The University of Utah began a celebration of Italy's greatest opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi, in November 2011.
Back then, the School of Music and the Department of Languages and Literature celebrated the 1861 unification of the modern Italian Republic with a 150th-anniversary concert featuring works of Verdi, who also was one of unification's foremost advocates.
Friday and Saturday, the University Lyric Opera Ensemble and Utah Philharmonia will present Verdi's final and most innovative opera, "Falstaff." The opera is considered complex, even for professional companies, so it is an especially ambitious undertaking for a college program.
With two performances by different casts, the production showcases just how far the U.'s opera program has evolved, said Robert Breault, the university's director of opera. "Three or four years ago, we wouldn't have been able to do this."
The production also is noteworthy for the professionals who have stepped in to help.
• Steven Condy, an internationally acclaimed Falstaff, will perform alongside the students. • Michael Scarola, who has served on the directing staffs of the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera, is co-director.• Utah Opera is helping with props, hair and makeup design, set design, costumes and staff.
The inclusion of the professionals ensures that the production will be top quality.
"This is a big boy's opera," said Scarola, who has collaborated with Lyric Opera Ensemble on productions such as Monteverdi's "The Coronation of Poppea." "Very few colleges attempt this. … This is not a typical college piece."
Condy, who has performed with opera companies throughout North America and recently made his European opera debut, will perform the title role of Falstaff, a character who can only be described as a fat drunken knight. Condy, director of Opera Workshop at Cairn University, performed the role with Utah Opera two years ago.
During a recent visit to the set, Condy raved about the U. production and capabilities of the students, who primarily hail from the school's graduate programs.
"They are very advanced to be able to undertake this piece," he said. "It is very much an ensemble piece, which is great for students, as well as very challenging."
Condy said Shakespeare's rich characters give the opera complexity and depth. He noted that Verdi was nearly 80 when he wrote the opera, more than a half-century after his first opera.
And it isn't just the singers who hail "Falstaff" as a milestone of opera. Conductor Arturo Toscanini, upon hearing "Falstaff" for the first time, sent Verdi a short but ecstatic note: "Grazie. Grazie. Grazie."
The students in the U. program come from Utah as well as the East Coast and the Midwest, drawn by the ascending reputation of the program.
When Breault arrived at the U. in 1992, the Lyric Opera Ensemble was a nine-member class. Today, it has grown into a top-tier auditioned group of 35 to 40 singers, assisted by experienced veterans such as Jeffrey Price, music director for the Lyric Opera, and Robert Baldwin, music director of the Salt Lake Symphony.
"We do not have to apologize for this production," Scarola said. "We won't have to say, 'That was good for a college production.' "
A knight at the operaThe University Lyric Opera Ensemble and Utah Philharmonia perform Verdi's final opera, "Falstaff."When • Friday and Saturday, 7:30Where • Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle, Salt Lake CityTickets • $20; $10 non-U. students; U. students and children under 18 freeParking • Free parking is available at the Merrill Engineering lot with shuttle service to and from the theater