Tag: Copeland Woodruff

Exploring Communication Through Opera

Lawrence opera students utilize sign language in new conception of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.”

Lawrence University Conservatory of Music student rehearse ASL for the upcoming opera, "Mass."
Lawrence University Conservatory of Music students rehearse ASL for the upcoming opera, “Mass.”

Twenty-one members of the Lawrence University Opera Theatre Ensemble spent two weeks over their winter break learning American Sign Language (ASL). Why would opera singers need to know ASL?

In a twist on the original production of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers, award-winning Director of Opera Studies and Associate Professor of Music Copeland Woodruff has incorporated a Deaf character into the production, resulting in an exploration of communities breakdowns when opposing sides work to understand each other and move forward together. Performers will utilize ASL, as well as Pidgin Signed English (PSE), throughout the performance.

“The use of ASL and PSE underscores the struggle to communicate, particularly between Deaf and hearing communications and within the Deaf community itself,” says Woodruff of his decision. “My inspiration was two-fold: the obvious metaphor of our current society, where people have a difficult time listening to one another, and the inclusion of community members who might not necessarily attend an opera.”

Woodruff has a track record of partnering with community groups to examine socially relevant issues through opera. Mass is no exception. He is working with local partners to explore options for community engagement and dialogue about the history of the Deaf community in the U.S. and the world, as well as Deaf language and culture. In tandem with the show, Lawrence students will take part in planned community engagement activities, including a performance of selections from of the opera at Appleton’s Edison Elementary, which serves both Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing students.

Members of the production team hope that the opera will reach roughly 2,000 people in the Fox Valley region.

“It is rare—even at the national level—for a signed opera to be produced and performed,” said Woodruff. “The majority of our area’s theater-going public would not ordinarily experience this type of performance. Mass will open dialogues about faith and inclusion to our community.”

Robert Schleifer, professional Deaf actor, Kristine Orkin, local interpreter for the Deaf, and two professional vocal/style specialists are participating in the production. Schleifer, along with Lawrence student performers, will sign most of the opera’s lyrics in real-time during the performance. Deaf audience members will also be able to read supertitles.

As a part of the world-wide celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday, Woodruff and the Lawrence University Opera Theatre Ensemble will collaborate with members of two local children’s choirs to reimagine Mass, which is structured like a Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass but mixes sacred and secular texts and music. The Celebrant leads the ceremony, and the Deaf character is the voice of the congregation challenging the Celebrant. They argue and search for answers to universal questions together—their diversity highlighted by an eclectic blend of blues, rock, gospel, folk, Broadway, jazz, hymnal, Middle Eastern dance, and orchestral music. Ultimately, they affirm the value of faith and hope for peace.

“Distinctive productions like Mass provide students with a rich educational opportunity to practice being a singer-actor, hone full-bodied communication skills, as well as develop appreciation and respect for the experience of others,” said Woodruff. “We hope that students will learn that the arts can be a powerful vehicle for personal and societal awareness and change.”

Erik Nordstrum ’19, who shares the main role of the Celebrant with Aria Minasian ’19, has learned a great deal about his personal beliefs throughout his work on the production.

“Through working on this piece, I realized that I have not been listening to other people, or to myself, as intently or as consistently as I would like to, and that so many human failures stem from a failure to communicate,” Nordstrum said.

“I’d say some of the most challenging things are also the most enjoyable,” adds Minasian.

“Learning about the Deaf community and applying it to the show has been awesome. I’ve also found challenges with figuring out how to be a female Celebrant in a Roman Catholic Church setting. This show has a lot to unpack and many different ways it can be presented and interpreted, leaving a lot to the performers and production team.”

Opera has been an integral part of the Lawrence voice program for almost 60 years, a centerpiece of the performance opportunities for voice students. Under Woodruff’s direction, Lawrence’s mainstage operas have received national awards, including Hydrogen Jukebox (2017) and The Beggar’s Opera (2016), which shared first prize for the American Prize in Opera Performance in the college/university division. Le comte Ory (2018) and The Beggar’s Opera also received first place from the National Opera Association; Hydrogen Jukebox received third place in the same competition. Woodruff was also named the 2018 recipient of the American Prize’s Charles Nelson Reilly Prize for stage direction.

The production is supported by grants from 91.1 The Avenue and the Jewelers Mutual Charitable Giving Fund and the Bright Idea Fund within the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region.

Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers will be performed February 14-17, 2019, in Stansbury Theatre on the Lawrence University campus. More information, including ticket information, can be found at go.lawrence.edu/massopera.

Copeland Woodruff wins national opera directing award, two LU productions also earn top honors

Copeland Woodruff
Copeland Woodruff

In baseball parlance, Lawrence University has swept a prestigious doubleheader in the annual American Prize Performing Arts competition.

Copeland Woodruff, director of opera studies and associate professor of music at Lawrence, has been named the 2018 recipient of the American Prize’s Charles Nelson Reilly Prize for stage direction. Selected from among 15 national semifinalists, he was honored for his work on Lawrence’s 2017 production of Philip Glass’ “Hydrogen Jukebox.”

