COFAP brings beloved ‘Little Women’ to Ethington
Story by Janie Magruder
Photos by Darryl Webb
Hanna Dowell has four sisters, three with whom she sings and acts every afternoon on the stage of Ethington Theatre at Grand Canyon University, and one who lives 5,700 miles away in Germany.
Dowell, who will play Beth March in the College of Fine Arts and Production’s performances of “Little Women: An Opera in Two Acts” this weekend and next, sees her bio sister, Amanda, once a year or so. Rehearsing her part as the beloved third sister in the classic Louisa May Alcott story has made Dowell, 21, even more homesick for her younger sibling.
“’Little Women’ has so many different aspects of being a sister — the rivalries, the love, the fact that, sometimes, your sisters are the closest friends you have — and all this has made me miss my sister. But being on stage is making me feel kind of like they are my sisters,” said the junior vocal performance major and newcomer to acting.
They are GCU students Rebekah Hughes (eldest sister Meg), Andrea Hall (second sister Jo), and Caroline Turnage (baby sister Amy). The foursome will join a dozen other students in Ethington’s annual opera, which opens Friday with a six-performance run ending Sunday, Oct. 19 (tickets, free for students and $5-$12 for general audiences, are available here).
Dowell, from the German college town of Tübingen, always has loved to sing, and although she learned to play piano at a young age, she never studied music until arriving at GCU. But she’s no stranger to opera, having seen at least 10 productions while growing up (her favorite is anything by German composer Richard Wagner).
“I’m so lucky to be in an opera with some of my really close friends, and everyone has been so supportive,” she said, referring to her cast mates and the COFAP faculty, “Little Women” director Michael Kary, music director and COFAP assistant dean Dr. Juan Hernandez, longtime voice instructor Sheila Corley and pianist Mark Fearey.
Alcott’s beloved novel, which is about change and letting go of the past, was transferred to the opera stage by American composer Mark Adamo. The music was published in 1998, and the opera has been produced around the world dozens of times.
Kary said “Little Women” is an ideal work for GCU’s students and audiences.
“It’s both a classical piece of literature and it’s in a contemporary setting, which is what we do best,” he said. “Our operas are always selected in conjunction with the Music Department and based on the roles that are good for growing our students.”
“‘Little Women'” is challenging rhythmically and tonally, and the acting requirements are formidable, too, Kary noted. But it’s nothing the cast, which boasts several veterans, including Gavin Ely (Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence) and Hall, can’t handle.
“We look to put the goals ahead of our students’ abilities going in to it, and this is a perfect example of doing that,” Kary said.
He recognizes that the word “opera” evokes immediate reactions in most everyone — positive, negative or indifferent. “Having opera on campus adds to the whole liberal arts experience at GCU,” he said. “The overwhelming response I get from students to opera is, ‘I had no idea.’”
And, he added, “We’re banking on the power of Mark Adamo’s music to overcome the preconceived notion people have about opera.”
Hall, 20, is no stranger to the art form, having grown up with classical voice training starting at age 12. The junior vocal performance major also is comfortable on stage and has had roles in Ethington’s “Comedy on the Bridge” (October 2012), “H.M.S. Pinafore” (April 2013) and “Cosi fan tutte” (November 2013).
Compared to other parts Hall has played, Jo has more depth and complex thoughts. Hall has enjoyed getting to know her better, partly by watching the original “Little Women,” filmed in 1949.
“She is afraid to grow up, and she never wants to let her family go,” Hall said. “She thinks family endures forever, but by the end she understands that people grow up, people get married, people go through changes and, eventually, people die.
“She learns to live in the moment, to let people in, that that’s what brings you joy, and that (to quote a final line in the opera), “Now is all there is.”
Contact Janie Magruder at 602-639-8018 or [email protected].
Performances of “Little Women: An Opera in Two Acts” 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 855-428-9888, email [email protected] or click here.