UT students portray characters from Mozart's classic opera

Collin Kasefang (left) and Ashlee King (right) are members of UT's student opera organization VolOpera. The undergraduate students of VolOpera performed the centuries-old opera "The Marriage of Figaro."

This spring, graduate student Aaron Hunt is getting the opportunity to see his original work up on stage, as UT’s VolOpera group performs his composition of “Pinocchio.”

VolOpera was started five years ago and is geared towards providing undergraduate music students with the chance to practice opera performance. As president and junior student Rylee Worstell explained, the organization has served as a way for undergraduate students to gain a new level of independence and experience in their opera journeys.

“It’s awesome. We are a very small club, but it is one of the one opportunities that undergraduates get to kind of be the leads in shows and things like that,” Worstell said.

Worstell, who is a vocal performance major and has been in the organization since she was a freshman, also sees the group as a great support system and way for older students to help mentor younger musicians.

“VolOpera was kind of the vessel for us to be able to perform on our own and kind of learn how to act on stage and things like that, so it’s been awesome,” Worstell said. “I think the community that we have is also really great. It’s very supportive.”

Each school year, VolOpera usually performs a longer production during the spring semester and hosts an aria night in the fall, which consists of several smaller performances. In the past, the group has performed segments from the “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Regina” and “The Merry Widow.”

However, the upcoming production of “Pinocchio” is the first opera that has been written specifically for VolOpera to perform.

After working with the group during last year’s performance of “The Marriage of Figaro,” composer Hunt reached out to Lorraine DiSimone, VolOpera’s faculty director, about writing an opera for the organization. As a graduate student studying composition, Hunt had been hoping to compose an opera of his own for a while.

After their first meeting, DiSimone and Hunt immediately began working on the composition of the opera, a process that was extremely detailed and time-consuming.

Hunt explained that one of the greatest benefits of writing the piece specifically for VolOpera was the ability to adjust the composition to cater specifically to the talents of the group he was working with.

“Younger singers, especially those in opera, have to spend a lot of time figuring out how their voice fits into the grander spectrum of roles and such, so I think it’s nice to have something that was written with what your voice already sounds like in mind,” Hunt said. “It’s like getting tailor-made clothes. A suit that’s in your size is nice to have, but it’s a lot cooler to have a suit that’s custom fit to you.”

However, this benefit also proved to be one of the more challenging parts of the writing process. When composing for a specific group, Hunt explained — parts of the opera have to be extensively rehearsed and tested in order to determine if they are truly the right fit for the voices assigned to them.

Hunt added that another one of the most challenging aspects of this experience was the time management that went into creating the 70-minute, two-act piece.

“Looking back, I honestly don’t know how I managed to write it in the timespan that I did. I could try to go on some pretentious rant about my compositional ability or something, but at a certain point I was just actively leaning on the skills I’ve learned over time to meet deadlines,” Hunt said. “Weirdly enough, most of the more creative moments in the show came out of these time crunches.”

As for selecting a story to compose the opera around, Hunt began with the understanding that he wanted to write a piece based on some type of fairytale. However, he was insistent on selecting a story that he felt was appropriate for the collegiate environment.

“There were a lot of stories that I had previously thought would be good for an opera, but it was important to me that I wrote something that the performers could truly connect to. I find it frustrating when people write an opera or a musical for a university program, and it’s not based around something that their life experiences can reflect,” Hunt said.

In the end, Hunt settled on “Pinocchio.” His composition is based on the Carlo Collodi adaptation of the story, which is quite similar to the original Brothers Grimm tale of “Pinocchio.”

Hunt explained that although he brightened up certain parts of the initially quite dark story, his composition still does not contain the peppiness of the Disney version that many people are accustomed to.

Ultimately, Hunt hopes that audiences will view Pinocchio’s journey, through casting aside dishonesty and learning to adopt empathy, as an inspirational lesson.

“If you walk away from this with anything, I think it’s that we can all learn to be a little more empathetic,” Hunt said.

VolOpera will perform “Pinocchio” at 8 p.m. on April 2 in the Powell Recital Hall, located in the Natalie Haslam Music Center. The performance is free to UT faculty, staff and students, as well as the public.

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