From 2003 through last year, the University of Louisville’s opera theatre program worked with a Polish academy to create a production that spanned two continents and instructed students in the new ways to perform opera. Now, that experience is in a documentary film premiering tomorrow. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer has the story.
In the documentary, the students from the University of Louisville and Poland’s Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music located in Katowice don’t sing their own language. They sing Italian in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” The film shows some of the logistics of mounting the production, from creating sets and costumes in Louisville, through rehearsals and two performances in Louisville and two more in Katowice. And it has plenty of music.
But there’s more to “Figaro! Living in the Moment of a Character” by filmmaker Dan Schaefer. It hits on the theme of the growing importance of acting in opera. And that’s expressed early in the film by Michael Ramach, co-director of U of L’s opera theater program.
“I find it ironic that all these years,” ramach says, “we’ve done these productions theatrically that have been quite boring, music wonderful, but theatrically boring, because the original composers would be horrified. They wanted singing actors.”
And the film shows Ramach working closely with these budding singing actors, who were cast for two different productions of the opera to intensify the students’ experience in playing different roles. Ramach puts them through their paces to truly understand the words they sing and their characters’ feelings. In one scene backstage at a Poland opera house, he coaches Nathan Wilson, the U of L student who plays Figaro.
“Do me a favor, your first aria, how does the Italian go?” Ramach asks Wilson, before Wilson says the words in Italian.
“What does it mean?” Ramach asks, wanting him to speak the English meaning.
“It means, ‘If you wish to dance…'” says Wilson. And he continues to recite in English.
Later, a Polish student talks about what he’s gained.
“Working with other people from another country we can exchange our experience. We can improve also our English.
While the Polish students, in general, aren’t quoted much, the film shows Ramach working with them to infuse their performance with a sense of realistic drama. Ramach’s approach is something that has taken hold at many American opera houses to draw larger audiences that include young people. It’s seen at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which now focuses on dramatic elements in simulcasts of its operas showing in movie houses nationwide. But much of Europe — including Poland, where opera is especially popular — has been slower to create dramatic operas by improving the acting in them.
But the film shows the approach did make an impression on many students from both countries. After one of the four performances, Ramach reads a letter he’s received to the U of L director of opera studies, Kimcherie Lloyd.
“I have learned so much preparing this opera. I now know how to prepare and live in the moment of a character,” he says.
Lloyd exclaims, “Ta-da.”
“As you see,” says Ramach.
Filmmaker Dan Schaeffer says he definitely wanted to show the music, but he also wanted to spotlight the personalities that shaped this production.
Schaeffer also has a subtext. It shows the place of opera in two different cultures. Here, the filmmaker mostly focuses on getting the production onstage. In Poland, he includes scenes showing the crowds that come to see sold-out performances.
Today, Michel Ramach is pleased to have this document of the project.
“It has become not only a scrapbook of our trip,” Ramach says, “but it’s also become a document about how we train our singers.”
Ramach says the film can help recruit students to U of L and build further cross-cultural programs. Meanwhile, Schaeffer says he plans to enter the documentary in film festivals.
The documentary “Figaro! Living in the Moment of a Character” premieres Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at U of L’s Comstock Hall.