Published: March 24, 2009

World premiere: MSU Opera Theatre’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’

Contact(s): Kristen Parker Media Communications office: (517) 353-8942 cell: (517) 980-0709, Melanie Helton MSU Opera Theatre office: (517) 353-9126

EAST LANSING, Mich. — The opera “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” with music and words written by a Michigan State University doctoral student and a faculty member, will make its world premiere this week.


On March 27, the MSU Concert Auditorium will host the first production of the one-act opera, with the original creators, the original cast and the MSU Symphony Orchestra. The show begins at 8 p.m. in MSU's Concert Auditorium. Additional performances will be held at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 28 and at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 29.


“I believe this is the first time something like this has happened at MSU, where a doctoral composer will have an opera fully staged and performed,” said William Withem, a doctoral of musical arts degree candidate who will graduate from the MSU College of Music in May. “Opera is an almost unattainable goal for a composer, especially a living composer. So the rarity of this occurrence is amazing.”


Withem started composing the opera two years ago at the suggestion of Raphael Jimenez, associate director of orchestras at MSU. After re-reading Washington Irving’s story of the same name, Withem, a film fanatic, envisioned a cinematic, operatic interpretation of the story about the infamous headless horseman and the hopelessly-in-love Ichabod Crane. 


In stepped Melanie Helton, director of MSU’s Opera Theatre, to help tell the story. In her first libretto, Helton combined her words with Irving’s 19th-century dialogue to put a modern twist on the American classic.


Written in English, Helton and Withem said “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is the perfect introduction to opera. But at the same time, they said the opera’s strong cast of characters and rich score provide the classic elements traditional opera fans appreciate.


“Bill has a uniquely American voice. He draws upon an American idiom musically that is recognizable to the audience and yet it is his voice alone,” Helton said. “And the fact the story is uniquely American is a wonderful thing for us to do.”


But it didn’t come without challenges.


Jeromy Hunt, student set designer for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” said a contemporary opera – requiring quick, scene-by-scene storytelling – required contemporary thinking. So for the first time, MSU Opera Theatre will combine traditional lighting with digital scenery, which will create a cinematic feel on a shoestring budget.


“I hope the audience really feels like they’re moving through the woods, walking through the town, and that they’re part of the show,” said Hunt, a senior in James Madison College majoring in political theory, theater and music education.


After the world premiere with a full orchestra, Withem and Helton will create an outreach version of the opera, which will use a smaller group of instruments and singers. They hope opera companies will purchase the outreach piece to interest students in classic literature while also fostering an appreciation of opera.


“If youngsters become interested in music by watching the opera, or they want to be a singer or instrumentalist, then it will be really fulfilling for all of us,” Withem said.


Following the “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” another one-act opera, Puccini's “Gianni Schicchi,” will be performed. For more information about the performances, go here. For more information about MSU Opera Theatre, click here.




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Merrymakers enjoy the elaborate party hosted by the van Tassels, the richest family in Sleepy Hollow. Photo by Kathleen Adams.

Merrymakers enjoy the elaborate party hosted by the van Tassels, the richest family in Sleepy Hollow. Photo by Kathleen Adams.

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