As Omer Ben-Seadia talks about directing Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, the final production in the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM)’s opera series, she alternates between the calm assurance you’d expect from a seasoned theater professional and the wide-eyed delight of a first-timer in charge of a main stage production. “To actually do the thing you’re supposed to be doing is such a great adventure,” she says.
It’s been more than a decade since a CCM grad student staged a large-scale production in one of CCM’s main venues (Corbett Auditorium and the smaller Patricia Corbett Theater). Since beginning the artist diploma program in 2012, Ben-Seadia has worked on more than a dozen projects with CCM, Cincinnati Opera, the Vocal Arts Ensemble and the Cincinnati Boy Choir, in addition to her tenure on the staff of the New Israeli Opera in her native Tel Aviv.
Don Pasquale is Ben-Seadia’s final production for CCM and a fitting conclusion to her CCM career, according to Robin Guarino, J. Ralph Corbett Distinguished Chair in Opera.
“Omer is well-liked and respected by students and faculty,” Guarino says. “Even more important, the opera, conducting, technical production and design faculty all felt she had the maturity, the vision and the artistic craft to lead a main stage production.”
It’s a huge responsibility, and Ben-Seadia clearly relishes new opportunities as well as the collaboration with conductor Mark Gibson and members of the production and design teams. “Something on this scale has to be a collaboration,” she says. “I have a chance to study everything, from coaching singers one-on-one to working with Maestro Gibson and the designers, realizing abstract concepts into real things.”
Ben-Seadia has worked in all of CCM’s venues but she says that no matter what size the stage, she has one focus. “It’s all about telling a story,” she insists. “In opera, it’s about the singer using text, music, gestures and a connection with the audience to get the story across.”
Don Pasquale’s plot may surprise opera newcomers.
Donizetti, best known for melodramatic operas, florid arias and at least one corpse at the final curtain, does a 180 with this comedy of young lovers initially thwarted by an older relative — Don Pasquale — who won’t allow their marriage. Pasquale is tricked into marrying the disguised young woman, a decision he comes to regret, but it all ends happily and no one dies.
The lone female character Norina can come off as a snarky shrew but Ben-Seadia doesn’t take the story or the characters too seriously. Although for her, the plot has resonance. “Who doesn’t deal with love, with tradition and especially with how our families drive us crazy?” she asks.
Ben-Seadia and her team decided on a period production: early to mid-19th century with a touch of commedia dell’arte; eight servants who usually don’t appear until Act III will be seen throughout the entire show in the garb of masked players. She explains that each character has its own development arc even if they don’t sing a note. “They motivate the action, sometimes helping the story along or bringing it to a screeching halt,” she says. “It’s a great challenge for the singers to convey character without text or music but it’s a challenge they really like.”
She readily acknowledges that comedy is difficult, but that her cast is exceeding her expectations. “My singers are at the top of their game. They have great vocal capacities and are so invested in their characters,” say says.
Ben-Seadia has worked with many of her cast members over the past two years. She calls her final CCM outing, “an interesting journey for sure,” adding that the performers are more willing to try things out since the direction comes from a peer rather than a professional. But there’s never any question about who’s in charge. “That’s where my Israeli army experience comes in,” she says wryly.
Born into a family of actors and writers, Ben-Seadia grew up in Tel Aviv, where her mother is an actor and her father writes, directs and performs fringe theater. When Ben-Seadia was 15, she was tapped by a youth theater company and when the New Israeli Opera cast her in a non-singing role in Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, she says she was smitten. “In opera, I found this enormous repertoire that allows for extraordinary expression that can’t be put into words,” she says.
During her obligatory army service, she was stationed across the street from the New Israeli Opera House, where she watched rehearsals during lunch breaks. “I worked for NIO, so they didn’t have a problem with a soldier in uniform coming to observe. But I think I freaked out the foreign directors,” she says, laughing.
After the army, she joined the NIO staff, directing outreach productions and stage managing. It was a good career path, she says, but within a few years, NIO music director David Stern advised her to seek opportunities outside of Israel and put her in touch with Guarino at CCM. Ben-Seadia began the artist diploma program in September 2012 as the only graduate student in opera directing for that year.
Ben-Seadia describes her two years in Cincinnati as life-changing. “Two years ago, I didn’t know where Cincinnati was on the map,” she says. “Now I know that CCM is a unique program; the high quality is across the board. We have the best singers and students in stage management and production design.”
“I’m not at all surprised that two CCM students are finalists in the Met Opera auditions,” she adds.
Following graduation in May, Ben-Seadia heads to the prestigious Merola Opera Program in San Francisco as one of 14 aspiring opera artists from around the world. And then it’s off into an uncertain future. For now, Ben-Seadia’s immediate goal is to create an enjoyable evening for audiences and performers.
“I love it when audiences get what we’re
doing,” she says, “but I love it even more when people come for the
first time and let themselves be happily surprised.”
DON PASQUALE, presented in Italian with subtitles, runs Thursday-Sunday at Patricia Corbett Theater, CCM Village. Tickets: 513-556-4183.