College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences

PORTopera Production of “La Boheme” Highlights USM Community Connection

PORTLAND, Maine – The performances have ended, and the reviews were unanimous – PORTopera’s “La Boheme” was “boffo.”

What few audience members might realize, though, is the number of students, faculty and alumni from the University of Southern Maine who helped make the stunning and innovative once-a-year production so successful.

In an unusual symbiotic relationship, more than 52 USM community members affiliated with the university’s School of Music and Department of Theatre -- ranging from chorus master and production manager to numerous chorus and orchestra members to technical crew -- took part in the three July performances at Merrill Auditorium. Approximately 40 USM members supported the musical side of the production, while at least 12 took part in the theatre production and acting side of the performances.

“Since PORTopera’s inception 20 years ago, USM faculty, staff and students have played a vital role in the company’s success,” said Dona D. Vaughn, PORTopera’s artistic director. “We have counted on their professionalism in the pit, their high artistic standards on stage and their skills as production craftsmen and designers behind the scenes. We are grateful for this association and look forward to its continuation.”

While the USM relationship provides an important resource to PORTopera, and to other regional theatrical organizations in general, the annual, high-quality production gives USM students an exceptional training experience, according to officials with USM’s College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.

“The USM involvement with PORTopera's production of ‘La Boheme’ is an excellent example of why USM is such a great place to study music and such a great resource to the cultural community of Maine,” said Alan Kaschub, USM School of Music director, who also played trumpet in the opera’s orchestra. “Our students involved in this production gained excellent, real-world experience and worked with seasoned professionals to help learn their craft.  PORTopera benefitted by having a group of well-trained, talented, young musicians to sing in the chorus and to sing small roles 

“This kind of synergy happens more often than most people know,” he said.

Calling PORTopera a “100-percent professional organization,” Ellen Chickering, USM professor of Voice and long-time PORTopera Advisory Board member, noted that the USM participants get a unique experience through such a quality organization.

“We’re educating and training our students to be professionals,” she said. “Through PORTopera, our students get to be with professionals on stage. They get to watch them and learn from them. They get to perform with and get to know artists personally. They get to know what it’s really like to be a professional. … It’s one level higher than we can educationally provide.”

“It’s a valuable experience for our students,” agreed Shannon Zura, USM assistant professor of Theatre, who served as production manager for the three presentations. “PORTopera is one of the few companies in Portland working at this high level of performance.”

Once a year, PORTopera puts on a major, full-scale operatic production. For this season’s performance, several Metropolitan Opera singers filled leading roles, and Israel Gursky, a rising young conductor who has collaborated frequently with tenor Placido Domingo, conducted the 50-member orchestra.

Chickering pointed out that the opera production had 20 USM students and alumni involved in the chorus, with students in four smaller roles for which they had solo parts and “an identity.” They included Jesse Wakeman of Belfast as Parpignol; Josh Miller of Lamoine as Customs House Official; Christopher Climo of Portland as Sergeant; and Aaren Rivard of South China as A Hawker.

All the performers had to audition for the chorus and roles and received a small stipend, she said. In addition, Robert Russell, USM professor of Music, served as chorus master. Sarah Bailey, a USM alumna, was children’s chorus master. The orchestra included 13 USM faculty and alumni, the voice professor said. Robert Lehman, USM associate professor and director of String Studies and Orchestral Activities, played the violin and was concertmaster for the orchestra.

“We have a huge presence with PORTopera,” Chickering said. “The more qualified local people you have, the easier it is to put on productions.”

On the theatre side, Zura, in her fourth year as PORTopera production manager, was joined by Perry Fertig, USM technical director, also in his fourth year, and Joan Mather, USM assistant professor of theatre, who worked on the production’s wardrobe team. Other USM students and graduates worked on the technical crew, costumes and wardrobe, carpentry and scenery. Zura said a number of USM alumni also were part of the union stage crew.

Dalton Kimball, a USM theatre major from Benton, had a non-singing, non-speaking acting role as a waiter who had to catch the character, Musetta, when she fainted on stage. He also was a light-board operator, Zura said 

“He certainly did double-duty,” she said.

The following is a partial list of students who participated in the PORTopera production of “La Boheme”:

Musical Production
Cathryn Mathews, North Berwick, chorus;

James Brown, Scarborough, chorus;

Eileen Hanley, Peaks Island, chorus;

Sable Strout, Richmond, chorus;

Joshua Witham, Norway, chorus;

Matthew LaBerge, South Portland, chorus;

Earl Vogel, Eliot, chorus;

Derek Herzer, Portland, chorus rehearsal pianist;

Sarah Mawn, Lakeville, Mass., supertitle operator;

Theatrical Production

James Futter, Brookfield, Conn., assistant technical director;

Emily Waller, Auburn, assistant props master and carpenter;

Tom Campbell, Cape Elizabeth, carpenter;

Angelica Pendleton, Gorham, scenic painter;

Clare Mckelway, Belgrade Lakes, wardrobe crew. 

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