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  • Opera-tunity at the Frost School

    “Are you lost, dear?” 

    Spoken in Italian, the line is still only four simple words. But when Stefan Biller was summoned from his rehearsal seat last week to deliver them in the Frost Opera Theater’s next production, the freshman was thrilled to land the brief speaking part.

    For Biller, a vocal performance student who had applied to 11 colleges before settling on the Frost School of Music, the unexpected opportunity reaffirmed the wisdom of his choice. 

    “I toured and auditioned at all 11 schools,” said the Albuquerque, New Mexico, native who fell in love with opera as a child. “But at most of them you didn’t get live-performance opportunities until your sophomore or junior years. Or master’s students get all the roles. I came here because I thought I’d have more opportunities and I couldn’t be happier. It’s already everything I expected and wanted.” 

    Nurturing talent and providing hands-on experience and guidance have always been hallmarks of the Frost Opera Theater, but under the dual guidance of two masters of their crafts—longtime Music Director Alan Johnson and the program’s first fulltime stage director, the award-winning veteran Jeffrey Marc Buchman—the program is upping its game, and its national prominence. 

    Their 2017 production of “Cendrillon,” French composer Jules Massenet’s operatic Cinderella fable, recently tied for first place in the collegiate National Opera Association’s opera production competition. For the production, Buchman assembled a team of professional costume, set, and make-up designers that not only helped carry out his vision for a surreal fantasy with vivid characters (Cinderella sported pink hair, and Prince Charming blue) but gave students extraordinary exposure to the opera industry. 

    Gallery photos by Evan Garcia/University of Miami

    Still, the award was no small feat, given that UM’s opera program landed in a division with bigger competitors and performs in UM’s Gusman Concert Hall, which requires extra creativity to transform a wide-open stage into a theatrical space. 

    Yet that’s never stopped Johnson, a UM alumnus and OBIE Award winner who returned to his alma mater from New York City in 2006 to direct Frost opera, from consistently delivering what the South Florida Classical Review called “thoughtfully conceived, well-rehearsed performances” with strong casts of “gifted student vocalists.” 

    But as Johnson, a noted pianist, conductor, vocal coach, and new opera advocate, says, it takes a village of Department of Vocal Performance faculty who offer private lessons and courses in diction, stagecraft, movement, audition techniques, and performance to help budding vocal performers find, maintain, and enhance their voices. He credits the addition of Buchman as the opera program’s first fulltime stage director for transforming its production values and elevating students to new levels of stage acting.

    Which, aside from collaborating with Johnson, is what attracted Buchman, who guest directed two of the opera program’s previous productions, to UM.

    “You’re always looking for opportunities to open doors for people to grow and become bigger than they were when they started with you,” said Buchman, an acclaimed singer who early in his career won the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition and performed with the legendary tenor at the Lincoln Center. “That’s kind of inherent in the process of directing—teaching.”

    As intended, Johnson and Buchman’s decision to stage “The Light in the Piazza,” the opera program’s first classical musical, next February, is providing students at all levels with new experiences aimed at opening new doors. For starters, the production will help singers straddle the worlds of both opera and classical musical theater. Although Adam Guettel’s Tony Award-winning romantic drama about an American mother and daughter visiting Tuscany has some operatic elements—it’s set in Florence, the birthplace of opera, and depending who’s singing, has some songs in Italian—the play has plenty of dialogue, unencumbered by music. 

    That’s both strange and liberating for graduate student Madeline Harts, a New Yorker who plays Margaret, a strong-willed Southern mother who harbors her daughter Clara’s childhood secret and her own regrets. 

    “It’s not something I am used to, but having the freedom to do spoken dialogue without marrying the words to notes, gives more freedom to explore the character,” said Harts, who after teaching voice and studying music history came to UM to pursue her Doctor of Music Arts and a career in vocal instruction. “What a way to kick off my first year here—being the lead in a musical drama. I knew there would be opportunities but I didn’t know it would happen so soon.” 

    As a senior, soprano Shannon Richards, who grew up singing to the radio outside Chicago, is now accustomed to new opportunities but ever-grateful for their versatility. Last year, she played one of Cinderella’s mean stepsisters in “Cendrillon” and is now taking on the huge singing and acting role of Clara, who falls in love with Fabrizio, the Italian boy she meets when her hat flies off in Florence’s bustling central plaza. 

    But until Richards arrived at Frost, she had never been in an opera, or thought she’d even like one. Now she’s hooked. “I really love it now,” she said. “There’s so much to learn and the music is so beautiful.” 

    The beauty and power of the music is what captivated Biller when, at age 12, he played the shepherd boy in Puccini’s “Tosca” for the Santa Fe Opera. As he stood alone on stage and sang the boy’s solo, the audience wept, and Biller found his calling. 

    Last week, when the freshman came to his first stage rehearsal for “The Light in the Piazza” and suddenly found his plate full, he felt a tad overwhelmed. He already had been assigned to cover, or act as backup, for the role of Fabrizio’s brother, when he was handed three more roles in the ensemble, the chorus members who will alternately play Americans touring Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, and an array of Italians who make the central plaza burst with energy—one of whom asks a panicked Clara, “Are you lost, dear?”

    But Biller’s own panic quickly subsided as he listened to Buchman adroitly convey how each character should feel, act, and even move. For his Uffizi Gallery scene, Buchman told Biller he was a bored American, so done with looking at art. Biller, who visited the very same gallery with his mom when he 16, knew exactly how to act. 

    “I was practicing way back then for this moment,” he said.


    Originally posted on December 7, 2018


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  • Gianni Schicchi (2015)

    Music by Giacomo Puccini
    Production - 2015
    Stage Director - Jeffrey Buchman
    Music Director/Conductor - Alan Johnson


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  • Cendrillon by Jules Massenet (2018)

  • The Death of Webern (2016)

    Concert Performance and Recording - Albany Records - 2016
    Music by Michael Daugherty
    Libretto by J.D. McClatchy

  • Young Artist Music Series (2016)

    Bonnet House Museum and Gardens
    Fort Lauderdale, Florida
    Concert Performance - 2016

  • Jackie O (2014)

    Production - 2014
    Music by Michael Daugherty
    Libretto by Wayne Koestenbaum
    Stage Director - Ben Krywosz
    Music Director/Conductor - Alan Johnson

  • Le Nozze di Figaro (2012)

    Production - 2012
    Frost Symphony Orchestra
    Stage Director - Dean Southern
    Music Director/Conductor - Alan Johnson

  • The Sisters Antipodes (2009)

    Music by Thomas Sleeper
    Story and Libretto by Jane Alison
    Production - 2009; Program - Six Operas in Sixty Minutes!
    Frost Symphony Orchestra
    Stage Direction by Dean Southern
    Conductor - Zoe Zeniodi
    Music Director - Alan Johnson