The Duke Opera Workshop's activities are directed by the great American soprano Susan Dunn, originally of Bauxite, AR, and ably abetted by the great American coach and accompanist David Heid, whose late brother Walter was a long-time executive director at the Eastern Music Festival, giving him NC-by-adoption credentials. (He came here with Dunn in the mid-'90s, and the two of them, together and singly, have been enriching our musical lives ever since.)
The Duke Opera Workshop, basically an ensemble class for undergrad singers, has had some major successes over the years, several of which involved complete presentations of significant operatic works. For its farewell concerts this term, presented in the Nelson Music Room, Dunn selected an admirable program of songs with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, some of which are a good deal closer to opera than one might think. Of course, Oscar's papa was (among other things) an opera impresario who gave the Met a real run for its money. And Broadway is not only an important American musical genre but also the street from which that genre takes its name, the street that runs diagonally from the lower east side to the upper west side of Manhattan and alongside which, at 39th and then at 64th Streets, have been the two homes of the Met - all of which is a very long way of saying it's not all that much of a stretch from opera to B'way. (Whew!).
The program itself was truly exceptional, for it encompassed in just a little over 90 minutes (including a short intermission) 22 items from 14 shows (if I am tallying all this correctly). Some - Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music - are perennial favorites, often revived (and, in recent years, generally performed in critical editions prepared for R&H by Scott Tilley, the composer, music editor, pianist, conductor and spouse of Susan Dunn - which relationship probably made this program a bit easier to assemble than might otherwise have been the case). Others are (today) far-less-well-known treasures - numbers from Rose-Marie (music by Friml), Carmen Jones (after Bizet), Desert Song and The New Moon (Romberg), State Fair, Allegro, and Cinderella (little-remembered R&H shows). Songs from Showboat, Very Warm for May, and High, Wide and Handsome graced the proceedings, serving to remind us that Hammerstein worked with Jerome Kern, too. Indeed, he worked long and hard his whole life, right up to "Edelweiss," the penultimate production number of this recital, capped by "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," which might have been the word-smith's personal credo. 'Tis said this work was never easy for Hammerstein, but the results sound not only easy but also logical and "right" to us now - and it was a real treat to revisit all these songs (and duets and ensembles).
There are a dozen members* of the Opera Workshop this year, with the balance of gents to ladies seven to five. Before the music began, Dunn introduced her graduating seniors - six of those seven gents. This is a bigger loss than most football teams suffer. Somehow, however, one thinks Dunn will persevere.
Dunn sat toward the back of the hall, keeping a watchful eye on the young artists and from time to time giving them subtle cues. In a very real sense, however, the afternoon coalesced around pianist Heid, whose presence off to the left of the platform, at the back, and whose playing, too, provided the musical and theatrical glue that bound the entire recital together, giving it continuity and a strong sense of forward motion.
The singing was consistently excellent. There are some fine vocalists in this class, and they look good on the platform and have mostly winning stage presence, too. There wasn't a microphone in sight, aside from the one being used to record the show - fancy that! And there was almost no belting. Fancy that! Some of the performances didn't sound a whole lot like the "original cast" recordings that exist of many of these shows, but that's probably ok because, divorced from their stage contexts, they can and do take on separate lives of their own. With that in mind, and given the comparative rarity of the music and the fact that it was (most likely) new or virtually new to nearly all the young vocalists, this was, in retrospect, a very special afternoon with (as the program so appropriately put it) the great Cockeyed Optimist himself, Oscar Hammerstein II.
*In order of appearance, the singers were Kevin Lieberman, Ellie Schaack, Joyce Okendo, Laurel Toyofuki, Lauren DeLucia, David Womble, Faiyam Rahman, Alex Brockhoff, Scott Myers, Braxton Shelley, Ashley Jones, and Robbie Owen.