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Alain Barker
IU Jacobs School of Music

Linda Cajigas
IU Jacobs School of Music

Last modified: Wednesday, January 23, 2008

You are all permitted and encouraged to laugh!

Jan. 23, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- This is the declaration of Pulitzer-prize winning composer William Bolcom, who warns audiences attending his latest opera, A Wedding, not to take it too seriously.

The opera, which opens Feb. 1 at Indiana University's Musical Arts Center, portrays an all-American train wreck of a wedding in which everything that can go wrong does.

"The Wedding"

Joshua Whitener and Robin Federici star as the groom and bride in William Bolcom's "A Wedding," opening Feb. 1 at the MAC.

Print-Quality Photo

Sung in English with English supertitles, it is the third of Bolcom's operas to have its collegiate premiere at Indiana University. McTeague and A View from the Bridge played to rave reviews in 1996 and 2005, respectively. But unlike the others, which are weighty, serious productions, A Wedding dispenses with any semblance of the decorum ordinarily associated with opera.

Set in the recent past on the outskirts of Chicago, the plot revolves around an old-money matriarch who dies in the second scene but whose spirit seems to hover over the messy goings-on. Included in the cast of 17 colorful characters are a flaky interpretive dancer, an emotionally stunted morphine addict, a communistic-leaning aunt, a hired wedding guest, an obsessive-compulsive wedding planner and an alcoholic Marine.

"You'd better be prepared for a raucous, slightly raunchy, totally impolite, musically delightful opera," said stage director Vincent Liotta, who also worked with Bolcom on his past productions at IU.

He explained that while the music is extraordinary -- Bolcom is the recipient of a Grammy Award and the National Medal of Arts in addition to his Pulitzer Prize -- "at the end of each beautiful aria is a punch line. Someone trips through a doorway or flushes a toilet."

In addition to the comedy, however, A Wedding also embodies themes of love and tolerance that make the opera as touching as it is entertaining.

"If there is an underlying message, it's that no matter how wrong things go, the human spirit and the idea of family and loved ones goes a long way toward sustaining your ability to survive," Liotta said.

A Wedding premiered at the Chicago Lyric Opera in 2004, where it was hailed as "a joyous hit" by the New Yorker.

For the IU production, Liotta and set and costume designer Robert O'Hearn worked to reduce the transition time between scenes using a cable system similar to those employed in Broadway musicals.

With more than 20 scene changes, six of which occur in the last 10 minutes of the opera, Bolcom said he was "grateful for the musical tightening this allows."

Liotta said that both the pacing and the youth of the cast should assist with the comedic success of the production.

"I think that in a university setting like this, you have the opportunity to make this a funnier comedy because unlike with bigger names in professional opera, no one here is preoccupied with their personal image. In order to perform a comedy you need people who are able to commit totally to doing whatever has to be done to make it work, and sometimes that can be pretty undignified. Fortunately, no one here is afraid to get a pie in the face," he said.

A Wedding is based on Robert Altman's 1978 film of the same name, which Bolcom's longtime librettist-lyricist Arnold Weinstein reduced from a cast of 48 to a still-formidable 17. Bolcom noted that according to Weinstein, "Bob Altman went around at parties during rehearsals of A Wedding telling everyone how much more he liked the opera than the film!"

O'Hearn, whose designs for A Wedding will be his final contributions before he retires at the age of 86, took inspiration from the film in creating his set for the MAC. He has recreated the elegant exterior of the Armour Mansion in which the movie was filmed, in addition to its dazzling mirrored bathroom. The first scene of the opera will take place in a gothic cathedral, which O'Hearn described as "very impressive, with projected stained glass windows."

For the costumes, O'Hearn was able to persuade the Citadel, the military college of South Carolina, to loan uniforms for the groomsmen, while the bride's wedding dress actually belongs to one of the singers who will wear it.

Other design details to watch for include a genuinely wet shower, a nude painting, a motorcycle on loan from Harley Davidson of Bloomington and slices of actual wedding cake.

The two rotating casts will be led by Sally Freeland and Robin Federici as Muffin (the bride), and by Daniel Shirley and Josh Whitener as Dino, the groom.

Acclaimed conductor David Agler, who has performed with the San Francisco Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, Seattle Opera, The Western Australian Opera, The Netherlands Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, among others, will serve as guest conductor. Maestro Agler is currently the artistic director of the Wexford Festival in Ireland and music director of Banff Festival in Canada.

"I have felt incredibly lucky in that IU has staged, and wonderfully, all three operas I wrote for the Lyric," Bolcom said. "It is a wonderful school for opera, which is no secret. I've had a wonderful time with Vince Liotta and the legendary Robert O'Hearn in each one."

"One always hopes for longevity in something as big as an opera," he added. "I'm pleased that A View from the Bridge that IU did a couple of years ago has gone through six productions -- and I feel sure that Liotta's and O'Hearn's attention to detail will help ensure more performances of this opera."

A Wedding will be performed at the MAC on Feb. 1, 2, 8 and 9 at 8 p.m. Patrons are reminded that adult content is used throughout the opera.

Ticket information

Tickets are on sale now at the Musical Arts Center Box Office (for information, call 812-855-7433), open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; at all Ticketmaster outlets; by phone through Ticketmaster at 812-333-9955; and online at

To speak to any of the persons involved in the production of A Wedding, contact Linda Cajigas, IU Jacobs School of Music, at 812-855-9846 or, or Alain Barker, IU Jacobs School of Music, at 812-856-5719 or