‘First Night at the Opera/Edges’: Belting about theater, unrequited love and college

Jan. 26, 2024, 1:25 a.m.

The Department of Music will present “First Night at the Opera/Edges, a unique mash-up of opera and musical theater, at Dinkelspiel Auditorium from Friday to Saturday. 

“Edges” is a musical theater production written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, co-writers of the music of “La La Land” and “Dear Evan Hansen.” “First Night at the Opera” was written by Giancarlo Aquilanti, director of music theory and senior lecturer in the music department.

The production, which sees cast members embodying first-time opera-goers on stage, aims to bring cast and audience members together, according to lecturer Marie-Louise Catsalis. Catsalis directed the show alongside lecturer and vocalist Wendy Hillhouse, whose part in “First Night” marks one of the last performances before retirement from Stanford.

According to Aquilanti, “First Night” is a “light opera.”

“It’s not the usual heavy melodrama, where everyone gets killed or there’s blood, sex, love, you name it,” Aquilanti said. 

“First Night” is meant to portray “the excitement of people going to the opera, the fear that the singers have before the opera starts, the chaos outside the theater before the people get inside,” Aquilanti said, highlighting the production’s self-referential nature.

“My opera ends at the downbeat of the ‘real opera,’” Aquilanti said. 

Hence, “First Night” serves as a prelude to what many consider the main event: “Edges.” The musical features college-age characters discussing their experiences, making the production personal for the actors, according to Hillhouse.

“‘Edges’ is actually a song cycle, which you think of as a very classical genre,” Catsalis said. 

Catsalis describes the piece as a series of snapshots into the lives of people who are, in fact, the age of the cast members. 

“Where’s my life leading? What’s it like when I go to this party and I don’t know what to say? What’s it like to endure a breakup? Or, you know, how do I bounce back from that?” Catsalis said, referring to the emotions in the musical numbers. “Each of the cast members comes up and gives their own personal snapshot. In a way, it’s a perfect college piece.” 

Julia Yu M.A. ’24 spoke of her experience balancing opera and musical theater from a very young age.

“I think there’s mixed feelings in terms of ‘you can only be Broadway or only classical,’” Yu said. “But if you have fun doing it and you’re not hurting yourself, there’s a way to do what you want to do.”

In “First Night,” Yu portrays an audience member new to opera, a perfectionist stuck in an abusive relationship. A perfectionist in her own artistic pursuits, Yu said she could relate to her role in “Edges.”

“If I could just be perfect, if I can just do these things, I will get the approval of the audience,” Yu said. “But then I kind of realize at some point I need to do this for me, not for external validation.”

For Iskander Nekkaz Le Roux B.A. ’23 M.A. ’24, who portrays an energetic yet nervous composer, “First Night” is his first experiment with opera singing.

“[My character] feels like it’s all going to go wrong, and he’s on the verge of a mental breakdown,” Le Roux said. “It’s all so dramatic, and everyone’s hitting these high notes out of nowhere and freaking out.”

In “Edges,” Le Roux puts on a much darker and sadder tone, performing the penultimate song in the show as a heartbroken man reconciling with his unrequited love.

The cast also features first-time performers. Deven Bansal ’25 started studying singing in fall of 2022; they portray an anxious usher dealing with tickets and programs in “First Night.”

“It’s been challenging but fun to try and embody a haughty opera usher who is also a funny character to watch,” Bansal said.

Their role in “Edges” is also a lighthearted one. Bansal will perform a duet with Ecy King ’23 M.S. ’24, portraying two people with mutual crushes trying to tell each other “I love you” for the first time.

“All I need to do is really tap into my own mushiness and how I like to be with those I love while also throwing in some awkwardness!” Bansal said.

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