Undergrad opera breaks new ground with ‘Castor et Pollux’

Castor et Pollux
Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

Nearly 70 Yale College students will come together this week to resurrect a show last performed in America before most of them were born.

The French baroque opera “Castor et Pollux” is a unique collaboration between the Opera Theater of Yale College and the Yale Undergraduate Ballet Company. OTYC Managing Director Ashby Cogan ’14 and “Castor’s” Musical Director Beau Gabriel ’14 said they hope that the production will serve to “raise the profile” of undergraduate opera on campus by showcasing the talent and opportunities available.

“[Gabriel] always had this ‘take no prisoners’ vision for it,” Cogan said. “We have a lot of talented students and a lot of push from the administration to do bigger things.”

The group chose to do Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera in its less commonly performed 1737 original version, which includes a prologue celebrating the end of the then contemporary War of Polish Succession. Gabriel said the show’s “epic proportions” allowed the group to involve as much of Yale College as possible.

“There’s no two people it’s revolving around that everyone else is just supporting,” Gabriel said. “The chorus is just as beautiful and important as the principals, as the dancers.”

Gabriel said Associate Dean of the Arts Susan Cahan voiced the administration’s willingness to provide financial support for a more ambitious endeavor. In the past, OTYC productions have received administrative support but have typically involved fewer members and about a third of “Castor’s” budget, Cogan said, adding that most shows have been accompanied by no more than a piano, Cogan said.

While the show applied for a Creative and Performing Arts award, Cogan said the bulk of its budget — which with the rental of the Co-Op space, exceeds that of a Dramat mainstage — was paid for by the Arts Discretionary Fund. The team booked the Co-Op Theater because Yale does not have a performance space with an orchestra pit, and putting the orchestra onstage greatly limits a production’s possibilities, she explained.

Baroque is an ornate 17th-century musical style that served as a foundation of modern Western classical forms like the sonata and the concerto, as well as major and minor tonality and continuous bass-line harmony. An advantage to choosing an earlier, baroque opera is that the “lighter” style of music makes it easier for college students whose voices are not yet fully developed to put on a full-length production, Cogan said. She explained that after 1800, the orchestration became increasingly lush, requiring singers to be much louder to cut through it.

Sarah Norvell ’15, who will sing the role of Phébé, said the French style of operatic dialogue — “recitative” — is far more structured than the English or Italian, changing meter often to accommodate the natural accentuation of the French language, which makes it more difficult to sing.

“You have to be stricter with yourself,” Norvell said.

“Castor et Pollux” is a tragédie en musique, a genre of French opera that uses plots from classical mythology or Italian romantic epics to celebrate the monarchy. It recounts the tragedy of twin brothers Castor and Pollux. Pollux, who is immortal, must travel to the Underworld to bring his dead brother Castor back to life. He undertakes the journey to fulfill the wishes of Castor’s lover princess Telaira, with whom Pollux himself is also in love.

“Pollux is being pulled between his emotions and his reason,” Stage Director Lara Panah-Izadi ’14 said. “The value of reason, and the Enlightenment, are important in this period in France.”

Panah-Izadi explained that “Castor et Pollux” lies at the transition between the traditional baroque style and more modern forms of opera. The plot breaks from the limiting theater tradition of classical “unities,” which mandate that a story take place in one location, in the span of a day and with only one main plotline. “Castor,” for instance, takes place in several locations, including a funeral ceremony, Jupiter’s temple, the Underworld, the Elysian Fields and Sparta.

By supplying the string instrument players with baroque bows, Gabriel said the production nodded to the recent trend of “period performance” of baroque music in which orchestras use instruments authentic to the time period. The production also borrowed a harpsichord from the Music Department, which Gabriel said is so fragile that it needs tuning every hour.

Cogan said modern opera and baroque music share a similar style of singing, adding that since modern audiences have only rediscovered baroque music in recent years, productions have more artistic liberty to cut and paste musical parts.

“There’s this newness to it. [Some opera] is so tired, it’s been beaten to death,” Cogan said. “This is the next frontier of opera, its something that hasn’t been touched in hundreds of years.”

Cogan added that Yale especially is “a mecca” for baroque music scholarship and production as the home of the Yale Baroque Opera Project, though “Castor” is not associated with that initiative.

Lea Winter ’15, a ballerina in the production, said the choreography is challenging for dancers used to performing only with other dancers. The emphasis on vocal expression in opera and body language in dance allow all the performers to bring their expertise to the production, she explained.

Winter added that “Castor” provides an important performance opportunity for the ballet company, which began as an outlet for dance performance only two years ago.

“Castor et Pollux” will run at the Co-Op Theater this Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.

Correction: Feb. 20

A previous version of this article mistakenly stated the production borrowed a harpsichord from the School of Music, when it fact it was borrowed from the Music Department.

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