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UConn senior writes and directs opera about the Holocaust

By Joe O'Leary
On December 3, 2012

  • Marykate Hubbard, left, plays Marion Becker, and Noelle Currie, right, as Margaret Becker in ‘Always Hope.’. Photo courtesy of Spencer Reese

When 7th-semester University Scholar Spencer Reese was at an all-state choir concert during his sophomore year of high school, his conductor spoke to the choir before their performance. The words largely escape Reese now, but four of them struck a chord with him: "There is always hope."
About six years later, those four words have become "Always Hope," an opera written and directed by Reese, premiering December 7 and 8 at 7 p.m. at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts' Husky Headliners Series. The Headliners debut Tuesday night with a performance by the UConn Dance Company at Jorgensen at 7:30 p.m.
 "Always Hope" is a piece of historical fiction set during the Holocaust, with themes of bravery and perseverance held within a love story. It follows Marion and Margaret Becker, a Jewish mother and daughter, hiding underground in Berlin to avoid Nazi exile. Margaret manages to stay in touch with friends thanks to a Christian postman's help and finds love in a world of hate.
"It's based on the actual time and actual place, but not real people or events," Reese said. "It engages with the history of that time period to explore bigger themes, like bravery, hope and perseverance."
"With messages of enduring hope, unconditional love and unbounded courage, 'Always Hope' is undeniably relevant to even the most modern of audiences," said a synopsis given by the opera production staff.
Reese spent the last two years writing the score and libretto, or dialogue for the opera, as well as designing and directing the production.
"Throughout my high school career, that sentence really spun itself into this piece of fiction in my head... by the end of my high school career, I had decided I would turn it into a stage work," Reese said.
"Once I got here, I'm in the Honors program here, and I learned about the University Scholar program, I decided that would be the perfect opportunity for me to write it and direct it." By the end of his senior year in high school, Reese had completed the story but didn't start writing until during his sophomore year, when he "committed to doing the project."
The summer between his sophomore and junior years, Reese wrote the entire first draft of the score and libretto, casting it and editing the score for the cast in his junior year. With three grants, he was able to work full-time on the entire production this summer, with design elements done before this semester began, and rehearsals with the cast of six and crew of five ran this entire semester.
Reese wanted to use his University Scholar project, the opera, as an opportunity to explore all levels of opera production but also showcase UConn's Music Department undergraduate students. The opera features a cast of UConn students, who Reese called "phenomenally talented;" seniors Noelle Currie and Mary Kate Hubbard play Margaret and Marion, while other characters are played by senior Charles Eaton III, junior Ryan Parseghian, sophomore Kathleen Cummings and Reese himself. Junior Christina Quental accompanies on the piano.
As for how Reese hopes his opera is received? Reese hopes the overarching themes leave the audience with "faith in the goodness of humanity," though he warns it is "rather tragic."
"I think the characters are complex enough that each person will take something different from it on a personal level, but overall, I hope we leave the audience with a sense of optimism."
The Husky Headliners kick off Tuesday at Jorgensen when the more than two-dozen members of the UConn Dance Company perform ten member-choreographed dance numbers in their annual fall showcase, according to a Jorgensen press release, guest-performing with Latino music and dance group BAILE, a cappella singers The Conn-Men and the UConn Break Dance Club, with a portion of the $5 student, $10 general admission tickets going toward HuskyTHON.
Saturday, Jan. 26 of Spring Semester 2013 brings SurvivoRaas, a competition in Raas and Garba, traditional northern India dance former, featuring eight college teams from across the United States. Dancers will be tested on their skills as parts of other teams and on their own, donating some ticket sales to Asha for Education.
Friday, Feb. 15 will bring UConn Surya to Jorgensen with South Asian fusion dance, blending East and West, mixing classical dance and beats with a modern edge, while the UConn Rock Ensemble will conclude Husky Headliners Wednesday, April 17 with an arrangement of rock classics including "Dream On" by Aerosmith and "Everybody Talks" by Neon Trees.
Tickets cost $5 for university staff and students, and $10 for general admission, except for SurvivoRaas, whose tickets will cost $10 for students and $15 for the public. They can be purchased in advance online at Jorgensen's website, at their box office or through their phone, or at the door the evening of the performances.

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