November 2, 2021


Behind the scenes: A look at the new Opera Hall

The pandemic delayed the debut show of DePaul’s new Sasha and Eugene Jarvis Opera Hall. This November, the hall will finally host its premier show with a performance of La Calisto on November 12 and 14. DePaul Download takes you behind the scenes of the opera with Harry Silverstein, the director of DePaul Opera Theatre and chair of musical performance in the School of Music. He talks about the renovated performance hall, and how its unique design will serve opera students, other performers and the community.



LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I'm your host Linda Blakley. In March of 2020, DePaul cut the ribbon on the Sacha and Eugene Jarvis Opera Hall. But as the pandemic took hold, its initial performances were canceled. This November, the opera hall will finally host its premiere show.

On this episode, we take you behind the scenes of the show. We're joined by Harry Silverstein. He's the director of DePaul Opera Theatre, and chair of musical performance in the School of Music. Harry joins us today to talk about the renovated performance hall and how its unique design will serve opera students, other performers and the community. Welcome, Harry.

HARRY SILVERSTEIN: Thank you so much, Linda. It's really a pleasure to be here with you. I appreciate that you've asked me.

LINDA BLAKLEY: We heard that wonderful clip at the beginning of one of your students rehearsing for the upcoming performance of La Calisto. For those listeners who, like me, may not be as familiar with opera, what are the characteristics of the discipline?

HARRY SILVERSTEIN: I think the difference between opera and spoken theater, for instance, is that people are singing the things that they have to say, instead of just speaking them. And I think what makes it a really brilliant art form is that it becomes incumbent upon us as the artists who are performing it to make things so important that the audience feel there's a reason for people to be singing instead of talking. Since I think Linda, neither you nor I when we're at the bus stop, sing to the people who are there with us. So there's something so special about the art form, that everything is a little larger than life a little more important than life.

And, in addition to that some things about opera that make it special are the size of the orchestra. If we got to the lyric, sometimes there's many as 110 musicians that are playing this beautiful music. And then the singers in opera, as the form was originally conceived, don't have microphones. So you have these incredible vocal artists who are able to be heard over 110 orchestra and 80 members of the chorus, and still really have this effect on us.

LINDA BLAKLEY: It’s theater in every sense of the word.

HARRY SILVERSTEIN: Yes, absolutely. One of the very first things that I teach my students, the freshmen when they come in our first day is, I ask them, "What is the difference between acting and singing?" And they all have this very detailed discussion about rhythm and pitch and through lines. And in the end, we all end up agreeing that in effect, these are the same thing. Just were a little louder, or a little more beautifully done. But all in all, we're all telling a story.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So our producers visited a recent rehearsal to get a feel for the space and their performance. Let's take a listen.

[Scene from La Calisto rehearsal]

LINDA BLAKLEY: Tell us a bit about what's happening in the scene you’re directing and how it fits into the plot of La Calisto.

HARRY SILVERSTEIN: So this is a really fun part of the show. One of our main characters based on the half-man, half-goat god Pan has been pursuing the goddess Diana really for some time, and their relationship just isn't working out very well. And Sylvan, who is one of the people from Pan's football team, if you might, you know someone who supports him in his life in the forest, is trying to make him feel better. And what was interesting for me with a person playing a role in the moment was that he says several times in a row the same word resucita, which translates to: "Oh, feel better. I think everything will be alright." And we wonder why or how can we make these repetitions really interesting. And what is causing the character to say these things at this moment? So most of my encouragement there was attempting to excite the performer more about the things that he was performing.

LINDA BLAKLEY: When the performers are rehearsing, we're just hearing them and a harpsichord. Is that what the audience can expect when they go to see La Calisto?

HARRY SILVERSTEIN: So no, there will be a really exciting, baroque size orchestra. So we will have some contemporary instruments and some baroque instruments. The actual performance will be with three harpsichord and violins and a bass and percussion, and then two, baroque instruments, baroque harp and a baroque, essentially what became the cello. And I think this will make for a really exciting, beautiful sound.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Let's talk about the hall itself. It was the performing arts than before being rehabbed. What changes make it specifically an opera hall?

HARRY SILVERSTEIN: There are a few things that I think are really special about a place where opera can happen. And it just requires a significant investment from the university in order to give us the best possible venue for making opera. And so we need a stage, of course, you know, and we have an orchestra pit. And this seems rudimentary in a way. But it's extremely important to be able to have what's happening on the stage, and then a place for the orchestra to be in between what's happening on the stage and us as an audience. And then, and this is one of the real areas of brilliance of this hall, that the acoustics of the space must support both the sound of the orchestra and the sound of the singers, and allow both to express themselves beautifully. And particularly since we've come specifically to hear the singer sing, to give them the possibility to be heard over the orchestra while we're still getting all beautifully blended together. Another thing that we get that's truly marvelous -- I'm not sure if you had a chance to be in our old theater Linda, but it was a church. And so it was pews. And for two and a half hours of opera, sometimes the pews were not quite so wonderful to sit in. And now we have a fantastic front of the house, beautifully done theater with the wonderful seating and very convenient and set up in a way that everyone can see the stage. So all of these elements really support us in being able to enjoy the opera without the distractions.

