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Opera finds enthusiastic audience in New Orleans Seminary production

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Celebrating their mutual musical gifts, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary musical faculty, students and friends joined the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in presenting “Serenade to Music,” a semi-opera by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and “The Prodigal Son,” a dramatic opera by Claude Debussy, May 3-5 in the Sellers Music Building recital hall on the seminary campus.

Noting his desire for the opera program at NOBTS to help students who will eventually work in the church to take the arts with them when they leave, Leo Day, chairman of the voice department of the division of church music ministries and assistant professor of voice, began the NOBTS opera program last spring when he directed “The True Story of Cinderella,” a humorous cantata written by Warren Martin of Westminster Choir College in 1955, performed with Becky Lombard, assistant professor of music theory and organ, at the piano. Day said he wanted his students to introduce musical drama to their congregations, “with the sole intent to worship the Lord in truth and excellence.”

That two-night performance filled the recital hall, requiring overflow into the atrium and a video camera. Consequently, this year’s performances were scheduled for three nights.

The two brief but powerful operas performed nightly in English in an hour-long production were under the staging and artistic and musical direction of Day. A soloist of international repute and graduate of the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., this was his first opportunity to stage and direct an opera himself.

“What I love about our music program is the ability of our faculty and students to do such a wide range of music so well,” said NOBTS President Chuck Kelley. “Healthy churches come in all sorts of flavors. In training our students to prepare for this diversity, our music faculty and students are feeding us with musical excellence along the way.”

Bryan Currie, a seminary student, found that the seminary’s night at the opera brought a “touch of culture and beauty to our already beautiful campus. It shattered my preconceptions of the opera and opened my eyes to new ways that music can minister to the soul.”

“Welcome to an Evening of opera at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary!” began the narrator as she introduced the second consecutive season of opera hosted by the division of church music ministries.

Division chairman and associate professor of church music Ken Gabrielse conducted the performance’s 16 members of the Louisiana Philharmonic Symphony, including strings, winds and brass players. NOBTS rehearsal pianists, Lombard, and Michelle Clark, music division accompanist, played orchestral parts with them on clavinovas, electric pianos that use recordings of real instruments to produce instrumental sounds.

Clark said of the event, “Doing the opera was by far the most exciting musical experience I’ve ever had! All the musical theater shows that I’ve done do not even begin to compare to this satisfying operatic experience.”

Day said, “Thanks to attentive and giving audiences, the performers grew in the portrayal of their characters to dimensions of depth they did not know existed within them.”

Performers in Serenade to Music included Darryl Ferrington, NOBTS associate professor of music education, several of Day’s voice students and NOBTS instructors and staff.

“The soloists were really wonderful, but when the group sang all together the sound just soared through the hall,” said Josh Goza, a master of divinity student at NOBTS. “Wow, what a sound they made, it gave me chills. I loved it!”

British composer Vaughan Williams wrote the commissioned Serenade to Music in 1938 to celebrate the golden jubilee of beloved conductor Sir Henry Wood. It contains parts for 16 British singers of international repute whom Wood knew well, resulting in a work for 16 soloists and orchestra with soloists singing the choral sections together. The text is from Act V, Scene I of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.”

The Prodigal Son or L’Enfant prodigue, which won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1884, was composed in only 25 days by 22-year-old French composer Claude Debussy. The words by Edouard Guinand are based on the parable of the same name in the Bible. Debussy added the character of Lia, the mother, to the Bible characters of the father, Simon, and the son, Azael.

The three soloists in L’Enfant prodigue, Jodi McWilliams (Lia), Ben Caston (Azael) and David Watson (Simon) are doctor of musical arts (DMA) students and part-time voice and music instructors at NOBTS.

Susan Landry, NOBTS music alumna, music instructor and administrative assistant to Gabrielse, said, “In the six years I’ve been at NOBTS, I’ve never seen a production of this kind and caliber.

“My favorite was Debussy’s Prodigal Son. With the focus on the mother, it provoked thought about the original biblical account, which focuses on the father’s emotions about the return of the prodigal, that I’ve never pondered before. All my church members, those who attended the performances, thought it was very professional, and was performed with a very high quality standard. They thought it was equal to the many productions they’ve seen in professional theaters.”

“The choices were perfect, both complementing one another and not lasting too long,” said Lynn Celestin, a local piano teacher with her husband. “The Debussy was a spiritual, as well as musical, experience, and we loved it”

Vicki Pearson, an NOBTS master of arts in Christian education student, said, “This was my first opera and I think I have developed a taste for it. I want to go see another!”

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  • Joan Wetzel