A battle of the sexes and a battle of wills: both set against the initial stirring winds of war. Franz Lehar’s frothy Merry Widow is given new resonance set just before the First World Ward in the latest Don Wright Faculty of Music’s production Nov. 16-18.
“It’s going to be fun,” said Michael Cavanagh, artistic director. “It’s a combination of engagement and relaxation. You can let the tunes and laughter wash over you or become engaged in the power of love and the notion of denial, and the upheaval societies go through as they develop. Choose your own level.”
Cavanagh took the story, based on an 1861 play, ahead to 1913 when Europe experienced a breakdown of the aristocracy hierarchy, women were pushing for the vote and the concept of free will was taking hold. The main narratives revolve around two couples. Hanna, the widow of the title, and Count Danilo are obviously in love but won’t admit it.
One of the real messages of the show is that you have to work hard to overcome self-imposed obstacles, not just external ones,” said Cavanagh.
Some cast members have experienced that transformation during rehearsals. Six singers were cast as les grisettes, the can-can girls.
“They didn’t have any dance training when they were cast,” said choreographer Miranda Wickett. The dance program at Western is now under the auspices of the Faculty of Music.
“It is first and foremost an educational experience,” she added. “I’ve seen such a huge improvement from last year’s show (South Pacific). Josh Clemenger and Scott Rumble are shining examples of what the program can do. The dance program would not have made a difference unless the students were dedicated.”
Rumble agrees dancing classes have made a difference too.
“You learn a lot about fundamental technique. You learn the centre of balance and how to carry yourself properly,” he said. “I find the breathing should be similar because you phrase when you dance as you would when you sing.”
To one of the can-can girls, Kaitlyn Clifford, it wasn’t such an easy transition. She isn’t in the dance program and had little prior experience. The third-year performance major was surprised when she was cast as a grisette. “
Do I look like a dancer? But Miranda has a good way of making you feel comfortable,” said Clifford. “Miranda is really good at working with the artistic nature of singers and understanding the emotions. So we feel like we’re not dancing as much as we are extending the performance.”
To create that safety net, Wickett met first with the students to address how they and their characters walk.
“Posture should be in a singer’s bag of tricks,” she said. “Dancers breathe in the top part of their chest, singers take deep belly breaths.”
When singers dance, they have to combine both to control their vocals, move and have stamina.
“Singers make the mistake of thinking it’s about the folds in the throat and maybe the face,” added Cavanagh. “It’s an organic performance from head to toe and Miranda understands that importance and knows how to make it happen. Your body can say something completely different from your words.”
“The mental prep is also a little different,” said Clifford. She has performed musical theatre all her life, but still experienced a lot of self-discovery through the Merry Widow. “You push yourself beyond your limit. It is good to get that third threat. It has opened my eyes and increased my appreciation to how much work goes into this.”
Holly Bonin, who plays Hanna, calls it “title role round two.” She played Poppea in last year’s L’incoronazione di Poppea.
“Poppea was a very serious person who knew what she wanted, went after it and got it,” she says. “Hanna knows what she wants but she is being very stubborn about it, wanting someone else to give it to her. It’s a completely different character. This is very comedic.
“I love where it sits vocally for me, and how she is shy and coy. She’s not that complicated, just a lot of fun.”
Judith Yan, music director, sends the praise back to the students. “They are a very talented group of singers. I’ve worked with some of them at Opera on the Avalon in Newfoundland in the summer. They are so focused. It is amazing how much they retain. It’s a happy experience for all involved.”
If You Go
What: The Merry Widow by Franz Lehar
When: Nov. 16, 17 at 8 p.m., Nov. 17, 18 at 2 p.m.
Where: The Paul Davenport Theatre, Talbot College, Western University
Tickets: $25/$20 available in advance from the Grand Theatre box office at 519-672-8800 or tickets.grandtheatre.com. At the door, if available, for cash.