Youth workshop brings live opera to Hennessy Theatre Stage

Wednesday, June 18, 2014
students and teache during opera camp

It’s “tech week” in the Hennessy Theatre for the music majors and local singers participating in the UNH Youth Opera Pilot Program at the University of New Hampshire

It all started at SYMS. It was 1989, and Melissa Manseau ’96 had just finished her freshman year at Chatham High School on Cape Cod. A singer, she came to Durham for the Summer Youth Music School at UNH and sat in on Kathleen Wilson Spillane’s opera workshop. It was the first of three summers Manseau would spend at SYMS and the beginning of a career in music that has taken her to New York, Florida, Europe, and back to UNH.

“Once you learn how to sing well, you can sing musical theatre, choral, opera, anything,” says Manseau.

Her own specialty is opera. After that first summer at SYMS, Manseau returned home to find that a regional opera singer had settled down on the Cape and was starting an opera workshop at a performing arts center in the town next to hers.

She got involved. Later, she earned a bachelor of arts in music education at UNH. Today, with a master’s degree in vocal performance and a résumé rife with experience and accolades, she has returned to the halls that helped shape her; she’s a lecturer in the UNH Department of Theatre and Dance, where she teaches voice to musical theatre majors.

Manseau knows what it takes for success. She was a top 10 finalist at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in Boston in 2000, and she placed in the Antonin Dvorak International Opera Competition in 1999. She has performed with Opera North, Sarasota Opera, Cape Cod Opera, Salt Marsh Opera, and Opera by the Bay, among other companies. She brings all of those experiences to her studio classroom at the UNH Paul Creative Arts Center.

Manseau describes her teaching method as physical.

“It involves compressing air, making space, and lowering your larynx. These are the three pillars that help with range, belting, projection, and vocal health,” she says.

It’s not her first teaching role. For a dozen years, between gigs and productions, Manseau has been coaching private voice students and running the popular Youth Opera Workshop in Dover, New Hampshire—a six-week intensive that gives singers opera training and experience.

This year, she brought the workshop to the UNH campus as the UNH Youth Opera Pilot Program. For the last six weeks, 15 singers have been working with Manseau to add opera skills to their budding repertoire. This weekend, they’ll take the Hennessy Theatre stage to perform scenes from some of the most beloved operas of all time, including La Traviata, Carmen, Pirates of Penzance, Cosi fan tutte, La Boheme, and Die Fledermaus.

The performers include a 12 year old and a tenor who is known in the area as “mini Pavarotti,” as well as three current UNH students. Manseau says the UNH students—music and musical theatre majors—are smart to take part.

“It makes them more marketable,” she says. “Opera experience is attractive to theatre companies that are looking to diversify their offerings, and most opera companies are producing at least one musical or operetta each year in order to meet the demands and preferences of their audiences, so crossover experience is important.”

Manseau sees the pilot as a seed that could be nurtured and grown not only to provide students with crossover opportunities but also to keep live opera alive and well, because, as she puts it, “People really need to go see live opera. It’s phenomenal what the human body and voice can do.”

Performances are on Friday, June 20, at 7 p.m., Saturday, June 21, at 7 p.m., and Sunday, June 22, at 2 p.m. in the UNH Hennessy Theatre. Tickets are $8 and can be purchased online or at the PCAC Box Office in the Johnson Theatre lobby in the Paul Creative Arts Center, one hour prior to curtain. Directions & Parking

Photo by Jamie Clavet.