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Little Women Opera - Pepperdine Magazine

Little Women, Big Voices

The Flora L. Thornton Opera Program stages a modern adaptation of an old classic.

"Things Change, Jo..."

These poignantly simple words are sung to Little Women heroine Jo March throughout Mark Adamo’s operatic adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s timeless story about growing up with three sisters and one lovesick best friend during the Civil War. When Henry Price, professor of music at Seaver College, chose Adamo’s composition as the 2011 Flora L. Thornton Opera Program’s production, the parallels between Jo March’s changing world and the program’s temporary change of direction could not have been more clear:Little Women was a completely different experience from the Pepperdine operas of previous years.

For one, selecting an opera that was written so recently—Little Women debuted to critical acclaim in 1998 in Houston, Texas—gave Price the opportunity to invite the composer to visit Pepperdine and work with the performing students, an opportunity not afforded with past productions of Puccini’sLa Boheme, Mozart’sThe Magic Flute, or Smetana’sThe Bartered Bride. Adamo accepted, and in the four days leading up to opening night he trained the students, worked with Price on the production’s direction, and presented two public lectures about his adaptation.

“I think the story remains modern because it’s not about romantic relationships but about people outgrowing each other at different rates,” Adamo explains. “The story is about Jo asking, ‘Why is everyone I know turning into this strange creature called an Adult, and how can I change them back?’”

Fittingly, the theme of change also reflects the significant changes Adamo made to the story’s structure for his opera, particularly that the majority of the two acts take place in Jo’s memory. The production opens with a grown-up Jo, as played by junior vocal performance major Brennan Blankenship, sitting in the family attic surrounded by the remnants of childhood and struggling to accept the new structure of her family: younger sister Amy and best friend Laurie recently married, middle sister Beth passed away, older sister Meg a wife and mother. She remembers key moments in their lives—including the girls inviting Laurie to join their play acting in the attic, Laurie’s confession of his love for Jo at Meg’s wedding, and Beth’s tragic death—but the script excludes other well-known moments such as Jo chopping off her long hair and Amy’s burning of Jo’s manuscript.

“The way I see it, everything that happens on stage is not necessarily literally as it happened, but rather as Jo fantasizes it happened,” Price hypothesizes about the flashback storytelling, which makes the story intimately Jo’s.

While Adamo’s opera changes the format of the original novel and places Jo’s story about accepting that all “things change” at the center of the tale, Price found that the theme resonated with the undergraduate performers on a deeper level as they learned to sing a more contemporary style of opera. “The harmonies and rhythms are quite different from Mozart-era compositions,” Price says.

In fact, he adds, most of his young students are new to opera altogether when they arrive as freshmen and either stumble into it from musical theatre or become exposed to it as part of their vocal training. “I myself had no exposure to classical music when I was growing up. I was a rock ’n’ roll singer,” remembers Price, who enjoyed a hugely successful 20-year career as a tenor—including a Grammy Award win for best opera recording in 1978—after discovering opera as an undergraduate at the University of North Texas. “Students have often never even seen an opera before they arrive here. So when they discover a new medium there are a lot of difficult things to learn, especially because the styles of musical theatre, which they are used to, and opera are so different."

Now in his 18th year as director of the Flora L. Thornton Opera Program, Price knew that casting the right women as the four March sisters and the right tenor as Laurie would be central to the success of this production. Having worked with the same singers time and again during their careers at Pepperdine, Price had an idea ahead of time about who would be right for the roles. “I choose the operas every year based on the people in the program at the time,” he explains.

After two exhaustive rounds of auditions, he altered his cast list entirely to find an unexpected but comfortable fit with juniors Devony Smith, Julie Thornton, and Megan Moran joining Blankenship as sisters Meg, Beth, and Amy March, and senior Aaron Gallington as beloved male protagonist Theodore Lawrence (Laurie). The students all received standing ovations at the end of the two performances.

Adamo praised the students for their talent and hard work, saying that they followed in the footsteps of the professional performers who have previously brought the characters to life “very honorably and soulfully.” “Honestly, I feel that our cast was a dream cast,” Price adds. “We have all undergrads here that are gaining great experiences, which means that our most experienced students can show, when they audition for major graduate programs, that they have the advantage over the people who were just maybe in the chorus by the time they were juniors or seniors at big schools with graduate operas programs.”

In fact, that advantage offered by a focused training experience at the undergraduate level has helped Flora L. Thornton Opera Program graduates soar to great heights post-Pepperdine, with recent alumni gaining scholarships to attend the most prestigious graduate programs in the nation while established alumni grace the rosters of America’s leading opera companies, including the Los Angeles Opera, Santa Fe Opera, San Francisco Opera, Seattle Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, and The Metropolitan Opera.

Change is often a good thing. It opens us up to unexpected experiences, as Jo found when she moved to New York City and fell in love with German professor Friedrich Bhaer (played here by senior Jason Racine). Change can also create exciting opportunities, as Price found when he decided to stage a contemporary opera and wrangled the residency of composer Adamo. But the things not likely to change soon at Pepperdine’s Flora L. Thornton Opera Program are Price’s devotion to training future stars of the opera world and his passion for challenging the students and himself to produce complex, beautiful works of vocal art.

Little Women just took me over, and the more I hear it the more I love it, so it was a completely different experience for me to learn it with the students,” Price reflects. “It was a thoroughly invigorating experience.”

Behind the scenes of every Pepperdine Fine Arts production is a team of designers, directors, and technical experts. Read a glimpse into the work of costume designer CAROL ANN HACK and orchestra conductor TONY CASON »