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Important to Dream

Unusual performances of 'The Tales of Hoffmann',
enjoyed by KELLY FERJUTZ


All great ideas originate with just one person. At the beginning, that is. Eventually, if that person is a visionary, and finds support, many others join in, and something approaching a miracle happens. This is the tale of one such woman, Mary Beth Sederburg, and her idea. 'Because everybody DESERVES an operatunity' is the slogan of her three-year-old venture, Undercroft Opera Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.

Opera is an expensive, but enthralling art to produce, participate in, or just enjoy as an audience member. It is the most comprehensive art form, including as it does such excellent vocal performances of a very specific kind; musical accompaniment (usually at least a chamber orchestra, but a good synthesizer player can be a more than adequate substitute); sometimes expert dancers; costumes, sets and a stage big enough to encompass all the action without requiring even fancier footwork from the singers.

Mix all these ingredients together, and when it works -- it's splendid! Even the big major houses make occasional mis-steps, so when a small, mostly volunteer effort succeeds, it's note-worthy, indeed (no pun intended). Of course, all this risky endeavor can be scuttled at the last moment, should one of the key performers be unable to perform for whatever reason. Thus, the smaller career of 'opera cover'. The big houses have launched many careers through the practice of having a second person learn each major role, just in case ... If all goes well, the cover never goes on, but -- should the unexpected happen, someone gets a major boost to his or her career. A Star is Born! Of course, one cannot live only as a 'cover' -- another career is necessary for survival.

A visitor from the Baltimore/DC area, Ted Schneider, who had just been cast as Fagin in the musical Oliver, commented on the complexity of opera as an art-form. 'Having all those eyes on you forces you (as an actor or singer) to do something. Either you fall apart or you focus on what you're doing. (You) don't analyze it -- you just become the part. Musical theater is so different from the straight stage, where you do have to be aware of the fourth wall. When you also have to sing to the audience, you can't ignore them or worry about "do they like me or not?" -- you just have to sing your song.' Just so.

Robert Frankenberry as Hoffmann (on the table) in 'Kleinzach' (Prologue, 'Tales of Hoffmann'). Photo © 2007 Neil Sederburg
Robert Frankenberry as Hoffmann (on the table) in 'Kleinzach' (Prologue, 'Tales of Hoffmann'). Photo © 2007 Neil Sederburg

As a young singer, Mary Beth knew all this only too well. Possessed of a gorgeous mezzo-soprano voice, she was successful in finding roles in small regional companies, but she also had a dream. A big dream. She was fortunate in having a husband -- Neil -- who could share her vision, and three years ago, they began Undercroft Opera, which depends entirely on volunteer efforts from local singers, actors, costumers, directors and orchestra musicians. It's an incredible experience for the opera fan. Not to mention the participating artists!

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Copyright © 20 September 2007 Kelly Ferjutz, Cleveland USA


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