A Tale of Two Operas: Blair Stages Fall Operas at Opposite Ends of the Scale

The New York Times called soprano Ah Young Hong (above) “the opera’s blazing, lone star” in their review of On the Threshold of Winter. She will reprise the role at Vanderbilt.
The New York Times called soprano Ah Young Hong (above) “the opera’s blazing, lone star” in their review of “On the Threshold of Winter.” She will reprise the role at Vanderbilt. (Photo courtesy of Michael Hersch)


This fall the Blair School of Music presents two operas diametrically opposed in style, scale and staging.

On the Threshold of Winter, staged with a single singer, eight instrumentalists and a conductor, will be performed Oct. 30 for only the third time since its premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in June 2014. Created by American composer Michael Hersch, the one-person performance focuses on illness and death from cancer. Two weeks later, Nov. 13–15, Vanderbilt Opera Theatre will stage Mass by Leonard Bernstein, which was written in 1971 for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The massive cast will include nearly every Blair undergraduate, along with some of the school’s precollege students, as either vocalists or members of various choirs, orchestras or small ensembles.

The staging of the two operas in such close proximity was entirely a coincidence of scheduling, but one that will give audiences a wide musical experience. “I think the juxtaposition is wonderful,” says Mark Wait, Martha Rivers Ingram Dean of the Blair School of Music. “Having these two very different works performed so closely together vividly demonstrates the breadth of operatic music and drama in the past half-century.”


This is the third time during the past five years that Hersch has worked with the Blair School. On the Threshold of Winter, which was not commissioned by Blair, evokes what Hersch felt after losing a close friend to cancer while battling the disease himself. Its libretto is taken from the deathbed poems of Romanian writer Marin Sorescu.

“I’m very excited about what will happen at Blair,” Hersch says. “From the beginning I’ve imagined the visual elements of the production to be rather narrow and claustrophobic, constrained because the content is so psychologically and emotionally unrestrained. The production at Vanderbilt affords this.”

The Hersch opera will be produced without the original sets that included sculptures by Christopher Cairns [UPDATE: The production will now be fully staged with the orginal sets]. However, all but one of the original musicians—the Nunc Ensemble, led by artistic director and violinist Miranda Cuckson, conductor Tito Muñoz, and soprano Ah Young Hong, who carries the entire performance for two hours—will present the piece. Felix Wang, Blair professor of cello, will join the ensemble for this performance.

On the other end of the spectrum, the large statement—and large production—of Mass is what attracted Gayle Shay, associate professor of voice and director of Vanderbilt Opera Theatre.

“I’ve wanted to do Mass since I saw a production at Colorado Opera in Denver,” says Shay. “It was overwhelming. I’d call it one of my top five theatre experiences.” For years Shay had discussed the idea of staging Mass with Robin Fountain, professor of conducting and director of the Vanderbilt Orchestra, and Tucker Biddlecombe, associate professor of choral activities and choral director. But it wasn’t until recently that all the necessary pieces—everything from schedules lining up to finding the right cast members—came together.

When the full production takes shape, there will be 100 singers (20 from the Blair Children’s Chorale, the Mass choir of 60 voices, 18 street players and the leads), 30 instrumentalists on stage, 50 players in the pit, and enormous sets of percussion.

“It’s notable that Vanderbilt is doing this kind of programming,” Hersch says. “To be doing anything new involves risk, and the artistic world needs leaders who will take risks. That Vanderbilt invests real resources in the art of today is wonderful not only for the community, but for the health of the culture more broadly.”

See the official trailer for On the Threshold of Winter:


Watch a BBC Proms production of Bernstein’s Mass: