announcement for Rameau's French Baroque opera Les Indes Galantes,
handed to me by my voice professor, Daune Mahy, seemed irresistible
the perfect synthesis of my love for ballet, opera, and the
French language. I met with Kenneth Weiss '84, director of the
project and visiting assistant professor of harpsichord, to express
my enthusiasm and learn more.
Only the prologue and act 3, Les Fleurs without the
choruses would be presented for just one performance in Warner
Concert Hall. What made the project so appealing to me were the facts
that the Oberlin Baroque Orchestra would accompany and renowned baroque
specialists would be part of the production team.
Weiss, an exceptional harpsichordist with an extensive background
in baroque opera, has worked with Les Arts Florissants as musical
assistant to William Christie, with whom he participated in numerous
opera productions and recordings. He has also conducted and taught
at the Paris Conservatory.
Romana Agnel, founder of the historical dance company Ardente Sole
and teacher of ancient dance, would arrive from Krakow, Poland, to
stage direct and dance a role.
Agnes Mellon, professor of singing at the Conservatoire de Caen in
France, has performed in such halls as the Paris Opera, Theatre des
Champs Elysees, Salle Pleyel, and Carnegie Hall. She would sing the
role of Zaire, a slave tormented by love.
Despite having to learn an aria with only three days' preparation,
I decided to audition. Because competition for singing roles in all
Oberlin productions is fierce, after two years at Oberlin I had yet
to be cast. I was surprised and delighted then, to see my name on
the casting list twice first as Amour, the mischievous son
of Venus, in charge of love, and second as Zaire's understudy.
My acquaintance with baroque music was minimal. I was unfamiliar with
its harmonic flavors, its dissonance and various ornaments. After
several coachings, lessons, and work in the practice room, I memorized
most of both roles in time for the intensive week of stagings with
Romana Agnel in mid-October. I also took part in a series of baroque
dance classes that Agnel conducted that week; some of the students,
faculty, and Oberlin town members from her classes were asked to dance
in the production.
Because Les Indes Galantes is an opera-ballet, dance is very
important. My ballet background helped me execute the baroque dance
steps, but the style's more relaxed use of the feet and turnout,
more dramatic use of the arms, hands, and fingers, and different terminology
made the experience a challenging one.
Even more challenging was negotiating between the dancing and singing.
Amour's movements, which must be light and playful, demanded
a high level of energy. After my aria, I immediately danced a short
minuet, then jumped into a duet with Hebe, the demi-goddess of youth.
Learning and executing the minuet's steps was not difficult;
singing the coloratura lines of the duet without a moment to catch
my breath definitely was.
Although the overall tone of Les Fleurs is light, Zaire's
heart is weary; consequently, her movements are as well. She does
not dance, but her use of gesture requires the grace of a dancer.
Her music is more lyrical than Amour's, and I savored each one
of her beautiful melodies. Because I had no public performance as
Zaire, I was more motivated than usual to make every rehearsal a performance
The staging was completed when Agnes Mellon arrived, less than a week
before the performance. Because I was also performing in a production
of The Nutcracker outside Oberlin, I was unable to participate
in the final week of rehearsals. In fact, I had to rush off to dance
an afternoon and evening performance of Nutcracker after attending
only the first half of the Les Indes Galantes' dress rehearsal.
I only learned the complete staging and dancing of Les Fleurs
Sunday afternoon after my final ballet performance and three
hours before curtain.
Despite the interrupted preparation, I was empowered by the excitement
of performing. My aria summoned the maidens to gather their torches
while I prepared to defeat Bellone, the demi-god of glory, who had
inspired the men to follow him. Victorious, Hebe and I led Bellone's
love-struck men off stage.
The second half of the performance was even more dynamic. Tacmas,
a prince, had disguised himself as a peasant to win the love of Zaire,
Ali's slave. Tacmas's own slave, Fatime, disguised herself
as a man to sneak into the garden of Ali, with whom she was in love.
While these disguises were arranged onstage, I was offstage, gathering
flowers for my hair and preparing for my own metamorphoses from Amour
to dancer. The conflict between both pairs of lovers resolved, I reappeared,
transformed, and with my fellow dancers dressed the stage in flowers
to acknowledge their joyous union.
The scene backstage after the performance was also joyous. I had been
on stage an exhilarating four hours that day and happily welcomed
kind words and warm embraces from professors and friends.
I cannot wait to do it all again.
Epilogue: Holly Matyas landed the role of lead understudy
in the Oberlin Opera Theater winter term production of Starbird. She
performed the role in outreach performances during the first two weeks
of spring semester.