Collective makes opera accessible to masses

Philadelphia Opera Collective and alumni bring an American opera to Philly. After months of preparation, rehearsing and fundraising, cast members from the Philadelphia Opera Collective were finally able to see the fruits of their labor

Philadelphia Opera Collective and alumni bring an American opera to Philly.

After months of preparation, rehearsing and fundraising, cast members from the Philadelphia Opera Collective were finally able to see the fruits of their labor on Saturday as they devotedly gave life to “Susannah: an American Opera.”

The opera is  a part of the Philly Fringe Festival, which includes performances throughout the city by more than 200 artists. The festival emphasizes live performances of all sorts from dance, theater and music, to spoken word, comedy and improvisation.

JACOB COLON TTN. Robert Joubert (center) plays the role of preacher Olin Blitch in the Philadelphia Opera Collective’s performance of “Susannah: an American Opera.” The performances last Friday and Saturday were part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.

“I’m thrilled to have produced this opera in correspondence for Philly Fringe. The opera is great and it can already be classified as a ‘fringy opera,’” producer Michael A. Lienhard said.

Lienhard and Musical Director Reese Revak, both 24-year-old alumni of Boyer College of Music, brought a sense of relativity and creativity to the work of American composer Carlisle Floyd.

“I chose an American opera to break the language barrier,” Lienhard said. “A lot of people don’t realize how accessible opera is. Regardless of what language it is in, the plot points such as drunkenness and love are something we can universally relate to.”

“Susannah” focuses on an innocent girl who is objectified and labeled a sinner by the townspeople.  As the elders of the community were looking for a place to hold baptism, they spotted her naked, bathing in the creek by her house.  They try to pressure her into making a public confession of her wrongdoings in church, but she refuses, seeing that she has done nothing wrong.

Shelley Jackson plays Susannah in the opera and classifies the experience as rewarding.

“I’ve been involved with this opera since last April. I watched it transform from a seed of an idea to what the show is now,” she said. “I am very proud of the progress we made and the talent levels present here to make it such a great production.”

The opera was filled with heightened emotion, unexpected turning points and finely tuned piano accompaniment, which prepared the audience for what was to come next.

“It’s been one big exciting blur. I have a fair amount of experience with musical directing, but the best part of directing this opera is being true friends with everyone, and being able to develop such distinguished work,” Revak said.

Cast members broke the fourth wall as they moved around the aisles of Old First Reformed United Church of Christ’s sanctuary, where the opera was held, giving audience members a unique experience.

“This was my first opera and I am in complete awe of how great it was,” Christine Mehlbaum, an audience member said. “[I felt like] more than just an audience member – I felt like an extended cast member.”

The unique characteristic about “Susannah” is that the entire opera was composed by the Philadelphia Opera Collective – a group of “emerging professionals and young artists” all in their mid 20s. “Susannah” is also their first production, and since it’s not a full-scale opera, everything in the show was done solely by them.

“No one is getting paid to do this. We are just all dedicated individuals with a similar goal and desire for experience,” Lienhard said.

One of the actresses, Bethany Schoeneck who plays Ms. Gleaton, spoke about the struggles they had over the course of production.

“Nothing about this production – nothing – has been handed to us. We were working around a tight budget and we had no real production team. It was just us,” she said.

Despite the hardships, the group of 17 pushed to be more creative and more dedicated to making something big out of the limited resources they had.

The Philadelphia Opera Collective was formed by Lienhard and Revak who sought to provide an open space “for young artists, such as themselves, to be able to explore and expand what it is to be an opera singer.”

Two acts and 10 scenes later, “Susannah” came to a successful close. The audience showed their appreciation with cheers, long harmonious claps and a standing ovation for their favorite characters.

“The energy the cast members gave was unbelievable,” junior kinesiology major Enoh Okodiko said. From the cast-audience interaction, to the amazing singing and acting, their dedication to this production was self-evident.”

“Susannah” will be performed again on Sept. 10 at 8 p.m. on the corner of 4th and Race streets at the Old First Reformed United Church of Christ. General admission cost $15, and a discounted rate of $10 is available for students and seniors.

Shanell Simmons can be reached at

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