Susannah, discuss three changes you would make to give the audience additional clues about the time and location of the events in the opera.
2. Carlisle Floyd set his opera Susannah in New Hope Valley, Tennessee. The time of the opera is “the present.” Discuss three ways in which the south and/or “the present” are identifiable within the opera.
Academic essays allow students to demonstrate their knowledge in a more formal way. Prewriting for the essay may require students to engage in research.
1. Describe in essay format how the character of Susannah or a major character in the opera you saw changes from the beginning of the opera to the end of the opera. In your essay, include a description of the effect of the influence of other characters on her.
2. Susannah is an opera that has often been referred to as a “folk opera.” The characters’ timeless emotions range from the innocence to malice. The opera is set in Tennessee, and was written in the 1950’s. Rewrite the opera by changing the setting and era the action takes place. In your opera, be sure to accurately depict gender roles, religious connotations and relationships.
3. Research 20th century American composers. Focus a report on 20th century American music on American opera. Evaluate the operas that have been written and the level of acceptance of these pieces have had by opera audiences. Recommend how these new works should be presented to audiences for wider appeal.
Writing Portfolio – Authentic Writing Prompts
• Authentic writing, or writing for an authentic purpose in a “real world” context, is a writing style that is targeted to a non-captive audience that is less informed about the subject. Authentic writing pieces are suitable for inclusion and scoring in Kentucky public school writing portfolios.
• Connections can be made to the following Kentucky’s Academic Expectations 1.11 Communicate via writing 2.23 Analysis of artistic products 2.24 Appreciation of the arts.
1. A review of Kentucky Opera’s production of Floyd’s Susannah, targeting readers who have never been to an opera. Purpose: Evaluate the performance and persuade readers to attend other opera performances.
2. A feature article for the school newspaper about some aspect of opera production in which they have a special interest, such as costume design, set design and construction, or education needed for a career in the arts.
3. A brochure or article for other students their age who are attending an opera for the first time. Purpose: Tips for first time opera-goers on what to do before, during and after the performance to receive the most enjoyment and benefit from the experience.
4. A technical review (as opposed to the traditional review which usually critiques the performance of actors/singers and the skills of stage directors) of the opera production. Evaluate the technical aspects (sets, lighting, costumes, makeup, sound, etc.) of the opera and their contribution to their enjoyment of the production.
Opera for Dummies
Great Operatic Disasters
Being an opera audience member means that you have opportunities to interact with the singers on stage. To show your appreciation of their performance, you may respond with applause. The following are helpful hints for fulfilling your role as an audience member:
♪ enter the auditorium quietly.
♪ use the restroom before the performance begins.
♪ watch the performers closely. Even if a performer is not singing or speaking, he or she will be engaged in actions that will pertain to the story.
♪ listen to the words being sung by the performers.
♪ applaud. While it is appropriate to shout “bravo” to show appreciation, it is important to note that “bravo” is traditionally used for the performance of a male singer, while “brava” is traditionally used for a female singer, and “Bravi” is used for a group of singers.
♪ have fun!
♪ take pictures of the performers while they are on stage. This could distract the singers, leading to a mistake in their performance.
♪ talk to the person sitting next to you during the performance. This disturbs others around you — not allowing them to hear the story and enjoy the performance. Most importantly, the performers can hear you talking from the stage!
♪ get up or move excessively unless absolutely necessary. This is equally distracting to the artists and other audience members.
For the Teacher
The classroom teacher can be a leader in showing his or her students how to act while attending a live performance. Opera is a special event, and should be treated with respect. The performance space is an extension of the regular classroom, and some of the same rules apply.
The Academy of Vocal Arts is the only tuition-free institution dedicated exclusively to the study of voice.
For Opera has profiles of legendary performers and composers, including Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, Denyce Graves, and Cecilia Bartoli.
Opera America includes links to all the major opera houses in the United States and a catalog of publications designed specifically for teachers.
Operabase has biographies of 5,000 composers and 2,800 singers, a database of 500 opera houses and festivals, and opera resource pages.
U.S. Opera is dedicated to opera by American composers. It includes an extensive timeline of American opera and biographies of American composers.
Opera Glass includes information on composers and librettists, opera plot synopses, and a comprehensive page of opera links.
Opera Stuff lists links to opera resources, including individual singers’ home pages.
Soprano Central has a collection of biographies, pictures, and schedules of sopranos (and mezzos), past and present, from around the world.
Biography.com includes many of the greats of opera among its mini-biographies of famous people. Simply type in the name.
Black Voices profiles numerous African-American singers, including opera greats.
Musician’s Gallery offers profiles of musicians and information about related services worldwide.