After weeks of rehearsals and countless hours of practicing, the Meadows Opera Ensemble performed the opera Alcina to nearly sold out crowds every night from February 8 through February 11. Centering around a sea witch, Alcina, who has transformed her past lovers into animals, the opera is a spectacle from start to finish, sung entirely in Italian. We were lucky enough to get to sit down with the women who shared the role of Alcina and get their perspective on performing in the opera, what they love about performing, and how they take care of themselves after weeks of non-stop rehearsals.
Sarah Ann Holt played Alcina on Thursday night and Saturday night. A first-year masters student in vocal performance, from Houston, Texas, she is a dynamo onstage. Meeting her in person, you wouldn’t believe such an incredible voice could come out of such a seemingly sweet and dainty woman, much less that she could play an evil seductress. But Holt put out a performance that wowed audiences. After years of music lessons starting in middle school, she attended Houston Baptist University for her undergraduate degree. Originally, she had intended to do marketing, but after auditioning for HBU and getting a scholarship, she chose to attend for vocal performance. Moving to Dallas for her masters has been quite a transition, being a student and working at the same time, but she says she’s “really gotten the hang of it.” She loves performing because she loves the giving of herself.
“Because I enjoy it so much, and I hope to give them what I feel,” says Holt. “I feel a strong responsibility to the character to portray their story.”
Alyssa Barnes performed the role of Alcina on Friday night and Sunday afternoon. Barnes is as intense in the opera as she is reserved and kind in person. The transformation from seeing her onstage to meeting her in person was like a full 180 rotation. She’s a powerful singer and a powerful actress, who had me rooting for Alcina even though she was supposed to be the villain. Barnes is a performance diploma student studying vocal performance, which is a lot like the master’s program, but without the academic requirements. She went to University of Texas for her undergraduate degree and did her masters at SMU. She’s been performing for a while, doing orchestra in high school, and in her junior year joining the choir. She chose to go to SMU for the master’s and the performance diploma for the professors, and because she wanted to get close to the faculty. She loves performing because she “loves the release of it.”
“You just pour out so much of your energy…” Barnes says. “All of a sudden you don’t have to question what you are doing. The less you question, the better your performance is going to be.”
The whole opera of Alcina is sung entirely in Italian, with subtitles projected above the stage for us non-fluent opera-goers. It’s an immersive experience—sometimes you get so into the singing that you forget to read along. We asked the ladies what it was like to sing in Italian, and apparently, it is not that easy. Opera singers learn to sing in different languages all the time, but a three-hour opera is an entirely different feat. Barnes says by now, after weeks of training, she is more used to it than before. The hardest part is “getting the lilt of the language,” she says, and making sure that she doesn’t put American stressors in her Italian singing. By now, she’s sung in English, Italian, German, French and Spanish, but she’s only done full operas in Italian and English.
“After you’ve sung it a million or so times,” Barnes says, “it feels like second nature.”
Holt said that the first step is knowing the words, then knowing what it means. Then she writes down the translation and writes it in her own words, so she can know what’s going on. After years of her performing background, she’s sung in English, French, German, Italian, Russian, Hebrew and Czech.
The process of auditioning for the opera was just as taxing as the opera itself. Students were given a list of arias for specific roles, and were able to audition for the opera director, Hank Hammett and Maestro Phillips. Any professor who might have wanted to come and watch was also invited. After a long while of working with them, they know each performer’s strengths and weaknesses, and it’s almost like a nice little check in to see how they are doing. They were given the arias two weeks in advance, and from there it was a rush to get them ready in time. Both women auditioned for the role of Alcina, and both were lucky enough to be cast.
What was it like to receive that casting?
“Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy,” Holt says. “It’s a big responsibility. There’s no going back. I just thought, this is it, put my best foot forward and I’m gonna just try to do my best…I just tried to learn my music, and do justice to who Alcina was.”
“I was thrilled when the list came out,” Barnes says. “I’ve only ever done sweet characters. This time I got to be someone who was morally not the best person. I was very excited to be a villain.”
Although auditions took place in the fall semester of 2018, rehearsals started the last two weeks of winter break. Opera students migrated back to SMU from all over the country, curtailing their winter breaks to spend long hours in the rehearsal studios, coming in while the sun was up and not leaving until the sun had set.
“You have to be present and involved the whole time,” Barnes says. “Hank was asking for a lot of depth in Alcina’s character. He wanted her to be this manipulative person, but a vulnerable person who needed to be loved.
“We were on Alcina’s island,’ Holt says. “It was immersive.”
Alcina’s island is a complicated place. Alcina is a sorceress who has her own island, and maintains her power by seizing and seducing anyone who is marooned there. Once she tires of them, she turns them into animals, waves or trees. One day, she happens to seduce the wrong person, Ruggiero, who has a fiancé at home, Bradamante. She loves him enough to come and rescue him. We meet the characters Morgana, Alcina’s sister who falls in love with Bradamante while she is disguised as a man, and Oronte, her suitor, who is jealous. We also meet Oberto, a little boy, played by a young woman, who is looking for his father who, unbeknownst to him, has been turned into a lion. Through the power of truth and love, Bradamante takes Ruggiero back from Alcina, and Alcina, who is devastated, kills herself, and the curse is lifted.
“At the beginning, Alcina is so beautiful. But because she loves Ruggiero, she is absolutely destroyed.” Holt says. “And little by little, she starts to take off these things, and by the very end we see, no, she’s human, she’s a woman.”
“It was a really fulfilling project,” Barnes says. “At the beginning, I saw her as this kind of evil manipulative person, but by the end, I really felt sorry for her. She wanted to be loved and adored to a very unhealthy extent. When she learned her lesson, it was too late. She lost everything.”
Both women had their own way of making the title character their own. It takes a lot to flesh out such a large role, and to make it believable, but both Holt and Barnes portrayed very nuanced and powerful versions of Alcina.
“I called her ‘Teal Beyoncé,’” says Barnes. “She’s intense. She has these larger than life moments, even when she is rolling around on the floor. But she wants what we all want. She wants acceptance.”
“She’s been really good to me,” Holt says. “She’s complex and gracious, but she gave me her emotions to portray… Sometimes, I felt like I was her. If I had a chance to play her again, there would still be more to discover about her. The hardest part is not being able to do it again. She is so complex that I want to do her justice. I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface.”
We asked them about how they get ready to deliver a three hour marathon of singing and acting. Holt drinks a lot of water, because the stage is really dry. Once she had her makeup done and her wig on she “walked backstage and tried to become her.” Barnes always tries to have some quiet and a chance to warmup for thirty minutes before she dons the wig and the makeup. “I have to know that I’m prepared,” she says. “If I’m not prepared then it’s really hard to start the show.”
The costumes were made by a woman named Melissa in the costuming department of Meadows. From the chorus members to the principals, each costume was more intricate than the last. She had larger than life ideas, especially for Alcina and Morgana. Holt’s favorite costume was Morgana’s, which she described as a “little cupcake.” Barnes loved the blue evening gown with the jewelry and the long blue wig.
After the opera is over, each of these women finally have a chance to decompress. Barnes says she “really tries to get back into a routine, because with the show you have to put some things on hold.” Now that it’s over, she can get a full night’s sleep, go to the gym and hang out with her friends.
Holt laughs and says “I got a haircut. I was finally able to do things that I wasn’t able to do while being her. It helped me realize that I’m just a person. I do person things, and that’s all I need.”