Ethington Production Represents a Tale of Two GCU Sopranos
By Doug Carroll
GCU News Bureau
For those who think that there can’t be one good reason to go to the opera, the Music Department at Grand Canyon University is about to provide two.
They are Claire Penneau and Chelsey Minkler, and they’re seniors — which is virtually all that they have in common besides a shared role in the Ethington Theatre production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte,” opening a two-weekend run on Friday night.
Penneau, 39, is a single mother of children ages 16, 14 and 12 who underwent surgery a year ago for a pre-cancerous growth in her throat that had caused a blockage and compromised her ability to sing. She was in GCU’s mini-opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors” in 2011, and she studied overseas in the summer of 2012. The soprano role of Fiordiligi in “Cosi” is a bit of a stretch for her (she’s a mezzo-soprano ordinarily).
Minkler, 21, stands only 4-foot-11 but is blessed with a very big voice. She has designs on an opera career, and Dr. Sheila Corley, who knows about such things as a longtime vocal music instructor at GCU, says she has a good shot at one. Minkler was in last year’s mini-opera “Beauty and the Beast,” and Fiordiligi suits her considerable range — but is plenty challenging nonetheless.
“It’s extreme,” she says of the role’s demands on her voice.
On the opening weekend, Penneau will sing Fiordiligi on Friday and Sunday, with Minkler singing the role on Saturday. On the second weekend, they’ll switch. Either way, the role is well-covered by two of the finest female voices to come through the music program since its reinstatement in the fall of 2010.
Adding to the anticipation, Dean Claude Pensis of the College of Fine Arts and Production is directing the opera and has set the work — which will be sung in English — in the period of the late 1960s and early ’70s. The production, with a smashing set crafted by Assistant Dean Bill Symington and his technical assistant, Jeff Jann, will look like something out of an old TV Land sitcom: miniskirts and big hair, avocado and gold tones, wood paneling and thick carpeting, even a starburst wall clock. (Can you dig it?)
The story is simple enough. Over a bet, two young men disguise themselves to see if their fiancées, who are sisters, will remain faithful. A comedy spins wildly out of this, and Minkler says she enjoys the vibe of the production.
“It makes it so much more relatable,” she says of the interpretation. “It’s amazing. Some say, ‘Don’t mess with tradition,’ but I like how Claude does these things differently.”
However, Minkler and Penneau agree that the libretto (or text) is another matter. Both say it would be much easier to sing this in Italian, the language for which Mozart wrote the beautiful music of “Cosi.”
Mozart “sets pitches to a line with (Italian) vowels, and when you translate that, it can be quite difficult,” Penneau says. “The challenge is to sing something with good diction that wasn’t set in English.”
Although she prefers not to dwell on it, she compares what her voice has been through to a pianist having hand surgery. She is resilient, and that comes from where she has been in life.
“As a single parent, I couldn’t depend on anyone else,” says Penneau, who lives in Tempe and teaches music at Desert Marigold Charter School in Phoenix. “I hope in my teaching I’m modeling that you have to work hard for whatever you want. I have a lot of determination.
“I did things backward. It feels awkward at my age to be getting my B.A. (degree) — I feel like everybody’s mother here — but I have so much experience under my belt.”
Minkler, who was attracted to GCU from Scottsdale Community College by the opportunity to study under Corley, says she will enroll in a postgraduate music program as the next step in pursuing her dream. She, too, is abundantly determined, working at her craft for up to five hours a day.
“It’s a lot like being an athlete,” she says. “Your body is your instrument, and you go to practice every day. You depend on others on the team.
“You have to know why you’re doing this, because people will constantly critique you…. If you don’t want this to be both your hobby and your job, you’re probably not in the right program.”
Performances of “Cosi fan tutte” will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday for the next two weekends. For tickets, call the Ethington Theatre box office at 639.8880.
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.