British one-act operas bring varied emotions to the University Center for the Arts in April

We caught up with the director of CSU’s Ralph Opera Program, Tiffany Blake, to find out more about the upcoming presentation of two highly contrasting one-act operas by British composers, The Wandering Scholar by Gustav Holst and Riders to the Sea by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The composers were dear friends and both operas premiered in the 1930s.

According to Blake, The Wandering Scholar is a very cheeky comedy in which the person who’s throwing a wrench into a love triangle is actually a priest. “There’s a little bit of controversy there I guess,” says Blake about the story, “but it’s all played out in a very comedic way.”

The Wandering Scholar, set in a 13th-century farmhouse in France, involves Louis and his wife, Alison, the town priest, Phillippe, who seems to want more than he should from dear Alison, and a poor wandering scholar, Pierre, who uncovers the conspiracy with the priest.

Dana Kinney headshot
CSU alumna Dana Kinney

For the first piece, Blake brought in alumna Dana Kinney as a guest director. Kinney, who graduated from CSU with a Master of Music in vocal performance in 2015, has served on the directing and production staffs at The Dallas Opera, Syracuse Opera, Opera Steamboat and Opera Fort Collins.

As a student, Kinney directed opera scenes and a one-act opera. “I wanted to get her involved because she is a really great director who will give our students a different perspective,” says Blake. The production also features guest artist Trevor Halder in the role of the priest.

Riders to the Sea, a one-act opera from a play by J.M. Synge, is a study of contrasts and moods. The opera is a very heavy tragedy that shares the plight of the inhabitants of the Aran Islands off the coast of Donegal, Ireland. “They are trying to just survive the elements, and the elements always win,” says Blake, shaking her head over the misfortune this creates for the family.

For the technical theatre side of the production, the Ralph Opera Program collaborated with the director of CSU Theatre, Price Johnston, on two sets of exciting projections for the pieces. The costume designers, faculty member Elise Kulovany with junior theatre major Jeff Taylor serving as assistant, and lighting designer Lachlan Fordyce, a junior theatre major, were also instrumental. They helped transform the Griffin Concert Hall stage between the pieces, considering the distinct attitudes and feelings as they used color and light to display the varied emotions. “It’s interesting to see the space where we utilize the exact same set and how it is transformed by those elements of projection, lighting, and costumes to show the contrast between the two pieces,” says Blake.

The School of Music, Theatre, and Dance’s opera orchestra, conducted by Wes Kenney, rounds out the presentation, deftly handling the different scores. According to Blake, The Wandering Scholar has a thinner texture orchestrally, with each instrument taking on a more solo-style role. Conversely, Riders to the Sea has a thicker texture, as the singing evokes the cadence and feel of spoken language.

For Blake, Riders to the Sea is not lyrical and melodic in the way audiences expect an opera to be. “It really does feel like you’re watching a straight play and like you’re listening to speech,” she explains. “Then there are moments of heightened emotion, and that’s when it becomes more lyrical and full-bodied in the singing.” Throughout the piece, the composer uses the orchestra to characterize the sea, the story’s antagonist. “It is really dramatic but really very touching and moving,” Blake says tenderly. “It’s a tragedy, but it’s really a beautiful way to end the evening.”

The Wandering Scholar by Gustav Holst and Riders to the Sea by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Directed by Tiffany Blake, Conducted by Wes Kenney
April 4, 5 and 6 at 7:30 p.m., and April 7 at 2 p.m., Griffin Concert Hall, UCA
Tickets available at or at the door one hour before curtain. The cost is $10/general public and no charge for CSU students with I.D.