The Daily Gamecock

Preview: Opera at USC to present French comedy opera 'La belle Hélène'

“Opera at USC” performers in the French comedy opera “La belle Hélène” rehearse ahead of the production’s opening night on Feb. 25, 2022.
“Opera at USC” performers in the French comedy opera “La belle Hélène” rehearse ahead of the production’s opening night on Feb. 25, 2022.

The French-sung opera "La belle Hélène," despite being challenged by COVID-19 safety requirements, will premiere this Friday and be performed by the University of South Carolina's "Opera at USC." 

The show will be performed at Drayton Hall from Feb. 25 through Feb. 27. On Friday and Saturday, the show will start at 7:30 p.m. On Sunday, it will start at 3 p.m. 

The director of "La belle Hélène" is Ellen Schlaefer, who also serves as the Director of Opera Studies and Musical Theatre at USC.  The opera’s cast consists of undergraduate and graduate students who have been working on the show since the fall semester. 

"La belle Hélène" is a 19th-century comic opera that parodies the story of Greek mythology's Hélène and her marriage — the event that ignited the Trojan War.

Schlaefer has been involved in theatre ever since she was a four-year-old, and "La belle Hélène" is one of dozens of productions she has directed. 

Schlaefer said the inspiration for performing this opera was to put on a production connected to Greek mythology with a theme of lightheartedness, which, according to her, is something that we need more of in today’s society. 

"I wanted something that would give a lot of people an opportunity to perform," Schlaefer said. "I also tried to pick repertoire that will not only expand our students' knowledge of music and music history and all that stuff, but just world knowledge."

Though the cast is looking forward to performing the production, they experienced challenges from COVID-19 protocols during the lead-up to opening night.

Socially distanced seating and masks are required for audiences. The cast will also be joining the viewers in wearing masks during performances in accordance with USC's COVID-19 policies, according to Schlaefer. 

James Allen, a second-year graduate vocal performance student, is starring as Paris, which he said is the most technically difficult role he has portrayed.

"I realized, especially in this show, that body language is so important, because so much is told from your mouth," Allen said on adapting to performing with masks. 

Another obstacle for the cast was having to sing in a foreign language. Owen Connolly, a second-year vocal performance student, will be playing Achilles. He said singing quickly in French has been tough but gratifying.

"It's a lot of fast singing as well, the tempo is really fast," Conolly said. "So it's hard to get all that French out. It has been difficult, but it's a fun challenge."

The role of the female lead, Hélène, is double-casted, meaning it will be played by two people. Payton Parker, a first-year graduate opera theater student and Meredith Howell, a first-year graduate music student will be sharing the role. Parker said she bonded well with the cast and is glad to have a "big support system," especially now that she lives a state away from her family.

"(The cast members) made me feel really confident about myself, and they were always very uplifting if they could tell I was struggling with something or just beating myself up," Parker said. "I've felt very supported throughout this entire process."

The cast and team behind the production encouraged all USC students to see "La belle Hélène," regardless of their experience with opera. Allen said not having seen an opera before should not be a barrier in coming to see this opera. He said the story of the Trojan War is well known to most and that this production conveys the story in a light-hearted manner that is accessible for all to enjoy. 

Parker said she believed the opera has relatable content for college students, as it highlights themes such as love, curiosity and exploration. Students attending the production will be listening to the songs in French, but audience members should not be deterred — English subtitles will supplement the singing. 

Schlaefer said she wants USC students to come out and give this production a chance. 

"I want them to taste it, that's all," Schlaefer said. "Don't have to like it, just try it."


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