Every four years, Northwestern Heritage Singers put on an opera. They invite community members and students to come and listen to a unique music experience. Early in the summer, Thomas Holm, the ensemble’s director, chose Gianni Schicci for the group to perform.
Schicci’s opera is based in Florence, Italy in the 1800s. In the midst of this beautiful city lives the Donati family, a well-off group of family members mourning the passing of the head of their family, Buoso Donati. Their mourning is exaggerated because of expectations of being amply consoled by what is in Buoso’s will.
However, Betto de Signa, one of the eldest members of the family has heard some horrible rumors that Buoso left all of his money to the friars of the local monastery. Panicked, the family abandons their mourning and tears apart the house in search of the will.
Once it is found, the relatives realize in horror that the rumors are true, and they are left with absolutely nothing. Consumed with greed and the terror of being left destitute, the family frets over how to rearrange their circumstances. Young Rinuccio, in love with Gianni Schicci’s daughter Loretta, forces his family to turn reluctantly to the help of Schicchi, a commoner, to execute one of his famous cons in order for them to cheat their fate.
From 1916–1917, Giacomo Puccini selected Gianni Schicchi as the third installment of his Trittico or triptych: a series of hour-long opera buffas. Gianni Schicci is based on Canto XXX of Dante’s Inferno.
“It had so much about it that was really attractive,” Holm said. “It has a great story line and great character development and exposure so as the opera goes on you become more attached to certain characters.”
The process of learning an opera is time consuming.
“One of the reservations I had was that Pucchini’s writing is at a professional level,” Holm said. “Some of the main roles are pretty extensive — the part of Schicchi in particular. This was a steep mountain to climb.”
The ensemble started rehearsals at the beginning of the school year. It has devoted two hours every Friday to learning the opera. Since the end of Christmas break, rehearsals have increased to three hours several times a week. Not only was the music challenging, but incorporating acting into the story was also time consuming. However, NW music students took it in stride.
“I liked adding in the acting to the singing,” said Drew Lemke, a member of the chorus. “Moving around makes it new kind of experience, as opposed to standing still on risers. It’s also fun to singing in an opera voice as opposed to a classical or pop voice.”
The cast consists of the family members, and a twelve-member chorus. Holm brought in theater professor April Hubbard to help stage the chorus and provide expertise on acting. The chorus took on roles as “spirits” providing support for singing and for becoming moving furniture and props. This way the entire ensemble could participate.
The opera is sung in English and provides several important lessons.
“Gianni Schicchi is a comedy, but it’s not farcical,” Holm said. “It deals mostly with class bigotry, with emphasis on the young lovers extending their love beyond that. The students love it, and I think the audience will love it as well.”
Performances are on Friday, Jan. 23 and Saturday, Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m. in the Proscenium Theater. Tickets are free for students and available by reservation through NW’s box office.