UM Opera Theatre Presents Fall Scenes Program

Group brings great moments from the Met and Broadway to Ole Miss

Benjamin Rorabaugh (center, left), a master’s student in vocal performance from Long Beach; Jiaxuan Zhu (behind), a master’s student in vocal performance from Wenzhou, China; and Reagan Arnold, a senior vocal performance major from Collins, entertain fellow cast members with a scene from Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Princess Ida.’ The scene is part of the UM Opera Scenes program ‘Be in the Room Where it Happens,’ set for Nov. 1 and 2 in Nutt Auditorium. Photo by Lynn Adams Wilkins/Department of Music

OXFORD, Miss. – “Be in the Room Where It Happens” is more than a title for the 2019 University of Mississippi Opera Theatre fall scenes production; it’s an invitation.

The Opera Theatre presents well-loved moments from nine different shows, from contemporary blockbusters “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen” to classics such as Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Princess Ida” and Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro.” The production will run for two shows, at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Nov. 1-2) in Nutt Auditorium.

Julia Aubrey, director of UM Opera Theatre, said she selects pieces from different eras and styles on purpose.

“I want to find pieces that are relevant and entertaining today, but since our focus in the fall production is on developing performance skills, the scenes program provides our students an important opportunity to sing in a foreign language and gives them exposure to traditional material, which they’ll need to know because that’s so much of what professional opera companies produce,” she said.

“We always choose very entertaining moments from these productions.”

John Michael Walker, a junior music major from Olive Branch, rehearses his role as King George III from ‘Hamilton’ in ‘Be in the Room Where it Happens.’ Photo by Lynn Adams Wilkins/Department of Music

In one of those entertaining moments, John Michael Walker, a junior music major from Olive Branch, plays King George in a scene from “Hamilton”; he also plays Jaquino in “Fidelio.” King George obviously sings in English, but Jaquino sings in German, and other scenes are in Italian and French.

“Audience members who don’t already speak four different languages will be glad to know that we’ll have supertitles for all the foreign language scenes,” Walker said.

“I am very proud of the students and their willingness to embrace foreign languages that they do not speak,” said Amanda Johnston, associate professor of music and UM Opera Theatre’s musical director. Johnston not only prepares the music for the opera scenes program, but also plays piano for the show.

“It is always rewarding to see how far the students progress over the course of the semester,” she said.

The scenes program includes students from freshmen to graduate students.

“I want to provide a valuable experience for each individual student, so everybody has a chance to be a solo performer, and each student is challenged to take the next step in their development as a singer and actor,” Aubrey said.

Students learn to create and build a character, gesture, research the work, and, of course, develop as singers.

Maddi Jolley, a master’s student in music performance from Paris, Texas, rehearses her role as Susanna in an exuberant scene from ‘Le Nozze di Figaro,’ sung in Italian. Photo by Lynn Adams Wilkins/Department of Music

Maddi Jolley, a master’s student in music performance from Paris, Texas, said she appreciates the attention given to skill development in the fall semester.

“I always love working on acting,” she said. “I like finding the balance between vocal technique and acting skills. We learn and build skills in the classroom, and then immediately apply it on stage.”

Jolley will play Susanna in “Figaro” and Mother Marie in “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” and, like all the members of the ensemble, also performs in the chorus of other scenes.

“I like getting experience with both musical theatre and opera and delving into two different fields,” she says. “Different styles are required for opera and musical theater, so I’m glad to have the opportunity to become familiar with both those worlds.”

Ashley Moss is costume designer, dancer René Pulliam will choreograph the “Hamilton” scene, and slides will provide clues to each scene’s environment, rather than a set.

“This semester’s focus is on skills development, so we emphasize singing and acting rather than the set,” Aubrey said. “Next semester, we’ll do a full production, and the focus then will be on the complete elements of a full production.”

Tickets are $5 for anyone with a UM ID and children, $10 for all others, and are available at the UM Box Office,, and at the door.