LINDA BLAKLEY: One of the operas I've had the privilege of seeing was Tosca at the Sydney Opera House, a huge, iconic hall. Our opera Hall is obviously much smaller. How does that change the experience for performers and the audience?

HARRY SILVERSTEIN: There are two things that happened as a result of that. Now, the opera because of the size of the voices and the size of the orchestra has often found its way into very large halls, and that there's quite the experience being in a space with 150 musicians. And the experience that we'll get in Jarvis Hall is slightly different than that. And conversely, it's brilliantly set up for young people who are just embarking upon a career and gives them a chance to fill the space with their voices without having to worry about performing for 4,000 people. And in addition, I think a marvelous thing about it is that it gives us a really intimate experience between the performers and the audience. And as it turns out, particularly with Baroque opera, which was at its invention, appearing in similar size venues to the one that we have. So I think that the experience for both the singers and the audience is going to be really special in this opera house.

LINDA BLAKLEY: The performers in La Calisto are primarily students. How will the new hall improve DePaul's opera program?

HARRY SILVERSTEIN: First off, we get to rehearse in the space that we perform in. It is an incredible luxury. Virtually no one gets this opportunity anywhere, mostly because the expense of trying to rent a theater for five or six weeks, which is the period of time that we rehearse. Secondly, the attractive nature of this hall that this reflects beautifully on the program, on the School of Music, on DePaul University. And it's exciting to the students. The first time I was able to walk them through the space, their eyes were the size of saucers to be able to be in such a beautiful, wonderful, exciting theatrical experience, without even anything on the stage yet. Finally, there are times that the venue can actually distract from the work that's being done. So for instance, the noise that's outside the theater, or if you had had a chance to see our operas in the old venue, we actually had the orchestra on stage with performers, the orchestra on one half of the stage and then performers on the other half of the stage. And it was an interesting experience. But I think that each distracted from the other, instead of being able to fully support each other as they are now. And I think those are all things that are truly special to having a new theater with new performances.

LINDA BLAKLEY: In addition to helping students, the School of Music is hoping the hall will also be a community space. Tell me more about what that will look like.

HARRY SILVERSTEIN: Well, do you know our dream is twofold regarding our relationship to the community from the opera program. And the first part is our invitation for the community to join us. The possibility for people to see opera, which I think is the greatest art form there is significant for people who are seeing perhaps the first opera or haven't had a chance to be involved in anything like this. And our ticket price is very low $10, $5. And we even support community members coming in for no cost. And in this way, we're sharing our art form with a community that we're in. Then equally, this is a brilliant space and opera program, although we perform three times a year, still do not take up all of the weeks that are available during the year. And this gives us an opportunity to support other people making opera in Chicago in our fantastic space. Thus, people are coming here to perform, and people are coming here in order to enjoy the art form. And we're excited by both of those opportunities.

LINDA BLAKLEY: That says a lot about the students and about the program. What would you say to community members who are intimidated by opera or think it's not quite for them? How would you encourage them to attend a performance?

HARRY SILVERSTEIN: We somehow gotten a picture of opera, I think mostly from Bugs Bunny cartoons, that it is somehow difficult or frightening or not for everyone. And the absolute converse is true that it's completely for everyone. And it's an audience of people that are there to enjoy an art form. And everyone doesn't wear white tie and tails to go to the opera. Instead, we're happy for you to come in jeans and a T shirt. And just come in and sit down. Share a little time with us and experience something that you will remember certainly for the rest of your life.

LINDA BLAKLEY: On that note, the La Calisto performance is on November 12th and 14th. How can listeners buy tickets?

HARRY SILVERSTEIN: Oh, great question, Linda. Thank you very much. So the very easiest way is to find us online at DePaul University School of Music site where you will be able to buy tickets online. People are also welcome to call us in our box office. There's a box office in the Holtschneider Performance Center, which is adjacent to the opera building. I would add this specifically for the performance of La Calisto that as is the case in Chicago that you'll have to bring proof of being vaccinated and also as is the case currently in Chicago, everyone is wearing a mask.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Are there other upcoming performances this school year that listeners should be on the lookout for?

HARRY SILVERSTEIN: You bet. So the DePaul Opera Theatre performs three times each year and we have a very exciting schedule for the rest of this year. So along with La Calisto in November, we're doing Verdi's opera Falstaff in March. And then we're doing the Leonard Bernstein opera musical theater piece called Candide and that performs in June.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Well, we will watch for those events. We hope to hear more about the opera program and its successes in the new hall. Thank you for being on the podcast, Harry.

HARRY SILVERSTEIN: Well, thank you, Linda, for having me very much.

LINDA BLAKLEY: For more about the opera hall and School of Music's performances, check out their website music.depaul.edu. I'm your host, Linda Blakely. Thank you for listening to DePaul Download, presented by DePaul's division of University Marketing and Communications.