Spring opera “The Rivals” brings a comic tale of love, laughs and mistaken identity

The A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute at UNCSA will present Kirke Mechem’s “The Rivals,” a bright and witty comedy full of love, mistaken identity, duels and misunderstandings, this April. Award-winning stage director Stephanie Havey is the guest director, and James Allbritten, music director of the Fletcher Opera Institute, will conduct student musicians from the School of Music.

“The Rivals” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 19, and Friday, April 21; and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 23, at Agnes de Mille Theatre on the UNCSA campus (1533 S. Main St.). Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for students with valid I.D. online, or by calling the box office at 336-721-1945.

The New York Times has described the opera, writing: “In spirit, ‘The Rivals’ harks to Rossini and Donizetti; in sound, it weds Puccini’s generous lyricism to the dancing meters of Bernstein’s ‘Candide,’” also praising it for its “buoyant melodies, supple harmonies and perky rhythms.”

Stephanie Havey

Stephanie Havey, guest director

Havey is director of the Tomita Young Artist Program at Finger Lakes Opera in Rochester, New York. She is a frequent collaborator for the development of new opera, staging new works with Opera Philadelphia for their Double Exposure event, OPERA America’s New Works Forum, three seasons as the resident stage director for North American New Opera Workshop, and is currently in development for a new commission with Finger Lakes Opera. She has also been a guest instructor for professional and academic Young Artist training programs, including OPERA America’s Career Blueprints, Curtis Institute of Music, Mannes School of Music at The New School, Manhattan School of Music, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, New York University Tisch School of the Arts, Carnegie Mellon University, Central City Opera, Tulsa Opera, and Charlottesville Opera.

“The composer has added references to opera and jokes about opera,” Havey said. “Mrs. Malaprop is the most famous character from this story. Some of her malapropisms are obvious, and some are subtle.”

In Mechem’s libretto, based on an 18th-century comedy by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the action moves from the resort towns of Bath, England, to Newport, Rhode Island, around the turn of the 20th century.

“The Rivals” is not part of the standard opera repertoire, Havey said, and some of its ideas are so antiquated that she has been referencing old movie musicals such as “Singing in the Rain” and Danny Kaye films to make it more relatable for the student performers.

“The period is important, because the libretto deals with societal expectations around gender, class and marriage,” Havey said. “Newport was a resort town for the fabulously wealthy at the turn of the century. It’s interesting to examine culturally where we’ve come from and what the courting rituals were around 100 years ago.

“The ideals can seem antiquated now­ ­— marrying for money and position as opposed to marrying for love. There’s a dichotomy between older and younger generations. Mrs. Malaprop believes that young women should parade themselves around like the girls in ‘Bridgerton.’ Their entire life is centered around marrying well.” 

Another character in the older generation, Sir Anthony Absolute, thinks that women should not read or have opinions. Another older character, Baron Von Hakenbock, represents the idea that differences should be settled through violence, and that men should be strong, not having or showing emotions.

The opera is full of mistaken and false identities.

“In the finale, my favorite scene, there is meant to be a double duel, but nobody knows who their actual rivals are,” Havey said. “The young men don’t want to fight, and the baron wants to fight everyone. All of their expectations break down, and in the end, everyone marries for love.

“All the suitors imagine that they have a rival, but all their rivals are imaginary, and in the end they find they have no rivals.”

James Allbritten

James Allbritten

The cast for “The Rivals” includes School of Music students Carolyn Orr as Lydia Larkspur; Lani Basich and Spencer DesChenes as Mrs. Malaprop; Robbie Raso as Jack Absolute; Toby Bradford as Nicholas Astor; Danielle Romano as Julia; Kevin Spooner as Sir Anthony Absolute; Alicia Bivona and Anne Everhart as Lucy; David Maize as Jasper Vanderbilt; William Brickhouse and Marcel Pietrus as Baron von Hakenbock; and Onyx Velez, Tommy Johnston, Reagan Almond and Della Pierce as Supers.

From the School of Design and Production, the scenic designer is Leo Murphy, the lighting designer is Frankie Stiehl-Guerra, the costume designer is Teddy McMahon, the wig and makeup designer is Abbey Maruyama, the technical director is Emily Weinberger, the properties director is Marlowe Omilian, the scenic paint charge is Paige Spizzo, the production stage manager is Eva Schramm and the production manager is Seavor M. Roach. School of Drama faculty member Kelly Martin Mann is the fight choreographer.

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March 29, 2023