American Prize hailed Copeland as “a champion of improvisation, musical and physical, in the operatic medium as a tool for education, creation and performance.”

Additionally, Lawrence’s opera productions “The Beggar’s Opera” and “Hydrogen Jukebox” shared first-place honors for the American Prize in Opera Performance in the college/university division.

Lawrence’s two productions were chosen from among 15 reviewed operas. Lawrence was competing against several institutions with graduate programs, including Yale University, University of Wisconsin-Madison. and Oklahoma State University.

Scene from the opera "The Beggar's Opera"
Lawrence’s 2016 production of “The Beggar’s Opera” tied for first-place honors with the college’s production of “Hydrogen Jukebox” in the American Prize in Opera Performance in the college/university division

In announcing Lawrence as this year’s performance winner, American Prize said “Recent productions have garnered national attention because of their well-crafted and dedicated musical and dramatic performances.”

Copeland said being honored as the first recipient of the newly-named Charles Nelson Reilly Prize was “daunting.”

“I admired Reilly as a child and met him in the early 1990s while I was on staff at Santa Fe Opera,” recalled Woodruff. “His acting classes were packed and like nothing I had ever seen before. To be mentioned with a man who lived his amazing life proudly and among many of the world’s great talents, is a blessing I never anticipated, but am over-the-moon about.”

Copeland credits Brian Pertl, dean of the Lawrence Conservatory of Music, who hired him in 2014 as the university’s first director of opera studies, for offering him “the chance to dream.”

“The Charles Nelson Reilly Award recognizes Copeland’s outstanding achievements as an artist, director, and educator. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this singular honor.”
— Brian Pertl, dean of the Lawrence Conservatory of Music

“Lawrence has been the epitome of environments to teach, learn, develop craft and struggle to tell difficult, funny, frightening, loving, messy human stories on stage,” said Woodruff.  “I have been a very lucky man to do what I love for a living and feel luckiest being able to work with unbelievably generous colleagues and students whom I also see as colleagues. Lawrence is fertile soil with dedicated gardeners. I’m humbled and inspired each day.”

Pertl called winning the American Prize for two separate opera productions “a rare and momentous occasion.”

“It speaks to the incredible strength of the Lawrence Opera program, our outstanding students and especially our world-class faculty,” said Pertl. “From the moment Copeland Woodruff walked through the doors of our conservatory, we all knew that he was a creative visionary who would build an opera studies program that would give our students the opportunity to receive not only exceptional opera training but also the opportunity to create art at the highest level.

“The Charles Nelson Reilly Award recognizes Copeland’s outstanding achievements as an artist, director and educator,” Pertl added. “I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this singular honor.”

Woodruff’s Reilly Prize honors the memory of Charles Nelson Reilly, the Tony Award-winning actor for his 1962 portrayal of Bud Frump in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” Broadway stage director, acclaimed opera director and acting teacher.

Woodruff joined the Lawrence faculty after spending six years as co-director of opera activities at the University of Memphis, where he earned four first-place National Opera Association Best Opera Production Awards. In addition to directing Lawrence’s annual main stage opera production, Woodruff has launched a series of “micro-operas” that examine socially relevant issues and are performed at non-traditional locales.

Lawrence’s production of Philip Glass’ “Hydrogen Jukebox” shared top honors for this year’s American Prize in Opera Performance, college/university division, along with Lawrence’s production of “The Beggar’s Opera.” in Opera Performance in the college/university division.

The American Prize honors are only the latest accolades for Woodruff. His 2016 mainstage production of “The Beggar’s Opera” was awarded first-place honors by the National Opera Association while his 2015 production of “The Tender Land” earned second-place honors in the NOA’s Best Opera Production competition. “The Beggar’s Opera” also was named “Best of Local Productions” from among 164 productions in both local and professional categories by WFRV-TV arts critic Warren Gerds.

Other awards during Copeland’s tenure include first-place honors for seven students in the 2015 Collegiate Opera Scenes competition held at the NOA’s national convention in Indianapolis, Ind., and his first two micro-operas — “Expressions of Acceptance” and “Straight from the Hip,” which addressed issues of gun presence/gun awareness in the community — earned third-place recognition in the NOA competition, competing against standard opera performances.

Founded in 2009 and based in Danbury, Conn., the American Prize is a series of non-profit national competitions in the performing arts providing cash awards, professional adjudication and regional, national and international recognition for the best recorded performances by ensembles and individuals each year in the United States at the professional, college/university, church, community and secondary school levels.

About Lawrence University
Founded in 1847, Lawrence University uniquely integrates a college of liberal arts and sciences with a nationally recognized conservatory of music, both devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. It was selected for inclusion in the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College.”  Engaged learning, the development of multiple interests and community outreach are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,500 students from nearly every state and more than 50 countries.