Student Writes, Directs Original Opera on Holocaust Theme

Spencer Reese '13 (SFA), left, gives direction to Ryan Parseghian '14 (SFA), during a dress rehearsal for his opera on Dec. 1. The production, a two-year honors project, premieres at Jorgensen on Dec. 7 and 8. (Ariel Dowski '14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)

Spencer Reese ’13 (SFA), left, gives direction to Ryan Parseghian ’14 (SFA), during a dress rehearsal for his opera on Dec. 1. The production, a two-year honors project, premieres at Jorgensen on Dec. 7 and 8. (Ariel Dowski ’14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)

With parents who were active in community theater, Spencer Reese ’13 (SFA) spent a lot of time as a youngster seeing plays and musicals before participating in them himself while in high school.

A voice performance major in the School of Fine Arts who is a University Scholar in the Honors Program, Reese will soon realize the completion of a two-year effort working on his honors project – the performance of his original opera “Always Hope,” which premieres on Dec. 7 and 8 at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Husky Headliners student series.

Noelle Currie '13 (SFA) and Ryan Parseghian '14 (SFA) act out a scene from 'Always Hope,' a work of historical fiction about the Holocaust. (Ariel Dowski '14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)

Noelle Currie ’13 (SFA) and Ryan Parseghian ’14 (SFA) act out a scene from ‘Always Hope,’ a work of historical fiction about the Holocaust. (Ariel Dowski ’14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)

“Always Hope” is a work of historical fiction about the Holocaust that highlights themes of perseverance and bravery within the setting of a poignant love story. Reese wrote and directed the opera, and also designed all of the costumes and the set.

“I had read some Holocaust literature and it struck a chord with me,” Reese says on his choice of subject for the opera. “It was something I had always been interested in and felt compassion for. I related to it on a compassionate human level.”

The story centers on a mother and daughter hiding from their Nazi pursuers and the postman who protects and cares for them. Reese researched the World War II era and the lives of Jews who were in hiding during that time to develop the details needed for the opera, with assistance from Charles Lansing, associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a specialist in 20th-century German and the Holocaust. His advisors for the project are Jeffrey McEvoy, assistant professor-in-residence of voice and opera and resident stage director of opera, and Constance Rock, associate professor of music and coordinator of vocal studies.

McEvoy, who serves as stage director for the Opera Program, says Reese shadowed him through the production of Robert Ward’s “The Crucible” as part of an independent study. Reese observed rehearsals, took notes, and the two met to clarify any questions he had.

Honors student and University Scholar Spencer Reese '13 (SFA) acts out a scene from his opera, 'Always Hope.' (Ariel Dowski '14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)

Honors student and University Scholar Spencer Reese ’13 (SFA) acts out a scene from his opera, ‘Always Hope.’ (Ariel Dowski ’14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)

McEvoy says it’s rare for an undergraduate to possess the foresight and talent to carry out the roles of producer, performer, composer, and designer. “I have not seen such an ambitious project by either an undergraduate or master’s student,” he says. He notes that graduate students generally spend time narrowing their field of study, and concentrate on excelling in a specific area, while undergraduate students are usually working toward grasping a basic knowledge of their art form: “Seldom does one find a young student that has talent to match his ambition.”

Reese relished the challenge of writing and directing an opera. “It’s been so eye-opening just to experience the whole process,” he says. “Being in an opera is one thing, because you just have an existing piece of material and you learn it. Creating it is a completely different process, because really anything goes. It was a world of possibility that I couldn’t imagine.”

Noelle Currie '13 (SFA), Ryan Parseghian '14 (SFA), center, and Charles Eaton '14 (SFA). Auditions were held last year, and rehearsals began this semester. (Ariel Dowski '14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)

Noelle Currie ’13 (SFA), Ryan Parseghian ’14 (SFA), center, and Charles Eaton ’14 (SFA). Auditions were held last year, and rehearsals began this semester. (Ariel Dowski ’14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)

Reese’s early life prepared him for the variety of skills he has needed to take on the task of creating an original opera. He started playing piano in third grade, later taking voice lessons. He learned about construction techniques from his father, who designed the home the Reese family lives in. In middle school, he learned how to sew in a home economics class.

The writing of “Always Hope” began two years ago and was completed in 2011, in time for the beginning of Reese’s third year of studies. A year ago, auditions were held for the various parts in the production and he began to work with some of the vocalists. He also worked with Kenneth Clark, piano instructor in the Department of Music, to complete some of the compositions this past summer. When the student cast members returned for the current academic year, intensive rehearsals began on a regular basis.

Noelle Currie '13 (SFA) and Charles Eaton '14 (SFA) act out a scene from 'Always Hope.' The opera is a tale of perseverance and bravery in the setting of a poignant love story. (Ariel Dowski '14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)

Noelle Currie ’13 (SFA) and Charles Eaton ’14 (SFA) act out a scene from ‘Always Hope.’ The opera is a tale of perseverance and bravery in the setting of a poignant love story. (Ariel Dowski ’14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)

Developing a major art form that has four acts and will take two and one-half hours to perform required an enormous commitment, Reese says. “It’s a sense of connection to the art that gives you a sense of personal and academic fulfillment. It sparks your imagination, creativity, and drive,” he says. “Since it is my University Scholar project, the purpose is to learn about fields you wouldn’t otherwise experience in a traditional undergraduate structure. My area of interest is opera direction and production. We never see all the elements that go into a production, so part of my goal was to experience the whole process.”

Reese hopes to continue his academic studies after graduation, with a long-term goal of pursuing a career in academia.

“Always Hope” will be performed Friday, Dec. 7, and Saturday, Dec. 8, at 7 p.m. at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts. The Husky Headliners student series continues in January with SurvivoRaas, a South Asian dance competition, on Jan. 26; UConn Surya, a 22-member South Asian student fusion dance club, on Feb. 15; and The UConn Rock Ensemble, on April 17. For information: www.jorgensen.uconn.edu.