Northwestern Opera Theater hosts Midwest premiere of ‘In a Grove’


Valerie Chu/The Daily Northwestern

Performances of “In a Grove” will be held Nov. 17 to 20 at the Ryan Opera Theater.

Jamie Kim, Senior Staffer

A missing botanist and an apparently murdered schoolteacher. Seven witnesses, suspects among them. 

A mysterious tale awaits audiences of “In a Grove,” an opera by Christopher Cerrone with a libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann, which will make its Midwest premiere in the Ryan Opera Theater on Thursday. The opera is presented by the Northwestern University Opera Theater at the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music and includes members of the Contemporary Music Ensemble.

Set in 1921 Oregon, the production is based on a short story of the same name by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. In the performance, various characters give their testimonies of what they know about the botanist, schoolteacher and outlaw. The show is double cast, meaning two separate casts will alternate performances.  

Bienen and Communication freshman Casey Lyons, who will play the priest, said he is working to use his words as a vessel to create imagery and share that scene during the priest’s interrogation. 

Lyons said the music is a defining factor of opera, differentiating it from other forms of theatre. A performer doesn’t only consider the text but also how to connect their character’s thoughts with the music, he said. 

“When you sing it, there is just such an emotional difference and a special way that the writers get to specifically craft the way they think of this character, and then you get to infuse the way you think of this character,” Lyons said. 

Bienen first-year master’s student Lifan Deng portrays a policeman who is emphatic about having been the one to capture the outlaw. There is a tense interaction between his character and the agents interviewing the witnesses.

Deng said the structure of the performance as a series of testimonies and the incorporation of electronic music make the opera unique and modern. 

Conductor Alan Pierson said the story and theatre are on the border between the abstract and that the realistic and the melody, harmony and rhythm are both “remarkably simple” and detailed. 

The performance involves technical aspects such as projections and shadow imagery. While opera singers do not typically perform with microphones, singers in the upcoming performance will have microphones for electronic modifications. 

Pierson added that when the players and singers perform together with the electronic modifications, the elements merge into something that is “way more than the sum of the parts.”  

“There’s this beautiful simplicity to it and a kind of magic that emerges when everything is put together,” Pierson said. 

To open “In a Grove,” the players will also perform “Hands,” a collection of pieces written by composer François Sarhan that tells stories of immigrants and manual laborers. Pierson said the two works are linked by the themes of responsibility and blame. 

Pierson said in some ways, the details of the murder are not in question, but the opera investigates more subtle questions about responsibility. 

“(Director) Joachim (Schamberger) and the actors go deeper and deeper into these questions and bring that understanding to bear on the performance that they’re creating, which has come to be a really emotionally rich and compelling realization of these characters,” Pierson said. 

Bienen and Weinberg freshman Daniel Uglunts also portrays the policeman. He said the policeman, along with the priest and woodcutter, describes the scene before the audience sees the event itself. 

As tension builds between the policeman and the agents, they move to the center of the stage and the policeman cuts through the tension with his final lines.

Isobel Anthony, a Bienen second-year master’s student, portrays Leona. Anthony said she starts from her own “kernel of truth,” depending on where she is in a given moment, and then brings Leona into her psyche. 

While Leona comes out differently each night, she is consistently brave and strong.

“She’s always firm in what she thinks, she asks for what she wants,” Anthony said. “When tragedy hits, she doesn’t just crumple under the weight of that burden — she rises to the challenge of making it right.”

Anthony said she is excited to “dive into” the acting aspect of the opera and engage with the audience. She said the opera is a “philosophically interesting” piece that explores different layers of guilt. 

Deng said he is passionate about contemporary opera so he is excited to debut at NU in the style. 

“I am so grateful that I can be in this cast and I get to work with so many amazing people along this journey, and I can’t wait to see how this production will turn out this weekend,” he said. 

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