"Beautiful things happen to these young singers' voices when they sing Handel," said Anne Basinski. The way certain "colors emerge" is special.
Her voice students at the University of Montana will have such a chance next weekend in a production of the Baroque composer's opera, "Julius Caesar."
They'll animate a story of historical figures, Caesar and Cleopatra, falling in love in the midst of power struggles between the Romans and Egyptians.
It will come to life with a campus-community collaboration. Every other year since 2002, the UM Opera Theater and Symphony Orchestra have collaborated on a production with Missoula Community Theatre.
"We supply the performers, they supply the physical elements that surround them," Basinski said. That includes their stage, costume, set and prop designers, and technical expertise such as lighting.
Previous collaborations "The Gondoliers" (2016) and "The Legend of Orpheus" (2014) won awards from the National Opera Association.
Selecting a piece can be an "intricate process," said Basinski, a UM voice professor who's directing the show. Firstly, the students are young and the opera must be suited to their experience level, a "piece that they can accomplish and show them well is probably the primary concern." That's also a consideration for students in the UM Symphony Orchestra, led by Luis Millan.
This work includes options to "ornament and decorate." Largely, the show is written with more solos than ensemble pieces, with only a few duos and trios. The solos are written in a three-section form, A-B-A. After singing the A section and the contrasting B, the return to the A can elaborate on it by adding high notes, trills or other flourishes that show the voice, she said.
While the original was written in Italian, this production will be sung in English translation. It's more immediate for the audience, and also a consideration for students.
The production includes 18 students, ranging from freshmen in their first major opera role to graduate students in their final semester. For the younger students, memorizing their parts and learning them on a technical level is already "a tall order" in English, much less a new language. The opera comprises an hourlong first act and an 80-minute second act.
Ideas about gender and casting have evolved significantly since the 1700s, which will be noticeable on stage.
Several of the roles were traditionally sung by castrati, male singers who were castrated as boys so their voices wouldn't deepen.
For UM's production, they cast several female singers in key roles, such as Caesar (Marin Sewell) and Sesto (double-cast as Annmarie Ori and Ally Randolph). Caesar calls for a mezzo-soprano and Sesto a soprano.
Handel wrote his music with a specific range in mind that would be too altered to cast a male Caesar with, say, a baritone. Some productions will use a counter-tenor with a falsetto, but the program didn't have a student on hand.
Basinski said the production had some challenges, coming at a time when society is re-examining its treatment of women.
Ancient times had their own power dynamics. Cleopatra uses her beauty to win Caesar over. She's treated roughly by her rival Pompey, and tied up. Another character, Cornelia, is harassed and abused by other characters.
In staging it, Basinski said they've had to treat the scenes like "fight choreography," making sure everything is planned out and none of the cast are surprised by the content.