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Phantom of the Opera coming to U of M
Cast and crew prepare for the February performances of The Phantom of the Opera. (Top) U of M student Meghan Miller (left) holds fabric onto a dress form as Janice Benning Lacek (right), U of M assistant professor of costume design and technology, pins the fabric in place. (Bottom) U of M students Amanda Boyd (left) and Christina Hernandez (right) rehearse vocals for the character Christine Daaé with Jacob Allen, assistant professor of music.
Cast and crew prepare for the February performances of The Phantom of the Opera. (Top) U of M student Meghan Miller (left) holds fabric onto a dress form as Janice Benning Lacek (right), U of M assistant professor of costume design and technology, pins the fabric in place. (Bottom) U of M students Amanda Boyd (left) and Christina Hernandez (right) rehearse vocals for the character Christine Daaé with Jacob Allen, assistant professor of music.

As the organ blasts the first piercing note of the overture, the University of Memphis will continue to make history in a milestone year. The University will present the Mid-South’s first amateur production of The Phantom of the Opera in February 2012 as part of its centennial celebration.

This custom-made performance features only U of M students and faculty on and off stage.

“I want this to be a home-grown U of M production,” says director Bob Hetherington, Phantom director and chair of the Department of Theatre & Dance.

Hetherington opened casting to U of M students, finding 30 actors for all but the title position. Copeland Woodruff, co-director of U of M Opera Activities, was cast as the lead of the Phantom. Amanda Boyd, a vocal performance graduate student, and Christina Hernandez, junior musical theatre major, will split the lead female role of Christine Daaé. The more than 100 backstage crew members are also all students.

The production is a collaboration of the Department of Theatre & Dance and the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music. The pair work together for performances every two years, but this is their largest project ever, Hetherington says.

Getting the rights to Phantom wasn’t easy for Hetherington. After a year of contacting R&H Theatricals and three months of “wearing them down,” the U of M was given permission to stage the seven-time Tony Award-winning show.

Previously, the production was off-limits to any amateur theatre. Now only colleges and high schools are allowed to perform Phantom.

This is not the first time the Theatre & Dance department led the theatrical forefront. In 1970, the University was the first place outside of New York City to do a production of Hair.

Based on a 1910 gothic novel, The Phantom of the Opera follows the story of a masked man living beneath the stage of the Paris Opera House.

In the musical, the ghostly man, known as the Phantom, torments the cast and crew of the opera house. After years of tutoring Christine, a singer from the opera’s chorus, the Phantom falls in love with her. Intended as an act of love, he demands she be cast as the lead in all shows. Instead, Christine falls in love with another man, an action that enrages the Phantom. The breadth of his anger is unlike anything Christine has ever witnessed.

The production’s magnitude spans from the number of cast and crew to the enormity of the sets and number of costumes.

Mirroring Broadway standards, the role of Christine is double-cast so the actresses have vocal rest between performances. Songs require a more than two octave broader vocal range than most sopranos sing. An actress risks straining vocal cords if she sings in every performance.

The grand sets are both majestic in design and size. Students will create everything from the opera boxes on the sides of the stage to the magnificent staircase of Act II. These areas require large spaces in the wings and backstage. To fit everything, all sets will be switched from the scene shop at intermission.

For the chandelier, one of the most famous elements of the show, the U of M will rent a replica from ZFX Flying Effects, a company that specializes in flying effects that have been used in Peter Pan The Musical and The Wizard of Oz productions.

The 31 actors require more than 160 costumes. About 85 percent of the costumes will be rented due to time constraints. Fabric and supplies for the remaining garments were purchased from warehouses in New York City and local shops. These outfits will either be created by the U of M costume shop or outsourced on a made-to-order basis.

The principal actors began preparing immediately after casting in September.

Woodruff practices the entire score for his role of Phantom daily. The 50 minutes it takes to sing every line helps him vocally understand the marathon nature of the show.

“You have to pace yourself,” Woodruff says. “You have to know when you can give full voice, when you need to hold back, when you can finesse things and when you can’t. You need to know when you can pause and take a breath.”

Practicing music isn’t the only place Amanda Boyd will focus her energy. Rehearsals and performances are in the height of flu season and Boyd doesn’t want to catch something from a classmate.

“It’s just so important because laryngitis is the death of us,” Boyd says. “We lose the role, we lose the part, we lose everything if you can’t sing. It’s going to be very important that I drink a lot of water, that I eat really healthy, that I’m exercising and that I’m preparing my body for the grueling amount of rehearsals and performances and the energy that those performances will demand.”

Since casting for Phantom was more than four months before the performances, lead actors have had extra time to acquaint themselves with the music.

“We have a really serious advantage,” Christina Hernandez says. “At least for me, I have time now to get this music memorized before we even start. I feel really good about the amount of time that we have to get ready.”

This momentous performance is one not to miss.

“If you are not moved out of your seats, to tears or some kind of emotion through the power of this music that Andrew Lloyd Webber has composed, then you are dead and you should check for a pulse because it is truly stunning,” says Boyd.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the first performances of the Webber musical at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Webber also composed Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and Cats.

Tickets for the limited performances will go on sale Jan. 30 at
the Department of Theatre & Dance Box Office for $30 for seniors, faculty and staff. Students get one free ticket by showing their ID as long as tickets are available. All other tickets are $35 each. The Phantom of the Operaat the Mainstage Theatre runs Feb. 16-19 and Feb. 22-25.

— by Laura Fenton

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