BY Stacey Battenberg
Standing on stage and in costume, surrounded by singers and dancers from the University of Minnesota, graduate student Christina Chen-Beyers conducted her first opera last Thursday.
“I thought I would be more nervous,” she said. “I felt more comfortable than I thought I would.”
Chen-Beyers was one of three University graduate students who had the rare experience of conducting an opera by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky for the University Opera Theatre.
Chen-Beyers, Foster Beyers and Jeffrey Specht each conducted one short opera as part of a program called “Stravinksy in Paris,” which ran Thursday through Sunday at Ted Mann Concert Hall.
In the past, not many doctoral candidates have been given the opportunity to conduct major operas, because the high level of responsibility could not be entrusted to students, University Opera Theatre Director David Walsh said.
However, after the three students assisted rehearsal of the theatre’s last two productions, Walsh said he was convinced they could handle the conductor’s baton.
“Working with Foster, Christina and Jeff … I realized that we could actually try this out,” he said.
Under normal circumstances, Mark Smith, the artistic director of orchestral studies, conducts operas for the theatre. All three graduate students have experience conducting orchestras, including the University’s Campus Orchestra.
Chen-Beyers, Beyers and Specht, who are all second-year graduate students in conducting, agreed that working on these operas was challenging and required a lot of responsibility.
Specht, who conducted “Mavra,” said opera is more difficult to conduct than symphony because of the many added elements, such as coordinating light cues and properly timing the musicians with the singers on stage.
“It’s a big learning experience for me to see how much actually goes into production,” Specht said. “It’s a new level for me to work for and achieve.”
Beyers, the conductor of “Le Rossignol” (The Nightingale), said it was an honor to work with his colleagues in the cast and orchestra, which were comprised of both graduate and undergraduate students.
“It’s a big responsibility to lead the, and they’ve all been very supportive. It’s a good feeling,” he said.
Walsh noted that students conducting other students can be a “tricky” process, because a conductor has to have authority and the ability to take charge.
“I really admire the way that [the conductors] have been able to accomplish that with their fellow students so that it doesn’t feel as if they are lording it above them,” he said. “And yet they are respected for their abilities so that the students really treat them like a maestro.”
Chen-Beyers, who is Foster Beyers’ wife, said conducting “Le Renard” (The Fox) was a great experience academically as well as socially. Her opera’s small cast of singers and dancers involved a lot off-stage interaction, which encouraged closer bonding. “It creates a lot of fun,” she said.
As husband and wife, the couple said they both feel fortunate to have gained this opera conducting experience together. Beyers said it’s comforting to have a wife who understands his problems and can be sympathetic.
“It’s very nice to be married to someone who knows exactly what you’re going through,” he said.
Allowing students to obtain genuine conducting experience in college is an important part of the learning process because it helps prepare them for the real world, Walsh said. He also noted that he hopes this kind of on-the-job training for students will continue in the future.
“It’s not only beneficial, it’s an absolute necessity,” he said. “You need to have that experience in a university where the cost isn’t what it would be in a professional situation.”
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