Nov. 18 2015 11:45 AM

MSU Opera’s ‘A Room With a View’ tackles Victorian-era sexuality

A commanding voice called from the orchestra pit.

“It’s very disconcerting when I can’t hear you.”

Two apparently naked MSU opera students — actually clad in flesh-colored Speedos, their bodies blurred by a watery looking scrim — instantly ceased cavorting on stage and milled around, waiting. The technical challenges of singing while skinny dipping put a temporary halt to Sunday night’s rehearsal of MSU Opera Theatre’s fall production, a 2007 opera version of E.M. Forster’s novel, “A Room With a View.”

Everyone took an extra breath while Marcello Cormio, an athletic, live-wire guest conductor from Italy, ironed

out the problem with director Melanie Helton, who was monitoring the action from the back of Fairchild Theatre.

“It’s not your fault,” Cormio assured the semi-nude singers.

Within seconds, the lush, lyrical music of Texas-based composer Robert Nelson rolled on, prodded and massaged with gymnastic grace by Cormio and an unseen, full-sized orchestra in the pit.

Nelson himself sat in a bank of empty seats, chin on hand, listening.

“Cormio is just fantastic,” Nelson enthused. “He works well with the orchestra and has a wonderful rapport with the singers. I am very impressed.”

Students in Victorian garb, waiting in the wings, milled around a prop table, nervously hefting plastic fruit. One pretended to take a bite and drew a few suppressed laughs. In the hallway outside, bit player Matt Riutta stood patiently as artificial blood was squirted onto his already gory scalp.

“I’m the guy who gets killed,” he explained. “It’s a very small role.”

In a dark aisle of the nearly empty theater, Helton chided a student singer in a maid’s outfit.

“You’re not flirting enough with Quentin,” Helton told her. “That kiss has to be sexier.”

The repressed Edwardian sexuality of Forster’s novel, known to most Americans from the 1985 Merchant/Ivory film, made Nelson’s opera version irresistible to Helton.

“There was a lot of hanky-panky going on, but it was all behind closed doors,” Helton said.

Repressed emotion and grand opera might not seem like a good fit to some composers, but Nelson didn’t see it that way when librettist Buck Ross came to him with the idea.

“What attracted us is that it’s almost a real story,” Nelson said. “The tension between repression and liberation gives the story a wonderful arc.”

The MSU production of “A Room With a View” will only be the opera’s fourth. It was premiered in 2007 at the University of Houston, where Nelson and Ross are on faculty. A performance at the University of Nebraska was followed by “major surgery,” in Nelson’s words — a lot of exposition was trimmed — before a second Houston production. Ross, a mentor to Helton, suggested “A Room With a View” to her last year.

“It’s a real romantic comedy, and those are hard to come by,” Helton said. “There are a ton of parts and very little chorus. It gets a lot of people on stage in nice, significant roles.”

Cormio, an Italian opera specialist, first came to MSU last year to conduct Mozart’s “Così fan Tutte,” but the chance to conduct a new opera with a “superlush, post-Puccini” orchestral score drew him back.

“I’m in an enviable position,” Cormio said. “I’m working on a piece that was written seven years ago, and the composer is here.”

Cormio is as impressed with Nelson as the composer is with him.

“He is a master at using the music to describe those psychological nuances,” Cormio said. “It’s not the major, gigantic things you find with Verdi and Wagner. Puccini used to say that his operas are the big consequences of small things, and I find that very much in this score.”

Nelson’s harmonic tapestry changes like weather as the scene changes from hot-blooded Italy to repressed England.

“I’m from Italy, so this is very close to me,” Cormio said. “Florence has a very specific flavor of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He really nails it right at the beginning with the bassoon solo and these chords with the modal harmonies.”

When the scene switches to class-bound London, four stuffy, melancholy chords say it all: Somebody open a window, for God’s sake.

Nelson delights in that kind of power. With a well-placed chord or carefully calibrated harmony, he can get across a fugitive feeling it might have taken Forster pages to describe.

“That’s the beauty of opera,” Nelson said. “You can communicate subtleties that people will absorb subconsciously. It gives you quite a sense of power knowing you can manipulate people’s emotions so easily. We enjoy that.”

MSU’s production of “A Room With a View,” like 2012’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and 2010’s “Florencia en el Amazonas,” rides a major new trend in the world of opera. As recently as 15 or 20 years ago, new operas were almost impossible to bankroll, produce and sell to the public.

“Now most American companies are doing wonderful premieres every single year,” Helton said. “There is a return to beauty, an understanding that the human voice can bring something out that a violin cannot — no offense to violins.”

Next year, Michigan Opera Theatre will present “Silent Night,” the Pulitzer Prizewinning 2011 opera about a miraculous 1914 Christmas truce that took place during World War I.

For future productions at MSU, Helton is looking at “As One,” the story of a transgender male played by a baritone and a mezzosoprano, “Heart of a Soldier,” about a security director who died in the 9/11 attacks, and “Glory Denied,” the story of a Vietnam era prisoner of war who is thought dead but turns up at his home after his wife has remarried.

Another bonus of doing new operas is that the creator is around to be consulted. Working with Nelson, Helton said, has been a revelation to the students.

“I’ve heard stories about how the composer gets there and hates everything you’re doing,” Helton said. “I’ve seen composers throw hissy fits, but Bob and I respect each other’s work and we’ve had a very happy collaboration.”

“A Room With a View”

MSU Opera Theatre 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18; 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20-Saturday, Nov. 21; 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22 Fairchild Theatre 542 Auditorium Road, East Lansing $20/$18 seniors/$5 students (517) 353-5340, music.