Westminster students perform opera in Croatia

Olivia Coackley

This past August, in a 14th century Venetian fortress in Grožnjan, Croatia, two Westminster students performed Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. Margaret Woods, a current Westminster second-year graduate student, and Katie Elliott, a Westminster alumna, joined by Jake Stamatis, an alumnus of Westminster’s CoOPERAtive opera training program, participated in a program led by the Croatian subdivision of Jeunesses Musicales International, an organization that focuses on providing developmental performance and listening opportunities to young musicians around the world.

The opportunity to perform in Croatia developed through the professional connection between Westminster faculty member Dr. Kathy Price and Berislav Jerković, head of Voice Studies at the Academy of Arts in Osijek, Croatia, and their collaboration through Westminster’s summer Voice Pedagogy Institute. In the spring of 2017, Jerković came to Westminster to observe and give classes, as well as to set up an informal performance of the first act of Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte. There wasn’t much time for rehearsals, and performers who could learn music quickly were needed. Price recommended Woods and Elliott, and the two joined the cast. Several weeks after the performance, Jerković contacted Woods about singing the role of the Countess in Nozze in Croatia over the summer, and he asked for help in finding a Marcellina. Woods then contacted Elliott, who agreed to sing the role, and the cast was set.

For both Elliott and Woods, the program proved a good opportunity to learn a full opera role. Woods, a student of Dr. Price, says that she had only limited experience performing full opera roles, and she seized the opportunity to do what she calls her first “big girl role.” For Elliott, the Croatia program was the first production in which she had to arrive at rehearsals with her role fully memorized.  It was one of the first roles she learned as a graduate of Westminster. “That was a really important skill to get, to learn a role without the school aspect,” she says. Both Elliott and Woods also stress the importance of learning how to perform while traveling. The Croatia program required them to participate in initial rehearsals the morning after roughly 24 hours of travel.

The nine-day program culminated in a performance on a stage inside an 11th-century medieval castle. The opera was double cast, and, in addition to Woods, Elliott, and Stamatis, the performers included students and professionals from Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Israel and Italy. Both Elliott and Woods are immensely grateful for the experience and for the connections they made while in Croatia. “It was a really magical experience,” Elliott says.

Earlier this month, Elliott and Woods were part of Westminster Opera Theatre’s production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. Woods sang the role of Blanche de la Force, an aristocrat who, in the midst of the upheaval of the French Revolution, decided to become a nun. Elliott was the production’s stage manager, a position she held for the first time.

For Woods, Dialogues was an entirely different experience and character than what she is used to. Previously she’s been cast as the funny, clever girl manipulating things behind the scenes.

“Blanche is not that,” Woods notes. “She has a much more internal problem. She’s a darker character.” Poulenc’s music also presented its challenges. Woods calls Dialogues a “recit opera,” considering the difficult music and text, and the lack of reprises or breaks between scenes.

Elliott enjoyed her first time stage managing. While in school, she held a variety of leadership positions and participated in the crew for opera productions, but she never had a chance to merge the two experiences until now. “I’m glad I got to [be a stage manager] here first,” she says. “I know how the Playhouse works, I know how the operas are supposed to go.”

Both Woods and Elliott were inspired by the music and the story of Dialogues, and are incredibly appreciative of the experience. Elliott says that stage managing this production has taught her a great deal about herself, as well as about the backstage world. “I love this opera so much,” she says. “The ending scene gets me every time.” Woods also praises the beauty and genius of Poulenc’s music, and she acknowledges the personal growth that comes from singing a role such as Blanche. “It teaches you a lot about yourself,” she says.

Woods will graduate from Westminster in May of 2018, and although she doesn’t know specifically where, she knows she will be teaching. She would particularly like to teach young students, around middle school age, and to help people “find their voice.” Elliott, who graduated from Westminster last May, is continuing to study privately with Professor Margaret Cusack, as well as working part time at Westminster Conservatory and as a voice and piano teacher. She is preparing to audition for Young Artist Programs. She’s appreciative of the opportunity to continue studying voice outside of school. She says that while school kept her busy with learning a significant amount of repertoire quickly, she’s now able to focus more specifically on her technique.

Woodsalso reflects on the continuity of the singer’s learning experience. Her motto is “Always strive to have new experiences, to learn new things, and to keep expanding on what you know and building on it. Your learning experience is never over.”