Categorized | Arts & Entertainment

Senior presented original, genre-challenging pop opera

Emily Anderson
Contributing Writer

This past Sunday, April 8, Gault Recital Hall saw the premiere of music composition major William Barnett ’18’s pop opera, “Cupid & Psyche.” The titular roles were played by Omar Tolentino ’21, who already has the vocal prowess of a learned professional, and Cece Underwood ’18, who is not only an incredibly captivating performer, but also served as the librettist for the production. Olivia Lawrence ’18 was cast as the delightfully jealous Venus, Cupid’s mother. The opera, composed of seven songs that were created entirely digitally using softwares Finale for scores and Cubase for instrumentation, was the culmination of years of work for Barnett, who presented the production as his senior Independent Study project.

While addressing the audience before the production, Barnett explained that his aim was to create something unlike anything opera had ever seen. In a genre that has been historically dominated by a very classical sound, Barnett seeks through the creation of “Cupid & Psyche” to make the age-old form of opera more accessible to a present-day audience through means of challenging traditional instrumentation. By voicing pop instrumental sounds in complex jazz harmonies, Barnett was able to create a genre with a sound that is entirely its own. “It has elements of pop and classical and jazz. I guess I wasn’t really sticking to one genre — it was more of a compilation,” Barnett explained.

“This is really something that’s never been done before,” said Greg Slawson, Barnett’s adviser and a professor of jazz piano and electronic composition at the College.

“Cupid & Psyche” does not just seek to modernize musically, but also textually, as it entirely reimagines the age-old love story of a star-crossed god and beautiful princess, putting a millenially-tinged twist on an ancient myth. Underwood was mainly in charge of the lyrics and structure of the story, or libretto in opera-speak, which she would then send to Barnett to orchestrate. “It was a way to generate material that was really collaborative,” she explained.

When asked what drew them to this particular story, Underwood laughed, stating that her moment of inspiration came at the behest of a “really, really funny YouTube video” about the trials and tribulations of Cupid and Psyche’s love. “It’s an old story, but people might not know it as well, and that’s what I found so fun about it,” she explained.

Barnett, Underwood and Slawson all explained that the road to the performance of such an innovative piece of work was not so easily done. “The experience has been quite interesting,” said Barnett. “When I first started, I was super excited. What I didn’t fully realize was how much work it would be.”

Underwood agreed, stating, “It was like having an amplifier. I could take my own thoughts and make them better than they were before, but it sometimes took a while to get there. It was fun and it was really hard at times, but it came out to be really cute. I’m really happy.”

Slawson explained that coming up with the complex jazz voicings for the instrumentation and figuring out the logistics for the performance difficult aspects of the project, some of which the team was still figuring out the day of the performance. “Even though I started work in September,” William laughed, “there was some stuff I was working on up until earlier today.”

Overall, “Cupid & Psyche” was an incredible success. Much like Lin- Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” Barnett and Underwood’s production is a testament to the fact that classical musical theater doesn’t have to be confined to the stuffy, uppity realm it is so often constrained to, but instead can be reworked and updated for the musical trends and sensibilities that have dominated the modern era. In every way, the pair has translated ancient forms of art into a vocabulary that is young, accessible and entirely new. With such an innovative production under his belt, Barnett has been compelled to now seek further success in the realm of musical theater. “In a sense,” he stated, “having to crank this out made me think really critically if this was a passion I wanted to pursue.” Inspired by his work with Underwood, Slawson, Lawrence, and Tolentino, he applied and was accepted to the New York University Tisch school of the arts’ graduate musical theater writing program for the fall of 2018, where he hopes to further explore the realm of musical theater composition.

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