Life on Stage

story by ELIZABETH ROTH photo by EMMA BAYENS illustrations by BREE GRAVATTE

Wayne Pope, a professor of music at WKU, reclines in a rocking chair in the living room of his home. The rhythmic rocking of his chair stops as the conversation picks up. Pope’s biggest passions in life are his kids, his motorcycle and opera, and unless you want to get an earful, he said you shouldn’t ask about them.

Pope has traveled throughout the U.S., Bulgaria, Italy, England and Israel as a performer and director of opera for over 20 years, accruing credits and connecting with people around the world.

For the last five decades, WKU has produced collaborative efforts between the department of music and the department of theater and dance featuring WKU students in full costume on brightly lit and expertly designed sets. Each performance gives students the chance to experience the professional capabilities of a full theatrical production, Pope said.

Pope recalled a particular show where the stage in Van Meter Hall was transformed into a brownstone street in New York City. Sooty bricks and gaping windows filled the stage, the product of painters and carpenters that worked with the sound technicians and costume designers to bring the set to life. Pope said the realistic design is something he treasures in all theater, but especially opera.

Pope was not always involved in opera. Up until his freshman and sophomore years in college, he had no interest in operatic arias, which are musical pieces meant for one voice unaccompanied by instruments that are typically a part of a larger piece of work. Pope instead wanted to continue his education in country, rock or jazz.

Pope performed in bands and choirs throughout his life but never realized how much he loved it until he was no longer in high school.

“Initially I didn’t think much of it. When I found out I could go to college and major in music, I literally said, ‘I’ll do anything but that opera stuff,’” Pope said.

He discovered, however, that opera combined communication and acting with music. He said that when he first started performing in operas, his feet almost didn’t touch the ground.

Pope hadn’t realized, prior to this discovery, that a performance as emotional as opera existed; he did not realize that one performer, in the time of only one song could capture the attention of thousands by conveying so much emotion and meaning.

The average person may not think about opera very much, Pope said, but instead might just see it as somebody singing really loudly on stage.

To Pope, opera is like a frame by frame of human life. Sometimes the impact opera can have is bigger than one’s life, and in this way, opera gave Pope an opportunity to be a part of something outside of himself.

It took time for Pope to adapt to opera. It takes years of dedicated study to understand the pedagogy and technique behind singing in new languages and learning how to maintain a healthy voice, Pope said.

“One of the things was that I couldn’t just do it automatically,” Pope said. “I really had to work and had to learn new languages and new ways to sing, and then I just fell in love with that challenge and started hearing, in that, all the things that I loved.”

Eventually, after years of teaching himself, Pope learned the intricacies of opera, and he now applies those lessons to his teaching career.

Autumn Stolle, a junior from Owensboro and one of Pope’s students, got involved in opera and music for the artistic expression it provides and for the effort that she can put into improving her vocal technique. Taking theater classes has given her the freedom to explore and develop her artistic and technical capabilities, and she can now perform with a lot of emotion, Stolle said.

“I fell in love with opera when I realized I had a reason to be dedicated to something.”

– Autumn Stolle

Conveying a lot of emotion in a performance is difficult because of the delicate balance between the vocal techniques involved in opera and the emotional performance, Stolle said.

Equally as difficult is mastering the pronunciation of new words. Learning to sing in Italian, French and German, the languages Stolle focuses on for her undergraduate study in opera comes with a huge learning curve, she said.

Opera is extremely technically involved, Pope said. An opera singer must project their voice energetically in order to keep the audience involved, all while still keeping a strong vibrato that reaches even the back of the biggest theater without the help of microphones. Pope compared opera to an athletic event because of the respiratory work it demands.

Stolle said that Pope has a name for when a student is too focused on their vocal technique: singer face.

“Sometimes he’ll say, ‘Stop,’ because I’m sacrificing my technique to have all this emotion and that’s hindering me,” Stolle said. “So it’s really hard to find that perfect balance.”

