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Arts & Culture

‘The Beggar’s Opera’ to provide ‘hip’ take on British classic

Isabel Thornton ’19 directs 18th-century opera, maintains tradition of engaging audience members

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 2016

This weekend, Brown Opera Productions will put on an opera written before the Declaration of Independence.

Back in 1728, when Rhode Island was just a colony, writer John Gay sat across the pond and penned “The Beggar’s Opera,” a three-act ballad opera satirizing British government.

Now, despite the fact that the United States didn’t formally exist when the opera was written, BOP is putting on the production precisely because it relates to the current U.S. political climate.

“It carries an important message, especially for this time period — pointing out a lot of the absurdities in our political system at the moment,” said Isabel Thornton ’19, director of the production.

To prove her point, Thornton chose a cover photo for the event’s Facebook page showing the faces of this year’s presidential contenders photoshopped onto an old oil painting of the British Royal family. A pouty Donald Trump glares at a pantalooned Hillary Clinton. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, bearing a flowing ball gown, clutches the waistcoat of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX.

Though applying the term “hip” — Thornton’s term — to an opera written in 1728 may seem oxymoronic, that’s exactly the sense that Thornton strives for in her revitalization of a dated classic.

Thornton “wanted to keep people’s singing voices as they were and not necessarily make them conform to an operatic style,” said Peter Traver ’18, the music director for the production.

Aiming for a modern feel, the 11-person cast includes only a small number of people traditionally trained in opera. Others come from singing backgrounds in rock or pop. Some hadn’t even seen sheet music before.

Traditional stylistic opera was not the priority, Thorton said. “The emphasis (of) my directing was very much about bringing out the satire and about honest acting.”

To an extent, that is what Gay intended almost 300 years ago, creating an opera that set in motion the tradition of addressing the audience. Continuing this custom, Thornton chose to offer seating for the play on the ground so that the audience could be up close and personal with cast members. The Facebook event encourages viewers to bring blankets, pillows and cushions.

Thornton said she wants the audience to feel “like (they) are involved in the story … that (they) are beggars, on these streets among the actors.”

The music was all chosen based on songs that were popular at the time — folk tunes, church hymns and other popular ballads. Much of it, she said, is recognizable even to modern audiences. 

The production will include 50 of these time-tested tunes. With only 11 actors, Thornton said the past six weeks have been a whirl of memorization for the cast. Some of the leads have six to seven solos and  numerous chorus numbers.

The singers were not the only cast members forced to cram. With a costume designer and a set designer backing out mid-way through production, it was all hands on stage with Thornton leading the way. “I costume designed the show. … I’m set designing with my technical director, and I did props with my technical director,” she said.

“It’s a really fun little fight to see whose name can appear in the program the most times,” said Anthony Cherry ’18, the stage manager. “But that’s just the nature of student theater and theater in general. Just a million things are going to go wrong.”

But amidst the failing spotlights, the malfunctioning headsets and the overworked actors, the crew has eked out a full-blown opera about which they beam with pride.

“It’s definitely going to be a really amazing experience … (with) really committed actors and pit,” Traver said. “It’s going to be a really fun two hours.”

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