Portland State opera wins first-place national award

The opera program at Portland State recently won first place in a national competition for their production of “Don Giovanni.” The National Opera Association judges productions from schools around the country and PSU was chosen as this year’s recipient despite some competitor’s big budgets for top-notch opera departments.

Universities across the United States submit video recordings of their opera productions each year. The tapes are unmarked, with no identifying marks of the universities, providing judges the opportunity to look at performances objectively. Colleges can enter up to four different categories based on the cost of production, such as sets and costumes.

“This allows smaller schools to really compete in the smaller categories, even with a smaller budget,” Ruth Dobson, a music professor at PSU, said.

The 2003 award is the second time the university has won first place in the competition. The first award was in 2000 for PSU’s production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” There is no monetary component to the award, but it gives PSU’s opera theater more bragging rights. “We’ll definitely put it in our advertising,” Dobson says.

The National Opera Association (NOA) has been giving out awards for almost 50 years, but PSU has only been a competing member for the past four.

“We won the first year we joined [in 2000], so that was really nice,” Dobson says. “There’s probably about 50 video entries from across the United States. Not every university enters every year; they try to just send in productions they think will be competitive. We’re in pretty good company.”

In addition to the National Opera Association award, PSU singers and alumni participate in numerous competitions year-round and bring back awards.

“We’ve had several finalists in the National Metropolitan Opera Competition in New York, and many more that compete in regional auditions, but those tend to be more for individual singers rather than entire productions,” Dobson said. “The NOA awards are nice because they recognize not only the quality of the singers but also the orchestra and stage direction.”

Dobson emphasized that the production wouldn’t have been nearly as high quality without the help of her production staff. Brenda Nuckton served as stage director, Dr. Keith Clark conducted the orchestra and Carey Wong designed the set.

“Productions are judged in five categories, including overall quality, and it’s hard to say which one of those won us the award,” Dobson said. “You can’t take any one element away from the production and have it be as good, and that’s why I’m so grateful to my colleagues. It really was a group effort.”

Members of the production included about 12 leading roles, a chorus of 16, a 35-member orchestra composed entirely of PSU students and almost 70 crew members. Dobson noted that putting on any opera is truly a departmental effort.

PSU’s opera theater is a component of the music department, more of an emphasis than a minor, Dobson explained.

“Voice students tend to divide into two categories: choral, when they want to become music educators; and opera, when they want to be performers,” she said.

The opera theater’s next big production is the comedy “Die Fledermaus,” which opens April 30. “We’re really excited about having a guest stage director, Tito Capobianco. He has directed ‘Die Fledermaus’ all over the world, and this year is our Jeanine B. Cowles distinguished visiting professor of opera,” Dobson says.

Cowles is a regular contributor to the music department. Dobson says her donations enable them to enhance curriculum offerings for students in ways the department would not otherwise be able to.

In addition to full-scale productions with complete sets and costumes, the opera theater also puts on smaller stage scenes on a regular basis.

“We call it our ‘feeder program.’ It allows us to try out sections of operas first,” Dobson said. “The scenes are often sung in their original language with just a piano, which is not quite as daunting a task for a young singer as singing over a whole orchestra.” The next performance will be March 7 in Lincoln Hall and features scenes from ten different operas.

Dobson especially praised students who perform in the theater’s opera productions.

“We’ve been going on for 25 years now, and I think our biggest improvement has been with the orchestra. They helped us to win the NOA award, and we’ve grown both instrumentally and vocally,” she said. “[The students] did both ‘Figaro’ and ‘Don Giovanni’ completely in Italian, and it’s a huge task to learn an entire opera in Italian. My hat’s off to those kids – they did a fantastic job, and the judges commented both times on the quality of the Italian and the students’ understanding of it.”

“Die Fledermaus” opens April 30 in Lincoln Performance Hall and six performances will be held through May 2. For more information on upcoming opera performances, check out the opera theater web site at opera.pdx.edu, or call 503-725-3307 for tickets.