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Students, faculty premiere opera written by alumna

Published: April 16 2014

Category: Spotlights

During her years as a master’s of fine arts student at the University of Florida, Stella Sung never thought she would one day compose an opera.

“While I thought of myself as a musician heading toward a career as a pianist, what I learned [at UF] was that you should not limit yourself to what you think you are or can become,” said Sung, director of the Center for Research and Education in Arts, Technology and Entertainment and a professor at the University of Central Florida.

From this lesson, “The Red Silk Thread: An Epic Tale of Marco Polo” was born.

Sung, a Gainesville native, began crafting the story in December 2011 and chose her alma mater to premiere her work. The fully staged opera, which will make its world premiere April 17 at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and performed again April 19, will send audience members on a journey with the daring Italian traveler Marco Polo and the irresistible young Chinese Princess Cocachin to an age when jealousy, war and ancient loyalties vie with love and destiny. Fierce pirate battles on imperial Chinese junks, betrayals and intrigue in the corrupt court of the Great Kublai Khan create an exciting tale for all to enjoy.

While UF has been producing operas for more than 30 years, “The Red Silk Thread” is the first original composition to have its world premiere at UF.

During a typical season, the students in UF’s Opera Theatre program, led by Anthony Offerle, perform standard repertoire operas, such as Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

To make “The Red Silk Thread” as memorable as possible, Sung enlisted the help of New York-based stage director Beth Greenberg; accomplished librettist Ernest Hilbert; tenor Matt Morgan as Marco Polo; soprano Hein Jung as Princess Cocachin; the UF Symphony Orchestra, led by maestro Raymond Chobaz; and the UF Concert Choir, led by Will Kesling; for a total of more than 200 performers, musicians and production staff.

In addition to world-class theater, “The Red Silk Thread” is bringing innovative technology to Gainesville and offering unique educational experiences for students.

Ninjaneer Studios, an Orlando-based animation company, has created virtual sets, animation and images using 3-D projection mapping.

“The digital set allows us to create effects and other animations that would not be possible otherwise,” Sung said.

More than 900 students from surrounding K-12 schools will enjoy a special school performance on April 18. Many will experience an opera for the first time as they learn about world cultures, Asian and European history, creative writing and literature.

UF theater, dance and music students will benefit, too. Of the main cast of 40, nearly all are current UF students and faculty.

“With this new work, there are no recordings or videos where [students] can fall back on a historical performance precedents,” Offerle said. “The characters and musical choices our young singers develop will be a first.”

Between the training and direction provided by the UF Opera Theatre program and real-world advice from theater professionals, the students will have more than enough preparation to put on performances of a lifetime.

“I’m excited to see the audience’s reaction to our performance,” said Erick Crow, who portrays Prince Ghazan and serves as Marco Polo’s understudy. “There are so many elements to this production — music, history, technology — there really is something for everyone.”

-By Chloe Weber

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