From the sublime to the ridiculous

Tara Bradbury
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School of Music brings Mozart’s comic opera ‘Così fan Tutte’ out of the 1790s and into the 1950s

On one level, Mozart’s “Così fan Tutte” (“School for Lovers”) is an exploration of love, faithfulness and traditional gender roles.

On another, it’s a story of fiancée-swapping, worthy of an MTV reality show.

Saturday and Sunday evening, MUN School of Music’s Opera Workshop and chamber orchestra will present the opera at Holy Heart Theatre, taking it from its original 1790 setting and bringing it into the 1950s.

Set in a summer resort hotel, the story sees two young soldiers, Guglielmo and Ferrando, taking a bet from a cynical friend that in one day, he can prove that their fiancées — sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi — would not remain faithful to them, given the opportunity. A tale of disguise, deception and comedy unfolds.

“The two men go off and come back all dressed up: we leave as these preppy golf-playing dudes and come back as these greasers,” explained Ryan Downey, who stars as Guglielmo. It’s a role Downey said has taken a while to get into.

“Guglielmo is all man, which I’m having a lot of trouble connecting to because I’m still pretty young,” he said, laughing. Downey, 21, is a fourth-year performance major.

“When he comes back as this cool dude, I like connecting to that. It fits really well with my voice, which is another thing I really like about the character. I feel like every time I sing it, I learn something new.

“(The story) is about people being naive in love. It’s not necessarily about women being unfaithful. It’s the men too. The men are pretty naive. They don’t really believe that feelings can change like the weather, to use a line from the opera.”

In any one year, there are between 15 and 29 singers in the School of Music’s opera program, and they take classes in stage work, monologues and arias, among others. The goal is to produce a large-scale opera at least once a year, and a production with the orchestra every couple of years.

The operas are always chosen based on the needs and talents of the singers, said opera program director Caroline Schiller, who is co-directing “Così fan Tutte” with opera instructor Eldon Murray.

The students come into the program with mixed backgrounds, Schiller said.

“Some students come with a very strong theatre background and have been doing musical theatre and classical repertoire for years and years, and others come with beautful voices and really strong potential and no firm classical training,” she explained.

“The purpose of the program is to provide them with the tools that they need so that they can achieve what they want and and use their voice the way they want when they graduate.”

There are many graduates of the program who have gone on to make careers as opera singers, Schiller said, as well as performers in other fields.

The majority of “Così fan Tutte” will be performed in Italian, and the singers know exactly what they’re singing — they have no option, Downey said.

While they might start off learning the words phonetically, armed with a backbone in the language from their classes, they make a point of figuring out the translation.

“You’ve got to know what you’re singing,” he explained. “If you don’t, no one else will know.

“There are great translation books, and just to be sure, I look up every word I’m not sure of myself. I know a lot of nouns in Italian at this point, but I can’t string a sentence together. It’s really engrained in you, after a while, to figure out what you’re singing.”

As Downey explained, opera singing doesn’t come easy. It’s a full-body experience he likens to running a marathon. All the body’s muscles need to be working together, he said, and perfection is impossible to attain.

Sung by both graduate and undergraduate students, Così fan Tutte” was cast on the second day of classes last September. The first music rehearsal took place at the end of September, and staging began a month later. It’s been a significant part of the students’ lives since then.

“We haven’t really looked back,” Downey said.

Starring Jeffrey Taylor as Ferrando, Steven Griffin as Don Alfonso, Caroline Whalen as Dorabella, Bethany Hynes as Fiordiligi and Chelsi Walsh and Jessica Clark sharing the role of Despina, “Così fan Tutte” is being conducted by chamber orchestra director Vernon Regehr, with sets designed by Jamie Skidmore, a drama specialist in MUN’s department of English literature and language.

The opera is a fabulous farce full of real people in ridiculous situations, Schiller said.

“One of the things that makes it so compelling as an opera is underneath this layer of hilarity is this really brilliant music of Mozart that underpins and shows the compassion of these characters and their search for truth and fidelity. “Così fan Tutte”  encapsulates everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. A perfect Valentine’s treat, really.”

Tickets for “Cosi fan Tutte” are $20 regular and $15 for seniors and students, and are available by calling the Holy Heart Theatre box office at 579-4424 or online at

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Holy Heart Theatre, MUN School of Music

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