Eleven Oberlin Conservatory voice students are devoting their winter term to studying character development in opera and art song through a program called Words into Sound, taking place on campus January 17 through 27.
Directed by conductor Joseph Mechavich ’92, who has led performances in major opera houses across America and abroad, Words into Sound will be run in partnership with Gene Scheer, a composer and prominent librettist best known for his collaborations with composer Jake Heggie. In their work with Oberlin students, Mechavich and Scheer will focus on the relationship between music and text in art songs and opera scenes from the repertoire of Heggie and Scheer. Oberlin vocal coach Tony Cho will also play a key role, preparing the student performers in advance of their intensive exploration with Mechavich and Scheer.
Words into Sound culminates in a Friday, January 27 performance at the William and Helen Birenbaum Innovation and Performance Space (10 E. College St.), a new subterranean venue in the lower level of the Hotel at Oberlin. It marks the first public performance in the Birenbaum, an intimate club-like venue dedicated to co-curricular learning by day and conservatory events by night.
Among the works to be featured are Heggie’s earlier operas To Hell and Back and Three Decembers, and his song cycles Camille Claudel and Pieces of 9/11, as well as Scheer’s Voices from World War II, with staging by Jason Goldberg ’16. Student performers taking part in the program are Elise Volkmann, Jesse Mashburn, Rachel Liss, Katherine Krebs, Lexi Prat, Sarah Sims, Joe Klinger, Matthew Payne, Ryan Dearon, Daniel Rosenberg, and Kyle Miller.
The free performance begins at 8 p.m., with a cash bar available at 7.
A former piano student at Oberlin, Mechavich enjoys an international reputation as an opera conductor of the standard repertoire with an affinity for 21st century works. He especially champions the work of Carlisle Floyd and Jake Heggie. He is currently artistic director of the Kentucky Opera, and he works with opera companies across the U.S. and abroad. In February 2017, he will conduct Arizona Opera’s world premiere production of Riders of the Purple Sage, an adaptation of Zane Grey’s novel composed by Craig Bohmler and librettist Steven Mark Kohn.
Throughout his career, Mechavich has also delighted in working with vocal students and imparting advice on navigating their own careers. Not surprisingly, Words into Sound came into existence thanks to Mechavich, who shared his concept with Oberlin voice faculty member Lorraine Manz and opera theater professor Jonathon Field.
“It’s not about the notes and the beautiful sounds—which are important, and that is a given,” he says. “It’s about being true to the words on the page. I really want to instill upon young singer-actors that this is something you really should be focusing on immediately in terms of telling that story. Because most people in the audience don’t remember the notes, or if they were sharp or flat. What they do remember is if they were moved.”
Mechavich himself has been moved by his numerous opportunities to work directly with Heggie and Scheer, including the 2012 Canadian premiere of their monumental work Moby-Dick, with the Calgary Opera.
“It’s so amazing to be around creatives, and to be around people whose singular goal is to move the audience,” he says. “The goal is to be honest and generous, and with Gene and Jake, honest and generous are the words that describe them best.”
Winter term at Oberlin—a period that generally lasts throughout the month of January—is a time for college and conservatory students to engage in intensive projects involving a limitless variety of subjects. Many take on research or explore cultures around the world; others pursue projects in their hometowns or in Oberlin.
“The singers involved in the study of this repertoire will bring life and voice to a wide array of compelling characters,” says Manz. “At the same time, each student will find his or her own ‘voice’ as a singing actor and musician through the intensive work and guidance of Mechavich and Scheer.”
Learn more about Words into Sound on Oberlin's Events Calendar.