Beginnings Of A Dream
Situated on the bluffs overlooking the muddy Mississippi River, Memphis was destined to become a fertile musical delta. With a diverse population, traditions like the blues, jazz, and country music flowed together like tributaries, merging to form rock and roll in the 50s and Memphis soul in the 60s and 70s. Like the ever-changing course of the mighty river, new styles and sounds evolve there naturally, etching new grooves into a rich sonic landscape. It was in this fertile basin that A Midsummer Night’s Dream — opera a cappella came to fruition. The passion and finesse of classical opera, the vernacular phrasing of musical theater, and the organic voicing of contemporary a cappella conjoin and produce a unique and powerful fusion of traditions.
Michael Ching had been writing and producing opera for fifteen years in Memphis when Jay Mednikow approached him about becoming a coach for DeltaCappella, the contemporary a cappella group he founded in 2007. “Their devotion to detail and their joy of singing was palpable and infectious. There was something jaw-droppingly giddy about the whole enterprise. With no reeds, no mouthpieces, no strings, no sticks, the variety of sounds they were capable of making was virtually unlimited. By the end of my first rehearsal with them I was hooked and eager to apply this new sonic palette to opera.”
Shortly before working with DeltaCappella, Mr. Ching conducted Marcus Hummon’s Surrender Road at Nashville Opera. The production combined a variety of famous Shakespeare texts. Ching decided to try his own adaptation of The Bard, noting “with its potential for three sonic worlds inhabited by the Athenians, the fairies, the rude mechanicals, A Midsummer Night’s Dream seemed a perfect vehicle for exploring a colorful prism of a cappella styles.”
Considering Britten’s and Mendelssohn’s powerful compositions, adapting Midsummer might be considered a little daunting. Ching’s response: “Respectfully, I chose to ignore their efforts, and instead forged ahead using Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess as my model, with its blend of classical and popular styles.”
To produce the stylistic blend of Ching’s new Midsummer, Opera Memphis joined forces with Playhouse on the Square and DeltaCappella. Because DeltaCappella was an all-male vocal band, female singers were auditioned over a year in advance of the stage production in order to form Riva, an all women’s a cappella group. The long gestation of vocal melding allowed the women to create the blend that is so critical to contemporary a cappella. Most of the singers who portrayed characters onstage had opera or musical theater backgrounds. In contrast, the “Voicestra” (a term coined by Jean Mathews, DeltaCappella’s executive director) and the mechanicals were composed of contemporary a cappella singers more accustomed to a repertoire of popular music.
Conductor Curt Tucker admitted “My initial reaction to Michael’s ambitious and frankly, unheard of mix of voicing for the opera was, ‘Can we really bring all of this together?’” It was a triple-sized challenge to take three different vocal orientations and meld them into one unified performance.” Eighteen performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream over a four-weekend span in the 300-seat Playhouse on the Square Theatre in Memphis quelled conductor Curt Tucker’s preproduction jittery concerns.
“The entire process was fascinating and I loved it from the first moment to the end. I was thrilled to be part of a piece that was so clearly groundbreaking. There was a remarkable energy of discovery and excitement that came directly from the singers as they played off of each other’s voices.”
The multi-organizational and multi-musical collaboration of Ching’s Midsummer personifies the Memphis ethos. The long, winding river that rolls through Memphis is wide and deep enough to lift and carry the blues, country, gospel, rap, and rock and roll. And now, an a cappella opera.