The University of Missouri-St. Opera Louis Theater the last award-winning production was truly dramatic on and off the stage.
When production began on Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Medium” program, Maddie James was an understudy. However, after several weeks, she was propelled to the forefront, taking on one of the lead roles in the cast of the small ensemble.
With the help of the Associate Professor of Music and Director of Vocal Studies and Opera Theater Stella Markou, James seized the opportunity and ran with it.
“I had a great experience,” she says. “It was one of the best productions I have ever done.”
The judges of the American Prize National Nonprofit Competitions in the Performing Arts agreed with her.
James, his comrades and Markou won the 2021 American Prize in Opera Performance College / Universities Smaller Program Division for their interpretation of “The Medium”. The production was staged in 2019, but The American Prize allows for a wider window of submitted material.
Markou was delighted to hear that the production took first place.
“It’s such an exuberant joy because I have so much love for this production, for the casting and the process,” she said. “It is a triumphant achievement just to get this recognition and to see my students’ work and my work celebrated with such visual ability.”
The victory marks the third time in four years that the UMSL Opera Theater has placed first in a national competition. Previously, the program won first place in the National Opera Association’s 2019-2020 Division 1 Opera Competition for its performance of “Harriet and Margaret’s Clever Fireworks” and in 2017-2018 NOA competition for “The Pirates of Penzance”. The program was also a national finalist in the 2018-2019 NOA Musical Theater Stage Competition.
In addition to the production’s first prize, Markou won the second place 2021 Charles Nelson Reilly Award for Directing.
Markou attributes the continued success of the program to his fierce work ethic and resourcefulness. She noted that while larger programs can have up to 200 performance majors, Markou always chooses productions that draw on the strengths and talents of his small and powerful student body.
She discovered that UMSL students always rise to the challenge, are ready to be pushed and to devote themselves to their profession. James agreed and said the key to success was teamwork between students and faculty.
“I think it shows that we really try to do the best we can with what we are given,” said James. “It’s such an amazing program that’s very focused on the students themselves and their creative ideas and their own individualized creative talents. I think responding to these gives every student an advantage to be able to get us all together and create such beautiful art. I don’t think this would be possible if it wasn’t for a collaborative effort between the music faculty and the students themselves.
Markou chose “The Medium” because its tone is darker than some of the show’s previous productions and provided a nice change of pace.
The opera tells the story of Madame Flora, also known as “Baba”, who enlists her daughter Monica and Toby, an orphaned silent boy, to help her organize simulation sessions.
One night, Madame Flora holds a session for Mr. and Mrs. Gobineau, long-time clients who are desperately trying to communicate with their late son Mickey, and Ms. Nolan, a new client. However, things start to happen that lead Madame Flora to believe that the spiritual forces she has been building for years could in fact be real.
James played Ms. Gobineau and said she learned a lot about immersing herself in her character and pushing herself to use all of her vocal techniques. There was one scene in particular that had marked her.
“There is a point where I talk about my son on stage,” she said. “It’s kind of a solo moment for me to be engulfed in all this psyche atmosphere, and I’m engulfed in it. I had to really push myself to feel the full growth of what it was like to have an explosive amount of emotions that were overwhelming to the point of complete sadness and grief, and I never experienced anything like that. such, do something like that on organize. It was something really impactful for me.
The main cast is limited, but Markou adapted the original production to make it work for the whole class.
“I took a very definitive stance and made a lot of bold choices – high risk, high reward,” Markou said. “I created a whole series of characters who were background spirits. I wanted to integrate the whole class and I wanted them to be part of the process. What was really happy was that I created a Greek choir of subsidiary characters in the background, which ended up really making the show better.
Markou added that the effect of the Greek Spirits Chorus exceeded his own expectations and brought a unique twist to the dark and difficult subject matter. James credits Markou’s vision for helping the production stand out among the competition for the US award.
“She had such a different creative genius about this production that I think helped us get the # 1 spot,” said James. “She’s able to take ideas and turn them into something no one has ever thought of before. It’s a perspective, a creative perspective that most people wouldn’t reach.
The other element that sets the production apart is an unprecedented collaboration with other artists. It was the first time in the history of the program that a production teamed up with the UMSL Symphony Orchestra to use live orchestration.
In addition, Markou ordered Clelia Scala, puppeteer and artist, to make detailed masks for the Greek choir and main ensemble. She said the collaboration with other disciplines has inspired the imaginations of students and the public.
James hopes the national recognition will bring more awareness to the program, so that student performers can share their artistic talents with the UMSL community and beyond.
“I just hope and still want the department here to thrive and have even more opportunities in the future,” she said. “With all this outside recognition that we’re getting, we want everyone to know about it and everyone to experience and appreciate the art that we create. This is what we do as artists by letting people in the community and beyond to see it and make them feel something, whether it is joy or sadness or a connection. This is our end goal.
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