We know the image: a mighty opera singer in a horned helmet, singing of victorious conquests. But Augustana Vikings rise above the cliché.
Like other Augustana music ensembles, opera draws students of various experience levels and backgrounds — including one who fences, and another who’s a defensive lineman.
“Augie students do all these things all at once, and it’s just amazing to me,” said Dr. Patrick McNally, assistant professor of music and director of opera. Opera is a chance for students with theatre experience “to bridge that gap into music and really enrich their artistic lives.”
That’s what first-year history and theatre arts major Soryn Richter is doing. That and fencing, stage combat and more.
Carrying a sword while carrying a tune
Richter is in the chorus for "Amahl and the Night Visitors" on April 21 and 23 at Augustana, and will perform as the Grand Poobah in an excerpt from "The Mikado” for the “Opera Scenes” in the spring. They had sung a little musical theatre in high school.
“I love singing, it’s super fun,” they said. “I’m not particularly good at it, but I’m serviceable enough to get into ensembles.”
Dr. McNally has higher praise. When Richter performed during the fall cast call for the season’s theatre and opera shows, “They didn’t just carry a tune — they carried the scene,” he said.
Dr. McNally wondered if they had dance training, but Richter said no. The physical confidence came from fencing experience.
“Amazing,” Dr. McNally thought, and now he is excited to work fencing scenes into upcoming opera performances.
“Part of what we learn in opera is stagecraft basics, such as choreography, and certainly choreography of combat … and opera loves a good swordfight,” he said.
Stage combat training is relatively rare for undergraduates, but Augustana has faculty expertise. “I was shocked that they offered it … pleasantly,” Soryn Richter said.
Richter also has experience with historical European martial arts, including the long sword. Currently they are taking a stage combat class led by Dr. Jeff Coussens, professor of theatre and a member of the Society of American Fight Directors.
Stage combat training is relatively rare for undergraduates, but Augustana has faculty expertise. Richter said, “I was shocked that they offered it … pleasantly.”
One strong connection between acting and fencing is improv — which is all about reacting and adapting to changes, Richter said. “Because if something goes wrong, you have to adapt to it. You have to focus on not just what you’re going to say or do next, but on what the other person is going to say or do next. It’s a tricky skill to get down.”
Adaptability and improvisation are as important on the playing field as they are onstage. Vikings lineman and opera singer Spencer Warfield '23 knows this.
Football, opera and the future
Warfield is one of those Augustana students McNally describes as “doing it all.” But when Warfield was looking at colleges, he wasn’t sure if he’d continue to play football.
“Augustana and football at Augie really gave me the opportunity to not just be my athletic self, but to be my artistic self, and be my academic self, and be myself in general.”
“It was a question of whether I could play football as well as do all the other things I am passionate about,” he said. “So, college football came into the picture when Augie came into the picture.
“Augustana and football at Augie really gave me the opportunity to not just be my athletic self, but be my artistic self, be my academic self, and be myself in general.”
Warfield is a double major in political science/pre-law and Asian studies. With experience in musical theatre since childhood, opera was on his bucket list of things to do before law school and his professional career.
Coming in to Augustana, he had a plan: football in the fall, theatre in the spring. COVID-19 changed that plan for a couple years, but now he’s making it happen.
Warfield plays the page in “Amahl and the Night Visitors” on April 21 and 23—a role Dr. McNally describes as “the muscle for the kings.” He also played the part of the gorilla in "Cabaret." Typecast? Maybe, but Dr. McNally calls opera “the Olympics of the music world,” and opera singers “the powerlifters of the musical world.”
For Warfield, the primary connections between football performance and opera performance are attention to detail and the camaraderie of teamwork.
“Singing takes coaching and practice, and the people to the left and right motivating you,” he said. He thinks of Dr. McNally as a coach, similar to his football coaches Steve Bell, Dick Maloney and Aaron Call.
“I love a team, I’m a team-oriented human being, so the opportunity to be part of a collective while also pursuing my own individual excellence is really important to me.”
Individual excellence comes in part from thinking through every move so well that “it becomes second nature,” he said. “And that’s really what opera is all about: pushing yourself to the apex of performance, and then getting good enough at it … to the point where that is your standard of excellence.”
Opera experience will serve him well in his future as a lawyer. Along with showing him another way to push himself and grow, he knows it will be good for his public confidence and performance in the courtroom.
He also wants a future that includes his love of the arts, which he described as timeless, beautiful, and “sophisticated and simple at the same time. It activates a certain part of the human brain that makes everything better.”
Opera in particular “fundamentally turns the mundane of speech into the beauty of song,” Warfield said. “The simple fact that you can do that in general led me to adopt into my personality that you can just do that in life.”
It all adds up to a bright future, beyond the cliché.
Soryn Richter and Spencer Warfield perform in “Amahl and the Night Visitors” April 21 and 23, Brunner Main Stage in the Brunner Theatre Center at Augustana. Also see Soryn Richter in performance for the opera workshop “Stolen Scenes” April 20 and 22.