Into the unknown

By Lawrence Cosentino

Headless horseman rides again in premiere opera at MSU

How do you sing without a head?

That’s one of the milder challenges surrounding the wildest production yet from MSU’s groundbreaking Opera Theatre, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

The world premiere fills half of a bizarre double bill with Puccini’s one-act lasagna of greed and romance, “Gianni Schicchi.”

Any premiere is a nail-chewer for its creators, but “Sleepy Hollow,” a one-act opera by MSU student William Withem, is overloaded with dramatic and logistical challenges. Opera Theatre director Melanie Helton has to juggle a weird mix of humor and horror, fit Withem’s lush new orchestral score around a cast of six singers, and wrangle a mechanical horse into the bargain. To add more zest to the ride, Helton wrote the libretto for “Sleepy Hollow” herself — her first ever.

In view of the story’s strange events, chills, thrills and fancy rear projection (courtesy of an MSU game technology class) are all to be expected. But listeners can also expect an unusually tall tsunami of orchestral sound.

Withem, 32, is at the cusp of a younger generation of composers who grew up in thrall to surging movie music from the likes of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. In high school, Withem studied the originals these guys copped their licks from — Americans like Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, Brits like Benjamin Britten, and opera’s greats, including Puccini and Wagner.

“Sometimes the accompaniment in classic opera is very light and transparent,” Withem said. “I totally throw that out the window and make it very fullblooded and rich.”

Withem came to MSU with a master’s degree in film scoring from North Carolina School of the Arts. He composes in almost all genres, but Helton said Withem always seems to have movies on the brain.

“Sometimes I had to ask for 16 more bars of music so I could get the chorus off stage,” she said. “You can’t dissolve on stage, like you can on film.”

Withem said extra oomph is more important than ever in opera. “We can stay home and listen to anything on our iPod these days,” he said. “When people come out to see something, they’re taking time out, and I want them to feel like there’s a point.”

As a kid, Withem loved the headless horseman and the chase scene in “Sleepy Hollow,” but as he got older, he came to appreciate the all-American ambiguity of a sleepy New England town full of superstitions. “The town has its pastoral side and its dark side,” Withem said.

Ichabod Crane, the luckless schoolmaster in “Sleepy Hollow,” might be the victim of a cruel prank, but in the atmosphere of small-town superstition, it’s hard not to think dire thoughts.

The American Gothic touches will please finer palates, but Helton said the flashy visuals and brisk one-act pace of “Sleepy Hollow” will make a great introduction
to opera for newbies.

In fact, the opera started out as a vehicle for
community outreach. Rafael Jimenez, opera conductor and leader of MSU’s
new music ensemble Musique 21, originally planned to take it around to
schools with a small group of musicians.

When Jimenez heard
Withem’s fullblooded score, the project went big.

But Withem kept the
original concept in mind and took pains not to get too avant-garde with
operatic conventions. Everyone will know when the arias, duets
or trios are beginning and ending.

“At the same time, I didn’t want it
to be an insulting demonstration of the elements of Opera 101,” Withem
said. “I wanted to work seamlessly with the story.”

The second
half of the doubleheader, “Gianni Schicchi” (pronounced “Johnny
Skeeky”), is a pretty hot property these days. In fall 2008, Woody
Allen chose it for his opera directing debut, turning the characters
into Mafiosi. Helton’s production will drop the thugs and go for a
lavish, straight reading.

Meanwhile, Helton waited last week
for her headless horseman’s costume — an inflatable rig that mounts on
the singer’s shoulders — to arrive. “I hope it looks as good as it
looked online,” she said.

You really can get anything on the Internet.

‘Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ & ‘Gianni Schicchi’

p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 27 and 28; 3 p.m. Sunday, March 29 MSU
Opera Theatre, MSU Concert Auditorium $8-$18 1 (800) WHARTON