When teaching students to sing opera, Pope said the technique is mastered before the performance, but the emotional effort of the performance comes before anything. There are layers of learning.

“I like investing time into something that I can see progress in. It’s not on a day-to-day basis, but over time I started realizing that I’m really getting better,” Stolle said.

Owensboro junior performs at her junior opera concert, "Lamentation, Longing, and Love" on March 6.

When he was first beginning his work as an operatist, Pope was of a one track mind and anxious when it came to performing for the first time as an undergraduate student. He didn’t feel like he could devote his time to anything else until he got his songs down perfectly. He was given advice from a classmate: “If you know your songs, what do you have to worry about?”

He illustrated his point further with his motorcycle, one of his other loves besides opera. He said some people are uncomfortable when he first asks them to ride with him.

“But I’m comfortable because I have studied, and I have prepared, and I have executed, and so we do that in the study of music,” Pope said.

Pope has had a long and rewarding career in opera despite his initial hesitancy, and now he has many years of experience keeping an audience engaged in a production.

He was invited to audition for a role in the Nashville Opera’s production of “Otello,” an Italian opera based on Shakespeare’s “Othello.” Pope was joined by his wife and daughter in the production and had a great family experience, he said.

Additionally, Pope was once contacted by a former mentor to sing in a production of “The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp,” which premiered in South Carolina. He then traveled to Italy and eventually Bulgaria. Pope said he enjoyed meeting musicians from the Bulgarian symphony and chorus, taking walks on the chilly banks of the Black Sea and eating the wonderful food.

As a director, Pope has experienced both sides of the opera stage. He knows what it is like to sing to an auditorium full of people, and how to direct those singers so the audience stays interested.

“Opera theater, in the broad sense, is much more engaging than you’d ever expect,” Pope said. “And there’s a lot to watch, a lot to learn and see and listen to.”

Even if you don’t understand the language being sung in, Pope said that the music speaks for itself.

“Music can carry it. Period. One hears everything you need to know in the music,” Pope said.

Liza Kelly, director of opera theater activities at WKU, works heavily on technique with student vocalists. 

It’s an equal balance of keeping yourself healthy to maintain technique and being able to communicate emotion to the audience so you can connect to them, Kelly said. 

The emotion of each piece and the art that the performer puts into each performance surpasses the need for lyrical context, Pope said. Like listening to a beautiful violin, the emotion is going to come through, regardless of whether or not you know the words, he said.

“Do I want to be technically perfect or do I want to grab the audience by the face with emotion?” 

– Liza Kelly

The creative world, Kelly said, begins to influence technique. As her experience grew as an artist and performer, she was able to branch out and experiment with the meaning of the songs beyond the musical score.

Kelly said that, while it is important to sing exactly what is on the page, one has to look beyond the page and into the meaning of the words to truly understand the feeling that the piece requires. 

Kelly has developed her own technique for working with students, training them to utilize their voices to the best of their ability. 

“You have to have a number of people that are outside eyes and ears to be able to guide you in developing your technique, especially because we are vocalists,” Kelly said. “We can’t touch our instrument. We can’t see it, and we need to be very in tune with differences in feeling.”

Opera is more than the people who perform it. It is an amalgamation of all of the people over hundreds of years who have written and performed these pieces, Pope said. 

“Opera is not working with a product, one that’s stuck in the past as a museum artifact, but it’s something that we bring from the past and put into present context for present day audiences,” Kelly said.

For this reason, Kelly said it is important for opera to evolve.

“The variance that you can find amongst these characters and their situations is infinite because you’re still dealing with humans dealing with other humans and their human drama. And that will never die,” Kelly said. 

 During his time performing in Bulgaria, Pope found that music was a universal human experience.

“Opera as an art form has existed for hundreds of years with or without me, and I expect that it will continue,” Pope said. “Because all art as we know it in the long run is about the human experience, and imitating what we do in life on the stage. I think we will continue to need that, as humans, to see other humans doing superhuman things in the arts. That’s where I think the art form will continue, in the human aspect.”