At UMW, A Must See Event

Become the character," Kathryn Ahearn tells the 24 members of this year’s Opera Fest.

The singers vary in their skill level, age, education and career. But they all have one goal: to become the character in the opera scene they are performing.

"If they can actually feel free enough to become the character and sing at the same time, that’s when magic happens," Ahearn said at Monday night’s dress rehearsal. "That’s when the real artistry happens."

For the singers performing in this weekend’s show, that means becoming mischievous fairies in Purcell’s "The Fairy Queen"; bitter divas in Mozart’s "Impresario"; rival gangs in Bernstein’s "West Side Story"; tragically separated lovers in Verdi’s "Don Carlos" and gossiping biddies in Moore’s "The Ballad of Baby Doe."

But transforming into a character is no easy feat. It takes practice and discipline, tasks the opera singers know well. They have been practicing three hours a rehearsal, three times a week for the past five weeks.

They have also spent countless hours of their own time learning the music and overcoming the challenge of singing in a foreign language.

"We stress that they have to do a lot of the memorization on their own, which they’ve done," Ahearn said. "I’m really proud of them, especially the ones that haven’t had that much experience."

Three of the performers this year are still in high school or have recently graduated; numerous others have never performed onstage before.

"It’s intimidating," said 17-year-old Wo Chan, who graduated this year from James Monroe High School.

But the opportunity to perform with experienced singers, and to learn from them has been beneficial, Chan said. He’s portraying one of the Sharks in "West Side Story," and a drunken poet in "The Fairy Queen."

"I didn’t get to do anything like this in high school," he said "Everyone here is so rich in their voice, and it’s a really nurturing environment to be singing in."

Many of the performers have had Ahearn or co-director Jane Tavernier as teachers at the University of Mary Washington, or as voice coaches in high school.

Four-time Opera Fest veteran Kevin Diana is a UMW alumnus and has been performing for the two directors for years.

"Kathy and Jane are fun to work with and are both very good at what they do," Diana said. "Doing Opera Fest is great voice training."

Even for old hats like Diana, the prospect of performing six pieces is stressful.

"Right before you go on, the ‘Don’t trip’ line comes into your mind and then ‘What are my lines?’ But then you get on stage and they’re just there," Diana said.

The performers have had a chance to work off some of their stage worries this past week with nightly dress rehearsals. Costume issues, staging dilemmas and the reality of moving around a large stage have been smoothed out.

Ahearn and Tavernier have been directing Opera Fest for 10 years. They have seen the music change and singers come and go, and have enjoyed each year.

While they strive to create a show that audiences will enjoy, the main goal of Opera Fest is to provide an opportunity for the singers to grow in their skill.

"It renews their confidence and self-esteem," Tavernier said. "They did something that was very difficult and they did it well, and this is for them, it really is."

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What: University of Mary Washington’s 10th annual Opera Fest
When: June 19 and 20 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Dodd Auditorium at UMW
Cost: Free Info:540/654-1012