2016-03-01 / Up Close

The Professor of the Opera

Artistic Director Ted Christopher is setting the stage for Penn State's Opera Theatre program to go big.
Sabrina Evans

When it comes to directing one of the largest-scale forms of performance art, Ted Christopher, artistic director of Penn State Opera Theatre, believes bigger isn’t always better.

And in opera, big can be really big. Last spring, the university’s opera theater program performed La Bohème at Eisenhower Auditorium, a big venue fit for an even bigger show, equipped with a cast of hundreds, music by the Penn State Philharmonic and sets rented from the Pittsburgh Opera. However, Christopher says he has also done very small productions since he started teaching at Penn State in 2008, directing a show with a cast of only one performer and another with only five this past fall.

“I think there is a perception that opera is one thing, which is as big as you can get in as large a room, with ridiculously large forces combined,” he says. “Some of what I’ve been doing since I’ve been here is disproving that. I tell my students now, ‘We sing in a theatrical context because the emotion has become so heightened that we can no longer speak, that words are no longer enough.’”

This month, Christopher’s students are taking the stage at The State Theatre on March 24 and 26 to present Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, a “rip-roaring comedy of an opera, with very tricky music,” says Christopher.

“We’re doing it all with students, with a very sort of minimal, workshop-y production,” he says, noting that a piano will be the show’s only instrumental accompaniment. “This way, the students can be totally free to go as far as they can vocally and theatrically without feeling like they need to be in a large theater with a large orchestra.”

“In a lot of ways, opera performance is a kind of pinnacle performance in music — it’s that intersection of music at the highest level and theater at the highest level.”

Although Barber is an undertaking of epic proportions with a large expected turnout, Christopher says his biggest challenge is going to be making himself, as director, small and letting the piece speak for itself — and in English.

“The stage director’s job is to stand out of the way of the show and let it be funny,” he says. “It really is one of the most ridiculous, farcical, hysterical, almost sort of cartoon-y operas there is.”

Growing up in Cleveland, where he had access to innumerable musical and performance opportunities — the Metropolitan Opera was still touring at the time — Christopher says it was only a matter of time before his boyhood-soprano-self grew into an adult baritone with a passion for the stage.

“[Opera] is just kind of an outcropping of my upbringing,” he says. “In a lot of ways, opera performance is a kind of pinnacle performance in music — it’s that intersection of music at the highest level and theater at the highest level. For me as a young kid, I think I sensed that.”

After graduating high school, Christopher went for his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and moved to the Big Apple where he trained at Juilliard as a member of the school’s Opera Center and worked in the city as a professional performing artist.

“I was kind of an odd bird professionally,” he says. “I didn’t quite fit into the opera mold, I didn’t fit into the musical theater mold. I was happily doing both for five or six years.”
Over the course of his career, Christopher has performed in such prestigious venues as the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Rudolfinum in Prague, the Schauspielhaus in Berlin — even New York’s famed Carnegie Hall — and with ensembles such as the Seattle Symphony, the Czech Philharmonic, the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Singers.

“I tell my students now, ‘We sing in a theatrical context because the emotion has become so heightened that we can no longer speak, that words are no longer enough.’”

It wasn’t until Sept. 11, 2001, when America was shaken by the largest terrorist attack in history, that Christopher — living in New York but away from the city performing at the time of the attacks — says he took a moment to question whether he could see himself living out of a suitcase for the next 20 to 30 years.

 “I was very fortunate that I was able to work as a performing artist, but I also found myself questioning whether that was what I always wanted. It’s a tough life. It’s a life that requires a kind of myopic focus. It really needs to be about that, about the career,” he says. “I suppose that awareness, in conjunction with things like 9/11, made me realize I didn’t want to do this anymore.”

According to Christopher, the opera profession is divided into two halves: singers who act and actors who sing. For much of his career, he says, his own place in either of these two circles remained unclear until he made the decision to take a step back from center stage.

“I made a conscious choice around age 32 or 33 to move more into teaching and then to directing. The choice to be a creative director of an opera program at a school is a rather specific one,” Christopher says. “I guess that’s sort of an answer to the question of whether I’m a singer who acts or an actor who sings: I suppose I’m a teacher who both acts and sings.”

A friend suggested he attend Eastman School of Music for his doctorate degree to, says Christopher, “buy some time” while he figured out what he really wanted to do. Eventually he became a member of the Eastman staff and spent time as the director of opera at the University of Memphis before moving to State College, where he lives now with his wife and three young children.

“It’s a happy combination of elements, this community,” he says. “I do feel like there is room for spectacular growth here. I feel like the university very much values the prestige and cache of a first-class performance program. I also think it’s a great town to live in and have a family. I feel like I might have sort of lucked out.”

It isn’t just opera’s reputation for being big that Christopher is trying to change but also its reputation within the university. Christopher says many of the headwinds he’s come up against at Penn State stem from a lack of awareness that the school’s opera program even exists.

“Opera is not a small thing, in a lot of respects. Opera combines performance elements from a music program and performance elements from the theater program,” he says. “Everybody knows the Penn State School of Theatre, which is prestigious. The opera program is growing and, in a lot of ways, its growth benefits from the theater program being so established, but it’s been a challenge since I arrived here.”

When people think of big universities, says Christopher, they don’t immediately think of first-rate opera programs, which is a perception Christopher hopes to eliminate.

“In the Big 10 are University of Michigan and Indiana University, both of which have some of the finest music and theater programs in the country,” he says. “Going forward, I think there is no reason why Penn State University shouldn’t stand alongside those programs.” •SCM

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