During Smith’s January term, a night at the opera is offered. Students, faculty and staff lucky enough to sign-up early got to go see “La Boheme” at the Metropolitan Opera this year. I thought it would be interesting to see how Smith’s history and opera converge. Was I surprised!
In the late 1920s, professor of music, Werner Josten, began an experiment and produced a series of baroque operas by Monteverdi and Handel at Smith. The local community was ripe for such musical events. For years, the Academy of Music had been offering dramatic and musical performances on its stage. Critics from Boston, Albany, Springfield and New York would come to see a great number of performances by leading dramatic lights of the time, and a local community reperatory group, the Northampton Players, also staged plays for the enjoyment of Northampton and environs.
In 1926, Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppaea was performed on April 27 and 28, at the dedication of the new Sage Hall, the performance space of the Smith College department of music. This was the American premiere of Monteverdi’s work. The cast included Mrs. Werner Josten in the title role, and a professional tenor from New York City in the role of Nero. The secondary roles and members of the chorus were made up of Smith students, faculty, and townspeople. The orchestra that played was composed of Smith students and faculty members. The stage production was overseen by Samuel Eliot, Jr., professor of theater and the scenes were created by professor of art, Oliver Larkin.
Critics and audience alike acclaimed the production. In subsequent years, Josten brought to life the baroque operas of Handel including, Julius Caesar, Xerxes, Apollo and Daphne, and Rhodelina, and Monteverdi’s Ill Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, and Orfeo to the delight of the community. Larger productions were held on the stage of the Academy of Music, and Ill Combattimento was performed at the Metropolitan Opera House. By the end of the 1930s, the annual faculty opera performance ended.
Interest in composing and performing opera was not, however, abated. In 1959, professor of music and composer John Duke’s opera the Sire de Maltroit was performed, with Adrienne Auerswald, Class of 1943, and later professor of music at Smith, singing the lead female role. In 1967 Mozart’s Idomeneo was performed with faculty members as part of a symposium called “The Land of Crete.” In 1971 Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was performed. In both productions, the Smith College Glee Club, and the College Orchestra were major contributors.
In 1989 the opera The Yellow Wallpaper with music composed by Professor of music, Ron Perera, and libretto by Constance Congdon was premiered in May during Commencement Week. The opera was based on the life and work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In 1995, the same team brought to life John Updike’s novel S. For both productions, numerous Smith College faculty played important roles.
So, as you can see, there is a deep connection at Smith College with opera. There’s even more to discover in the files located in the Smith College Archives. Stop by and take a look!