Tell a story through opera
For decades, Cal State Fullerton has maintained a reputation as a school that produces opera stars. Deborah Voigt, Rodney Gilfrey, Jubilant Sykes, James ‘Marty’ Schaefer, Charles Castronovo, Omar Crook and Christopher Job are some of the names that have graced the college scene over the years.
This fall, Kerry Jennings joined the Faculty of the School of Music as an Associate Professor of Opera Studies after a career as a concert soloist and award-winning director.
Just months after being hired, he directed his first production, “Opera Meets The Seven Deadly Sins, “ featuring an eclectic mix of scenes from favorite operas such as “Dido and Aeneas” and “The Rake’s Progress”, as well as new scenes from two literary classics, “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Grapes of Wrath”.
Jennings describes how he came to choose a life in opera.
How did you get interested in opera?
I have always sung. My father was a pastor so I grew up singing in church and later in choirs. I was also in a band, playing the trumpet and French horn, so I knew I wanted to major in music when I went to college. However, coming from a small town in North Carolina, with little to no classical music experience, I really had no idea what that would entail. I had never even heard an opera, let alone seen, until the first year of my undergraduate studies.
A friend of mine played the 1972 recording of Puccini’s “La Bohème” with Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni and to say I was addicted would be an understatement. Since that day, this opera and these singers have remained my favorites.
Why did you choose to teach at CSUF?
Although I have been conducting opera workshops since the beginning of my teaching career, it is only in the last four to five years that I have done a more complete opera staging, and I really like it. So I thought that I would look for a position that would allow me not only to do more opera direction, but also a position in an institution looking to energize or expand its opera program. My colleagues were very welcoming and the students were a total joy to work with and get to know each other.
Describe “Opera Scenes: The Opera Meets the Seven Deadly Sins”. Why did you choose this?
There are some things that I take into account. First, I want to make sure this is an educational experience for the students, which means choosing a repertoire that is not only appropriate for each singer’s voice, but also stimulating enough. The class population ranges from sophomores to graduate students, so you should meet students where they are technically and artistically. You not only need to make sure everyone has a rewarding experience, but also present a high quality product to your audience. I like to do “stage programs” which offer a varied repertoire while keeping a cohesion. This cohesion makes it possible to have a theme and then finally a title. I think a title like “Opera Meets the Seven Deadly Sins” gets more attention than just “Opera Scenes” and, in turn, that brings more people to the theater. And we hope they will come back for the next production.
Is this the first opera in which you participate at CSUF?
This stage program was basically my debut as an opera director at CSUF. I am also looking forward to the next semester where we will present a double program of “Gianni Schicchi” by Giacomo Puccini and “Buoso’s Ghost” by Michael Ching. Mr. Ching will be coming for a weeklong residency in the spring to work with our singers and orchestra as well as our composition students.
How did the audition go? Does each scene involve a different singer?
For the Scenes program, I had students audition with their “best” opera aria or art song, showing their current technical and artistic skills. This gives me enough information for the casting. For larger scale works, I will be more specific, depending on the language and style of the piece. I could even use snippets of this work for booster material. For the schedule of scenes, since each singer is in the final scene, all singers in the class are in at least two of the seven scenes, and some might even be in more than two if they are of a “voice type.” That you have to complete a scene. It’s always my goal in a scene program to give everyone a named role and to have at least some sort of solo part.
What are your favorite operas and who are your favorite composers?
There are a lot of them and they vary depending on what I’m singing versus what I’m listening to. As a singer, I love to sing Mozart and Benjamin Britten, for example, and there are several contemporary composers that I love to sing. They adapt well to my voice, so I can feel comfortable approaching these roles. But my romantic heart loves almost everything about Giacomo Puccini and I adore Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” which is funny and heartbreaking and has some of the most glorious music ever composed. If you listen to the final trio of this opera and are neither moved nor simply amazed by its beauty, I don’t think we can be friends.
What do you hope to accomplish with the opera program at CSUF?
My main goal is to give students an educational, enriching and varied experience that prepares them for the musical landscape of today. We cannot and should not reject standards with the bathwater, but we must also understand what is happening now and look to the future. As often as I can, I want students to experiment with new artwork, which is why our double bill next April really is a perfect match. Not only do they experience a tried-and-true opera in “Gianni Schichhi”, which contains one of the most recognizable arias of all operas (“O mio babbino caro”), but they also have the opportunity to learn a new opera and work on it with the composer. Our production of “Buoso’s Ghost“ by Michael Ching will be the first Californian on this job and it’s those kinds of opportunities that I want students to have.
Is your goal to put on one show per year?
In fact, my goal is to stage no less than three opera performances each year. These will vary in size and scope, of course. For example, a stage program is a valuable teaching aid and also a good introduction to opera for students and audiences. And naturally, I hope that we will continue to do a fully staged opera each spring, but I would also like to add an element of chamber opera to our offerings and really have a full opera season. We have so many wonderful singers in our program here and providing them and our audience with a variety of experiences is really important to me.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about opera?
There are a number of misconceptions about opera. I think a lot of people see opera as elitist and as something rich people do just to have another excuse to dress up and have fun. I also think that many consider opera to be elusive and boring. The truth is that opera offers something for everyone. There are fantastic stories and fairy tales for those who want that kind of escape, but opera is also about ordinary people and the ups and downs of everyday life that we can all relate to. I think the key is to get people to sit down so that they can move past these misconceptions and stereotypes, and that’s the job of companies, directors and even singers. We must honor our current audiences while cultivating new audiences so that our art form not only survives, but thrives.
What do you like about opera?
There are so many things I love about opera. The human voice is a miraculous thing for me, and hearing an unamplified voice rise above an orchestra and envelop you in the theater is just magical to me. But really what I like about opera is that it is a synthesis of all that is theater and that it brings together so many different people (singers, instrumentalists, scenographers and lighting designers, costume designers, dancers and so many. others) with a single goal: to tell a story through music.