During the past decade, University of Kentucky Opera Theatre has become Lexington's de facto opera company. But undergraduates in UK's voice department often get left in the shadows.
"UK has such a high-quality opera theater, it's hard for undergrads to get experience," says Arianna Afshari, a junior majoring in vocal performance.
That will change this weekend, with the inaugural production of the UK Undergraduate Studio Opera's production of W.A. Mozart's The Magic Flute.
Many of the singers who have stood in the background in the chorus for shows such as the March production of Die Fledermaus will be center stage in some of opera's iconic roles, including the Queen of the Night, which Afshari will sing in Sunday's performance, sharing the part with senior Anabelle Wright-Gatton, who will sing it Saturday.
"This is the first time we've been able to do a full undergrad production, just undergrads, and been able to prepare a whole role by ourselves," says senior Taylor Eldred, who will sing the role of Papagena in Sunday's performance.
The idea of an undergrad opera has been kicking around UK's program for a few years. Stage director Margo Buchanan says voice faculty member Angelique Clay really pushed for the show to become a reality.
"We do plenty of operas for older voices, more mature voices, but often we don't have enough opportunities for younger voices," says Clay, who was a UK undergraduate in the 1990s. "They don't get the experience they would like to have and we would like for them to have. They are so talented and work so hard, they deserved something that featured them."
It is not as if members of the cast of Magic Flute are completely unfamiliar with leading roles in UK operas. Sophomore Jason Brown, who will sing the lead role of Tamino in Flute on Sunday, shared the lead role of Eisenstein in Fledermaus.
But undergraduate singers have often looked outside the main-stage operas for experience. Eldred and Tai-Kristin Smedley, who will share the role of Papagena, were romantic rivals in SummerFest's production of Once on the Island last year. Paragon Music Theatre, UK's burgeoning Musical and Operetta Organization, and UK Opera's show-tune revue It's a Grand Night for Singing also have been showcases for younger voices.
But nothing pops off your résumé quite like a major opera role, and just as the promise of playing time is attractive to basketball recruits, telling prospective freshman they could have big parts in operas could attract better singers to UK.
"A lot of programs around the country, most of their opera emphasis is in the graduate program," says senior Luther Lewis III, who will share the role of Tamino with Brown.
Eldred says, "I wish we'd had this as a freshman. ... To be able to say, 'You'll be able to audition and have a main role and not just be in the chorus,' would be a real draw."