Last March, the Clark University Choir, led by Professor Cailin Marcel Manson, performed Verdi’s “Requiem” at Carnegie Hall. Their next performance takes place closer to home, and with even more singing.
The choir, along with the Clark University Symphony Orchestra, will take to the stage at Mechanics Hall on Saturday, Nov. 18, for a staged concert of “Turandot,” the final opera by Giacomo Puccini. Tickets are free, but required.
“Turandot” is a fairy tale, set in long-ago China, centering around Princess Turandot. She doesn’t want to get married, so demands each suitor answer three impossible riddles — and if they fail, they die. Calaf, prince of the recently conquered state of Tartary, sees the princess and falls in love with her at first sight. He solves the riddles and then gambles on his life with one of his own.
The Clark University Choir and Clark University Symphony Orchestra will be joined by the New England Repertory Orchestra and the Worcester Children’s Chorus. Special guest soloists include soprano Othalie Graham, who has sung “Turandot” in opera houses across the globe — and whom Manson says is one of the most sought-after singers for the role — and soprano Janinah Burnett, whose performance credits include eight seasons as a principal at the Metropolitan Opera.
Other soloists include tenor Joshua Collier, artistic director of the Barn Opera in Brandon, Vermont, and Nicholas Tocci, baritone and professor at Clark. Clark students will fill smaller solo roles.
Opera “brings out our most visceral, humanistic responses to people and situations,” says Zoe Marinakos ’24, president of the Clark University Choirs and a vocal performance major. “In real life, you have to be polite, put your emotions aside. But in opera, you can ignore that and just go for it.”
As the choir gets ready to work with the soloists and the orchestra in rehearsals next week, Manson sat down to talk about the project and how it enhances the experience of Clark’s music students.
Well, it is grand opera! (Laughs.) The chorus in “Turandot” is onstage for over half of the opera, more than in any other of Puccini’s works.
It’s the perfect work for this collaborative project — we’re performing the entire opera with no cuts and full orchestration, including special percussion and a harp, because this year, we have a first-year student who plays the harp.
How do projects like this fit in with Clark’s tradition of being part of the community?
There’s social impact in what we do. I think about who it reaches, who it serves, and how it changes lives. By bringing together these different groups to perform this work, we involve the larger community.
Some members of the New England Repertory Orchestra are music educators, and their students know about their performances. The Worcester Children’s Chorus is singing with us; families and friends who come to see a member of the children’s chorus are going to connect with the gathered Clark community. One of our soloists is a music teacher in Auburn, and his students can come and know they have a connection with someone on the stage. The potential to participate in music-making at this high level becomes real.
Since you came to Clark in 2019, you’ve made sure Clark students have performance opportunities beyond department concerts and recitals. Why is that so important — and where does “Turandot” fit in?
It’s the way orchestral — and vocal — education should be done now. Students at large music schools have an advantage. They get constant exposure to major orchestras and professional opera, and some advanced students might get the chance to step in as substitutes or to augment the professional ranks. There are real networks being formed, and strong preparation for the profession.
Even though we are a very small music program, the students in our ensembles — many of whom are not music majors — get exposed to the genuine article in a participative way. It’s one thing to tell students to go see an opera, to go see an orchestra and listen to how they do it. But when they get the opportunity to play alongside professionals, it’s a different level of understanding. What are the dynamics between a conductor and the ensemble when it’s not a professor-student relationship, but colleagues working together to make something happen?
Because they get to be part of these things, the students — instrumental and vocal — become more aware of what they’re stepping into if they pursue music performance as a profession. They’ll see what the expectations are. And it enhances the experience for them in such palpable ways; they get to be part of a really refined sound and know what it feels like to contribute to that.
“Turandot” is set in China, and the opera has been described as problematic. How have you addressed the issues within the libretto?
Both ensembles, the chorus and the orchestra, have talked proactively about the subtext and the undertones of the opera. We’ve talked about how Puccini never actually went to China, so cultural appropriation and stereotypes are present. We remember that it’s a fairy tale — a fantasy. Once we removed the false placement of the drama, we realized there are so many more layers in the libretto, like societal oppression and issues surrounding gender roles.
The chorus plays the part of the people over whom Turandot and her father, the emperor, rule. The populace is incredibly, harshly oppressed. In the space of three minutes, they go from cheering for a prince’s execution, to begging for his life, and then to swearing their loyalty to the princess. Later, they stand by and watch while an innocent young woman is tortured.
That’s what internalized oppression and being in a constant struggle of survival does to a person — one student actually said, “It distorts you” — and the student musicians have been exploring these themes in conversations throughout our rehearsals that so they can believably embody these characters and/or tell the story through sound. These substantive conversations would never have happened, at this level of concentration, without “Turandot.”
The title character of “Turandot” is a woman, but the leading man — the tenor — performs the opera’s most famous aria, “Nessun Dorma.” What does that say about the role of women in opera?
Most of the operatic canon is male-heavy — this is why gender parity or non-traditional casting are important developments in the operatic field. In “Turandot,” there are only two principal female characters — but they are the ones who propel the drama. They are the ones around whom the story hinges. For me, Liu is the actual heroine of the entire piece.
The staying power of “Nessun Dorma” — besides the high notes and the great — is that the odds are stacked against Calaf from the beginning. He’s the underdog; he’s a prince without a kingdom. But in this aria, he doesn’t say, “I hope I win” — he says, “Vincerò.” I will win.
That resonates with me, my own journey as an artist-teacher, and with the wonderful things we are accomplishing in Music at Clark. We are a small but mighty music program at a small but mighty school. It takes grit, determination, collaboration, and vision to do the type of projects we’ve been doing. We make the most of what we have; if we keep doing these things and stay the course — Vincerò. Vinceremo. We will win.