Opera in a Box

Unlike the Wortham Center's lavish Brown Theater or the elegant Moores Opera House, the "black box" Wortham Opera Theater at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music isn't exactly friendly to the often lavish art form. There's virtually no wing space, making set changes nearly impossible. The cramped orchestra pit holds a mere 30 players. The 200-seat hall is the smallest opera venue in town.

But if Benjamin Britten had seen the Rice troupe's rehearsals of his adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, he would have liked what he saw. Besides the technical challenges, the cast of mostly graduate students is tackling some of Britten's most difficult music, not to mention the Bard's maze of subplots.

"Britten's music is difficult to learn, particularly for the rustic characters," says Debra Dickinson, stage director and opera studies teacher. "Add the characterization and staging on top of that, and you've got a real challenge."

In the story, comic events are set off when fairy king Oberon decides he wants queen Tytania's young attendant for himself. When she refuses, he vengefully orders Puck to sprinkle her with his magic herb potion. Puck douses a few others along the way, setting off intrigue among lovers.

Conducted by choral director Thomas Jaber, the show is enriched by Britten's ear-pleasing muted string glissandi, which evoke the mystical elements of the forest. Dickinson has overcome the theater's physical limitations by keeping the sets as simple as they would have been in Elizabethan times. "This production is very Shakespearean, and it's also about entrances and exits, just like in Shakespeare," she says. And Midsummer is a good choice for a tiny theater because Britten originally composed it for the smallish Jubilee Hall in Suffolk, England.

The opera will be performed without surtitles, which might pose a challenge for listeners not accustomed to hearing Shakespearean English sung. But judging from how the cast sounded in rehearsals, that won't be a problem.

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Cynthia Greenwood