Lamont Opera Theatre Providing New Opportunities For Students
Although Matthew Plenk gained experience — and acclaim — as a student of opera, he never studied life on the other side of the stage.
“My education didn’t involve any kind of technical or production side of the process. That was something I learned via the professional world, seeing what other people did,” says Plenk, who earned his master’s in opera from Yale and was part of the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.
But Plenk, an assistant professor who took over as director of the University of Denver’s Lamont Opera Theatre in fall 2018, wants his students to understand all aspects of a production, which is why for the company’s upcoming production of Puccini’s “Il trittico,” he put opera students not just on stage, but behind the scenes as well, working on sets, lighting, costumes and more.
“Unfortunately, a lot of student singers usually do not go on to a professional career of only singing. It’s a sheer numbers game of how many opportunities are there and how many singers there are,” he says. “We’re trying to give students a view into what it’s like not just to be a singer within an opera company, but what it would be like to be a stage manager or work backstage or be a producer. Someone could be an amazing singer, but if their career doesn’t pan out the way they think it will and they don’t get those opportunities to be a singer, at least they don’t need to abandon the theater altogether.”
In an unusual twist for a Lamont show, Plenk also opted not to rent a set for “Il trittico,” but to design and build one from scratch, in a collaboration with DU’s theater department. Plenk hired professional designers, and then, under the direction of Steven McDonald, chair of the theater department, opera and theater students worked for weeks to put together the sets for the three one-act operas that comprise “Il trittico” (“The Triptych”): “Il tabarro,” “Suor Angelica” and “Gianni Schicchi.” It’s a big shift, Plenk says, from the first Lamont opera he directed two years ago, when then-director Kenneth Cox was on sabbatical.
“We did not collaborate with the theater department [then]. We just rented a set and did what had been done,” Plenk says. “It went well, and I was happy with the product, but this process is a lot more collaborative and a lot more artistically challenging — but artistically rewarding at the same time. A big part of why we’re doing it is to build this collaboration.”
Of course, for Lamont Opera students, the main draw of “Il trittico” is the chance to be on stage in a Puccini classic. Plenk says he chose it for this year’s spring opera because it is well-suited to the current crop of singers in the program. All told, some 45 students — ranging from freshmen to graduate students — will take the stage over the course of the evening.
“It’s very accessible; the music is overwhelming and dramatic, and all three operas are very different,” Plenk says. “The first two are very heavy — someone dies in each —and Puccini’s musical language and writing is really intense and perfectly fits the stories. And ‘Gianni Schicchi’ is a comedy. It’s funny. After these first two tragedies, we end the night with some uplifting humor.”
In a special treat for audiences and students, Plenk is bringing in his friend and former fellow grad student and Metropolitan Opera colleague Edward Parks — who sang the title role in the Grammy-winning “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” — to sing one of the show’s baritone roles. In addition to performing in “Il trittico,” Parks will conduct a master class for Lamont students.
“It’s great for the students to see professionals do their work in front of them, rather than just at a distance or on a faraway stage,” Plenk says. “Edward is suited for the role, but [bringing him in] is more just to give our students the experience of, ‘OK, what does a professional level look like, right in front of me.’”
Lamont Opera Theatre’s production of Puccini’s “Il trittico” is on stage in Gates Concert Hall at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts at 7:30 p.m. April 25, 26 and 27 and 2:30 p.m. April 28. Tickets — $16–$35 — are available at the Newman Center box office or online at newmantix.com/lamont.