The former students return home to play in “The light in the Piazza”


Blake McIver Ewing (left), UM Opera Theater production manager of “The Light in the Piazza,” reviews wardrobe options with lead roles Mary Donnelly Haskell and Emma Johnson, an Ole Miss senior. Ewing and Haskell, who starred in a 2009 production of “Piazza” in Los Angeles, strive to help student performers gain a glimpse into professional life through this production. Photo by Thomas Graning / Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Several University of Mississippi alumni returned to campus to bring their expertise, talent and advice to students by working with the Department of Music on the upcoming UM Opera Theater production of “The Light in the Piazza”.

Mary Donnelly Haskell and Calvin Ellis, both music education graduates, will star as parents to the two young stars, played by students Emma Johnson and Isaiah Traylor. Lacey Hindman, who earned a degree in vocal performance, is helping prepare several of her students for roles in production as a visiting faculty member this semester.

“The talent and generosity of these three musicians are exceptional,” said Nancy Maria Balach, professor and chair of music. “Most importantly, the example they set for our students and the mentorship they provide is of immeasurable benefit to the student experience. “

Professional actress and singer Mary Donnelly Haskell (right) shares her thoughts with Ole Miss senior Emma Johnson during a rehearsal for the Opera Theater production of “The Light in the Piazza”. Haskell, who received a degree in music education from UM, is one of several alumni who help mentor student performers and prepare them for careers in the field. Photo by Thomas Graning / Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

“The Light in the Piazza”, based on a short story by Mississippi author Elizabeth Spencer, follows the story of Margaret and Clara Johnson, a mother and daughter from the southern United States who travel to Florence in the 1950s. When Clara meets handsome young Italian Fabrizio Nacarelli, their instant connection forces their families to negotiate hope, love, and culture clash in unexpected ways.

A Broadway hit, the show won six Tony Awards, including Best Original Music and Best Orchestration, for its lush, complicated and melodious music and lyrics, written by composer Adam Guettel.

Singer and actress Haskell is reprising her role as Margaret Johnson, for which she was widely acclaimed in a 2009 Los Angeles production. Produced in the Music Department and an experienced professional performer, she understands the impact that such a production also has. important may have on student interpreters.

“While what Guettel has put on the page is complex and sophisticated music to perform, it resonates with audiences in a deep and powerful way,” she said, noting that it is even more transformative for the singers and musicians who perform it.

“It’s stimulating music, a reach for any singer,” Balach agreed. “It’s the kind of musical that makes you a better performer. The fact that our students can immerse themselves in this rich subject at this stage of their career is an incredible opportunity for them, and they are definitely up to the challenge.

Haskell said she appreciated the opportunity to work with students.

“I would like them to take from me an appreciation of how my years here at Ole Miss as a music major have prepared me on many levels for all the opportunities that were presented to me: singer, actress, artist. registration, ”she said. said: “It’s all part of the artistic journey. “

Former UM student Calvin Ellis (right) takes notes on his script during a first rehearsal of “The Light in the Piazza” as director Blake McIver Ewing (background) discusses a scene. Ellis, who plays Signor Nacarelli, says the return to a performance role helps him better prepare the choirs under his direction at a church in Memphis. Photo by Thomas Graning / Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Ellis, who plays Signor Nacarelli, took the opportunity to return to a performance role. The Associate Music Director of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis is preparing for a Masters in Choral Conducting at Ole Miss, but his main professional role is to prepare his choirs, so individual performance has taken a back seat.

“I gain a lot from this experience,” he says. “I used to do a lot of performances. It brings me joy to play in this way and to grow in this way as an artist.

“I hope students will remember the fact that sometimes in your professional career you will come across opportunities that will require you to jump in and move all in quickly. The professional side is that you prepare yourself, that you accept what you are given and that you put in the time necessary to contribute at a high level.

The character of Ellis is an Italian father who represents a dignified and prudent force in the life of his son Fabrizio, even as he watches Fabrizio fall in love with an unlikely young woman.

“If I were Italian I think I would be a bit like him,” Ellis said. “He is dignified in his demeanor, in his car and in his character. It’s very easy to access for me, character wise, and I love speaking full Italian, as well as English lines in Italian dialect.

“The students are fantastic. I am very impressed with their talent, their commitment and their professionalism, especially at this stage. It was fun to hear their gifts.

As the student cast members prepare for their roles, they are supported by the instructions they receive from their studio teachers. Hindman, a visiting faculty member this semester, is one of them.

Mary Donnelly Haskell (left), who plays Margaret Johnson, and Emma Johnson, as Clara Johnson, rehearse a scene from “Light in the Piazza”. Photo by Thomas Graning / Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

“Lacey is an extremely talented singer who has a knack for hard work and pedagogy, so she has been a tremendous addition to our faculty this semester,” said Balach. “His teaching definitely contributes to the success of many of our student cast members. “

Hindman said the training she received as an undergraduate student working with pianist and teacher Amanda Johnston, music director at UM Opera Theater, and her studio teacher, Balach, gave her the skills she needed.

“They also made it clear to me, from experience, that careful preparation makes an artist ready to take the stage,” she said. “So I work with my students on fundamental skills: breathing, expansion and even how to approach the practice in a careful and methodical way.

“It’s something that I really learned from my own opera experience. I like working with these students to prepare myself because I have been in their shoes.

Zoe Bofill, one of Hindman’s students, plays Dama Nacarelli. Hindman helped her build on her strong technical foundation and was helpful as a fellow soprano, Bofill said.

Pursuing her second bachelor’s degree in vocal performance, Bofield, of Huntsville, Ala., Said she also appreciates the chance to work with alumni in the cast.

“Working with Mary Haskell has been such a wonderful experience, and I really can’t say enough good things about her,” she said. “She’s absolutely full of wisdom, which she often shares with those of us who are fortunate enough to share the stage or the rehearsal room with her.

Mary Donnelly Haskell (left), Emma Johnson and Isaiah Traylor star in the upcoming opera theater production “Light in the Piazza”, which takes place in 1950s Florence. Photo by Logan Kirkland / Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

“She has this incredible stage presence that clearly marks the line between student and professional.”

Haskell noted that other professionals also add tremendous value to the production. Blake McIver Ewing, who starred the youngster alongside Haskell in the Los Angeles production, joined the music faculty as a guest artist for UM Opera Theater this semester and runs the show.

“It is such a joy to see Blake working with our students and sharing his wealth of knowledge not only regarding this particular piece of music, but also across the broader spectrum of our industry,” said Haskell. “He brings decades of experience across multiple disciplines right here on our campus so our students can learn on the job, and it’s really so exciting.”

For students, the impact of working with Ewing and former cast members goes beyond the example of a working artist and his professional career, Ellis said.

“It’s a great experience for the students to see an alumnus who loves Ole Miss giving it all back to college, and to see that you’ve never learned all you can learn, or achieved all you can. can do or grow up anything you can grow up to, “he said.

The performances of “Light in the Piazza” are scheduled at 7:30 p.m. on November 19 and at 3:00 p.m. on November 21 in the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are available at UM ticket office.

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