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University of Minnesota

'Elmer Gantry' takes the stage at Ted Mann

November 10, 2010

Bergen Baker and Will Bryan in "Elmer Gantry."

Will Bryan and Bergen Baker (pictured) and Joel Mathias and Anna DeGraff sing the lead roles in University Opera Theatre's production of "Elmer Gantry." Each pair is featured in two of the four performances.

Photo by Patrick O'Leary

U of M Opera Theatre brings Sinclair Lewis's charismatic preacher to life

By Deane Morrison

If there's one thing Elmer Gantry loves more than drinking, brawling, and seducing women, it's preaching—and the riches it brings him.

By any measure, Gantry qualifies as a first-class jerk. But he sure makes compelling opera.

That will become clear Nov. 18–21, when University of Minnesota Opera Theatre presents "Elmer Gantry," a three-year-old opera based on the 1927 Sinclair Lewis novel. Performances will be in Ted Mann Concert Hall, 2128 4th St. S., Minneapolis.

With a virtuosic score by Robert Aldridge and libretto by Herschel Garfein, the work would test the limits of any professional company. But University voice students have risen to the challenge. And in singing all the roles—except the revival singer, sung by the legendary J.D. Steele—they are getting an educational tour de force.

"This is a training program for life," says Opera Theatre Director David Walsh. "If the students can do this, they can do Puccini or anything else."

The students also see how adaptable opera can be. "I didn't think there would be an opera using the church music I grew up with," says Zachary Colby, who sings Gantry's friend Frank Shallard.

This video combines rehearsal photos with a duet between Elmer Gantry (Will Bryan) and Sharon Falconer (Bergen Baker), with pianist Joseph Welch.

The production also features a chorus of talented high school students, the result of relationships Walsh has built with area choral directors. The University of Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, with conductor Mark Russell Smith, will be in the pit.

A thoroughly American mix

Walsh had wanted to do an American opera, but none grabbed him until he saw parts of the original production of "Elmer Gantry" on YouTube.

"The high level of literacy and musicality struck me," he explains. "It's both sophisticated and accessible, like Mozart. As a stage director, it's a real privilege to work on an opera of this caliber."

Get your tickets

Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 18, 19, and 20, and 1:30 p.m. Nov. 21. Composer Robert Aldridge and librettist Herschel Garfein will hold pre-show discussions in the Ted Mann lobby at 6:45 p.m. before the first three shows. Tickets: $22/$12 students and children. Two-for-one tickets for U of M students, faculty, staff, alumni, and retirees. (612) 624-2345 or Northrop Ticket Office.

The opera follows the fortunes of Gantry, an equal-opportunity crusher of lives in his quest for fame and riches. He becomes a renowned preacher who denounces vices such as adultery, whose evils he is well, and personally, acquainted with. Key to his rise is his relationship with a fiery evangelist named Sharon Falconer.

"I wanted to write something about religion in America," says composer Aldridge. "It seemed this would be a great subject because there's this character who's like [Mozart's operatic rake] Don Giovanni, but using religion to become successful."

The opera plays out themes of how religious revivalism, evangelism, and the "self-made man" are woven into the fabric of American culture, and of the dark side of Gantry. 

"There's also a story element in which he's typical of a type in this country that triumphs not despite lack of education, but because of it," Walsh notes. "It's the instinctive American distrust of intellectualism. The story depicts how that type of character can thrive and survive in this culture, where he wouldn't in Europe."

Musically, the opera incorporates jazz, gospel, college rah-rah, and, of course, classical traditions, but in a very sophisticated musical structure, Walsh says.

Besides its quality, Walsh chose "Elmer Gantry" because he sees it as a launch pad for placing University Opera Theatre at the forefront of creating new American operatic works.

Bonus feature: A Q&A with librettist Herschel Garfein discussing "Elmer Gantry" and the creative process. Spoiler alert: The first answer reveals the ending of the opera.

"Ninety percent of opera is European," he says. "It's difficult for American composers and librettists to get new operas produced. But if we make a success of this, we might be able to work with the composer and librettist to workshop more of their operas and, later, expand to works by other teams."

In spring 2012, Walsh will bring Aldridge and Garfein to campus for a two-week residency, where they will mentor students on their operas and the students' works for opera or musical theater.

Performers all the way

Asked what makes a good opera singer, Walsh replies that it's not just about singing; it's really about being a good performer.

"An opera performance requires great technical facility and stamina as a singer and as an actor," he explains. "Frankly, in my productions at least, enormous demands are put on [student performers] in terms of physicality and choreography, especially when they're also trying to sing difficult music."

Several scenes feature ensembles of four to six people, who must sing together through complicated rhythms and note passages while also handling choreography.

Aldridge acknowledges that his score is not for the weak.

"I wouldn't have imagined it would be done at the college or conservatory level because it's so challenging," he says. "But many, including [the U of M], are so good, they can handle it."

Tags: College of Liberal Arts

Hear singers from the production, along with Robert Aldridge, Herschel Garfein, and David Walsh, at noon Friday, Nov. 19, on Minnesota Public Radio, 99.5 FM in the Twin Cities.

One-man show: As operatic director, David Walsh is responsible for all physical and dramatic aspects. That means sets, lighting, props, costumes, makeup, and guiding actors' gestures and movements, among other things.

Related Links

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U of M Opera Theatre

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U of M School of Music