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Building Community in a 'Town'

Building Community in a 'Town'Tufts Opera Ensemble director Carol Mastrodomenico talks about the upcoming production of "Our Town," the second full-scale opera to be performed at Tufts.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [02.06.09] If you attend one of the upcoming performances of the opera "Our Town" at Tufts, don't be alarmed if Provost Jamshed Bharucha or a member of the faculty suddenly stands up and begins singing. For Tufts Opera Ensemble director and Department of Music lecturer Carol Mastrodomenico, their involvement is not just a gimmick. "It shows you a different aspect of your faculty, and it also unites the community at Tufts."

After all, Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Our Town," which runs from Feb. 12-15 at the Granoff Music Center's Distler Performance Hall, is about a community-the fictional community of Grover's Corner, N.H., at the turn of the 20th century, as the play follows the everyday lives of a handful of its residents.

The opera, composed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Ned Rorem with libretto by J.D. McClatchy, debuted in 2006 at Indiana University and has been performed fewer than a dozen times since.

Mastrodomenico says this adds to the excitement of staging it. "This show, nobody's seen," she says. "What we do with it is the first time anyone's seen it. We get to decide what we want without saying, 'Well, in the past it was done this way.' There is no past, or at least we haven't seen it."

"Our Town" is only the second full-scale production by the Tufts Opera Ensemble. Typically, productions are scaled down to use house lighting, stock costumes and a piano instead of a full orchestra. But last year for the staging of "Dido and Aeneas," the ensemble brought in a professional lighting designer, undertook more extensive costuming and utilized a small orchestra of a string quartet and a harpsichord.

The cast of "Our Town" is entirely composed of undergraduates. This is the first time many cast members have performed in an opera or even sung or acted on stage. Three of the leads cast in September-sophomore Doug Helman in the part of Stage Manager, and junior Robyn Goodner and senior Stephanie Kreutz splitting the role of Emily- were chosen based on their potential, not necessarily their ability, to sing their parts at the time of casting. But after weeks of work, Mastrodomenico says they have mastered their roles.

"It is so gratifying to watch them grow within a semester," says Mastrodomenico. "You can't put a price on that. It's a phenomenal feeling as a teacher to feel like you had a small hand in that and to watch them excel. It's why you do it. That's why you put in the extra hours."

The Tufts Opera Ensemble hopes to stage a full production every other year, alternating with the Department of Drama and Dance musical and putting on smaller-scale operas in the interim. Mastrodomenico credits the music department, under the leadership of chair Joe Auner, for supporting productions of this scale.

"Something like this doesn't happen by itself," she says.

During the run, Bharucha will be joined by seven other faculty and administrators -- Dean of Undergraduate Education Jim Glaser; Department of Music faculty Jane Bernstein, David Locke, John McDonald and Janet Schmalfeldt and Department of Drama and Dance faculty Barbara Grossman and Sheriden Thomas -- in singing the parts of the "Lady in the Balcony" and the "Man in the Audience," who each have one line asking a question from their place in the audience.

The tradition of giving Tufts faculty and administrators cameo roles began last year, when President Lawrence S. Bacow and his wife Adele made their operatic debut in "Dido and Aeneas."

The students also get a kick out of seeing the university's leadership and faculty on stage. "When they see the faculty say yes and work with them, it makes them feel like they're doing something even more important."

Mastrodomenico also praised the students for bringing "Our Town" to life.

"They've created a community, they've created a town, a bunch of characters that they know and love now," she says. "My hope is that they'll share them with the audience so that they'll also feel a part of the community and town."

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