Millikin University music professors Daniel Carberg and Matthew Leese became co-workers times two last fall, taking their love of music and opera to a whole new level while working on the opera “L’Orfeo” in Dunedin, New Zealand.
Carberg and Leese were involved with the opera during the fall 2010 semester. Carberg, associate professor of music, took a sabbatical to perform the lead role of Orpheus. Leese, adjunct instructor of music, spent the semester away from Millikin to be the production’s music coordinator and vocal coach.
Neither man is a stranger to opera, as both teach voice, vocal pedagogy, and music history at Millikin. Carberg also serves as director for the Tudor Voices ensemble on campus, which specializes in early music. Interestingly enough, both Carberg and Leese came to participate in the opera independently of one another – the two were hired at separate times through professional connections, and had no say in regard to the other’s position.
“When he told me he was selected to be the music director for the production, it seemed too good to be true,” said Carberg, who had collaborated with Leese, a native New Zealander, on numerous professional projects prior to the opera.
The story of “L’Orfeo”, written by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, focuses on a musician, Orpheus, who descends to the underworld to find his wife, Eurydice, after she is fatally bitten by a snake. The opera has the distinction of being one of the earliest music dramas that continues to be regularly performed.
“This is the first opera seen as incorporating all of the elements that we’re familiar with in modern opera - chorus, dancing, technical elements – the kind of visual ‘spectacle’ that has made opera what it is today,” remarked Leese.
The opera was performed at the Westpac Mayfair Opera House in Dunedin by the city’s opera company, Opera Otago, from Oct. 10-15, 2010. Leese described this historical opera company as the “most renowned regional company in the nation” with a reputation for “risk-taking” when it comes to selecting performance material. The opera included nine singers and Dunedin’s professional orchestra, Southern Sinfonia.
Unlike Leese, Carberg had visited the country only once before. While his schedule didn’t allow much time for sightseeing, he was nonetheless impressed by the country’s diverse landscape, describing it as “awe-inspiring” to see the countryside move from beaches, to cities, to mountains and farms. While it was easy to get lost in the sites of New Zealand, there was a great deal of work to accomplish in a short period of time.
“The preparation was incredibly intense,” said Carberg. “Thankfully, I had most of the summer to learn the role and get in shape before rehearsals began. When I arrived in Dunedin, we had daily rehearsals from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., a short dinner break, and then rehearsals again from 7 – 10 p.m. for six weeks.”
“My schedule was quite similar to Dan’s,” remarked Leese. “As music coordinator, it was my job to train the orchestra and singers in the operatic style of music, as well as conduct the actual performance. I also coached the singers, both one-on-one and in group settings.”
Carberg walked away from the experience with a newfound appreciation for the challenges Millikin music and theatre students face while balancing rehearsals, classes, and other commitments. “It’s definitely made me more sympathetic,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for their ability to manage their time and discipline themselves.”
After weeks of preparation, “L’Orfeo” was performed as part of the Otago Festival of the Arts, a week-long, biannual event that showcases various types of performances ranging from opera, to jazz to street performances. “L’Orfeo” was voted the best production of the festival, and received excellent reviews from the media. Theatrereview.org writer Helen Watson White wrote, “I’m giving the whole production an A-plus, because from conception and design to musical and dramatic realization it never falters.”
Although the production was a tremendous amount of work from start to finish, both Leese and Carberg had a great experience.
“It taught me to be very economical with my time and preparation,” remarked Leese. “Time was absolutely counted by the second.”
Carberg says the experience “stretched me as a performer.” While playing the role of Orpheus, he pushed himself to improve vocal technique, stamina, projection and ability to “find different colors in your voice.” Carberg admits the biggest challenge was trying to make the opera interesting and moving for the audience.
Both men believe their experiences abroad can be used to better teach students about the music industry, and look forward to sharing what they’ve learned with their students.
“Performing such a large acting and singing role reminded me how much acting can free up a voice,” said Carberg. “It’s really easy for students and professional singers to obsess over their technique. Acting allows them to get into character and express the meaning of what they’re singing, instead of turning it into a technical exercise. As a result, the technical issues often fix themselves. I’m going to make an effort to incorporate more acting into my voice lessons.”
“I encourage my students to try everything,” remarked Leese. “Students should not be stuck in one place or limit what they can do. I encourage them to be open-minded about the music business and know that as performers, we don’t really define ourselves, we’re defined by what we’re asked to do.”