Opera 'Herring' seems ideal for WSU students

Benjamin Britten's "Albert Herring" would practically seem to be written for a college ensemble like Wichita State University's Opera Theatre.

It calls for a small cast of just 13 singers, so undergraduate and graduate students alike have plenty to sing. The opera unfolds in many ensemble numbers, so vocal parts are fairly equal.

Its fictional English village of Loxford is populated with familiar comic characters, so each in the cast can stand out. And the opera's coming-of-age story — about a timid young man, Albert Herring, who learns to stand up for himself (with the help of some spiked lemonade) —is both touching and riotously funny, a sure hit for both opera and musical comedy fans.

"Albert Herring" will play WSU's Wilner Auditorium Thursday through Oct. 24. (That's another reason the opera is a good fit for WSU — Britten scored it for an orchestra of only 12 instruments, about the number that can comfortably fit into the small pit at Wilner while Miller Concert Hall undergoes renovations.)

"The roles in the show are challenging for young singers but also very rewarding," said Marie Allyn King, director of the WSU Opera and Musical Theater program. "They are really loving it because each of them feels like a star. It is very unusual to have a piece that is so generous in terms of stage time for every person."

English composer Britten wrote "Albert Herring" in 1947 with librettist Eric Crozier. Its use of small cast and reduced orchestra was due in part to financial restraints imposed by the moribund post-war English economy.

The opera's characters are deftly drawn — the aristocratic Lady Billows (to be portrayed by WSU voice professor Deborah Baxter, her gossipy maid, the uptight mayor, a by-the-book policeman, a long-winded vicar and a prim schoolmarm.

"The townspeople are very, very amusing because they are so eccentric," King said.

This ensemble provides the chattering backdrop for the romance between Sid and Nancy and the memorable May Festival celebration that changes Albert forever.

The spirit of individuality is also felt in the chamber orchestra conducted by Mark Laycock, where virtuoso solo melodies meld together in a jaunty, rhythmic ensemble.

The lyrics of "Albert Herring" are in English; projected titles will help listeners untangle the words of the many ensembles and follow Britten's happy story.

"You cannot help but be swept away with the sonic world of Britten's operas," King said. "They are thrilling musically; they are so wonderfully entwined into their plot structure that they are perfect musical theater pieces."

If you go

'albert herring'

What: Opera by Benjamin Britten performed by Wichita State University's Opera Theatre

Where: Wilner Auditorium, WSU campus

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Oct. 24

How much: Admission is $16, discounts available. For more information, call 316-978-3233.