Gayle Shay joined the Blair School of Music faculty in 1998 with a directive from Dean Mark Wait to make opera an important part of the vocal program. In her role as associate professor of voice and director of the Vanderbilt Opera Theatre, Shay has helped to do just that.
Open by audition to all Vanderbilt students, the Opera Theatre presents up to two productions annually, in the fall and spring semesters. Productions are fully staged and costumed, with orchestra. Past productions have crossed the musical divide to embrace fine and light opera, as well as musical theatre. Audiences have enjoyed such shows as The Magic Flute, Gianni Schicchi, The Pirates of Penzance, The Fantasticks, and A Little Night Music in past seasons and in November will see the Opera Theatre’s production of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene.
“The primary goal of the Opera Theatre is to give students the opportunity to use their vocal skills,” explains Shay. “So I always pick shows with students in the vocal program in mind—but I don’t pre-cast because you can always be surprised in auditions.” This year, Shay notes, the voice department has 40 students, making it easy to fill the large cast requirements of Street Scene. “It’s a great show for young singers, and we need a lot of them for this show.”
Street Scene, based on Elmer Rice’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, features lyrics by Rice and the great American poet Langston Hughes. The Weill score is a hybrid of European opera and musical theatre, says Shay. “Weill called it an ‘American opera,’ and he really wanted to write an opera that was very much of the time and the place.” Set in Depression-era New York City, the opera tells a tale of love, jealousy, and a youthful desire to break with the past that’s universal and timeless. “It also has fabulous music and lots of dialogue with underscoring,” says Shay. “The costumes and set evoke an Edward Hopper look and mood.”
Shay—who holds a B.A. from Luther College (Iowa), a master of music degree from the University of Maryland, and a doctorate in music arts from the University of Colorado at Boulder—is herself an accomplished performer and guest director in musical theater, opera and oratorio at venues around the country. Despite her own successful career, Shay sees a value to the study of singing that goes far beyond performing or teaching.
“The training we give students at Blair will prepare them to leave here and serve their community—be it as a singer or a doctor or a teacher or a CEO,” says Shay. “When students have pursued something as personal as singing—and the voice is an expression of personality—they will have had, if they’ve been paying attention, an opportunity to understand themselves in a way that no other course of study provides. As Leonard Bernstein once said, ‘It’s the artists of the world, the feelers and the thinkers, who will ultimately save us, who can articulate, educate, defy, insist, sing and shout the big dreams.’”