Debra Lynn calls herself an “operatic evangelist” determined to break down stereotypes about the genre. It combines all art forms as it showcases music, literature and visuals such as costuming and makeup.
“It was the blockbuster film of its day when it first started,” says the professor of music and director of choral organizations and voice study at Manchester University.
She says she immediately fell in love with “The Invention of Morel.” Written by Stewart Copeland, a founder and onetime drummer for the band Police, it is different from a lot of modern operas, Lynn says.
“Morel,” which Copeland touts as a “period, sci-fi, romantic black comedy,” follows the story of a man who arrives on an island, falls for a beautiful woman and eventually discovers that not everything is as it seems. It is based on a 1940 book by Argentine author Adolfo Bioy Casares.
Copeland and Kathleen Belcher, stage director of the New York Metropolitan Opera, are helping bring “Morel” to life for its collegiate debut at the end of the month.
Lynn has known Belcher for years (she was once opera partners with Belcher's husband) and has always wanted to collaborate with her. When they settled on this academic year, Lynn set out to find the right project.
“She's just such a visionary with new productions,” Lynn says by phone. “I really wanted to give her something brand new, and I wanted to give my students something to work on where they would have no reference recordings because that's such a unique experience.”
“Morel” has been performed professionally only twice, so there isn't a library of photos and recordings to work off of. Those can be useful reference tools, but Lynn says a recording can also be a crutch. For “Morel,” the performers are developing their own sounds and movements for their roles instead of imitating what has been done previously. That's a skill they can take with them as they advance in their careers.
Manchester's production includes four undergraduates, one alumnus, two graduate students from the university and another from Ball State University.
Lynn says the vocalists were intimidated when they first ran through the music in the fall. But now they feel stronger as singers.
Belcher has worked over the internet to help the cast and crew prepare for the production, which has performances Feb. 28 and 29 at the Honeywell Center in Wabash. The guest stage director arrived in North Manchester on Friday to work directly on the production in its final weeks.
Copeland will also be in North Manchester for a couple of days, including opening night. He will work with the performers and is scheduled to speak at Manchester University's Cordier Auditorium at 12:30 p.m. Feb. 27. The talk is free and open to the public. He will also speak at the opera's first show the next night. Tickets for the performances are $20 general admission or $10 for students at HoneywellCenter.org.
Fort Wayne will get a taste of “Morel” tonight as the cast performs some selections of its music during a free Opera on Tap event at 7 p.m. at Trubble Brewing Co., 2725 Broadway. Belcher will also speak during the event.
Copeland has been composing opera, film scores and other works for decades. He says he has always had luck working with students, perhaps because they have more time to give.
“I found that they're really well prepared,” he says in a phone interview. “They give all their student study time to devote,” but professionals might only glance at a work before they need to rehearse and perform it.
Copeland says his technique has evolved over years of composing as his dramaturgy and knowledge of how to use instruments has improved. It was recently announced that Fort Wayne Philharmonic will perform his “World Percussion” featuring Balinese percussion instruments during its 2020-21 season.
“Morel” was suggested by his daughter, and the story appealed to him with its comedy, romance and steam punk elements.
The protagonist finds that conversations appear to be repeating on the island and no one seems to notice him. Copeland had to work out how to make things clear to the audience while keeping his lead character confused as time appears to be cut up and reordered.
“Although it's a slim volume, it actually turned out to be a challenge because of the time issues,” he says.
Though Lynn tries to put on a full opera at the university about every four years, “Morel” has been a bigger undertaking than most. In addition to sets and costumes, the production includes animation and projections.
Lynn says people have been asking her if “Morel” is a rock opera. It isn't, though there is a touch of the genre to be felt.
“It definitely jams in some places,” she says with a laugh, pointing out that there is a drum set in the music pit. “There are moments where you can hear a little bit of rock sneaking in. But the vocal writing is very symphonic; it's really beautiful and expansive.”
In addition to a touch of rock influences, the audience may notice Stewart's film scoring technique peeking through as the Manchester Symphony Orchestra performs the music.
“The orchestration isn't just accompaniment,” Lynn says. “As a composer myself, I'm learning a lot from Stewart's orchestration.”