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IU Opera Theater closes season with 'West Side Story'

Indiana University Opera Theater will close its 2009-10 season with Leonard Bernstein's timeless West Side Story April 9, 10, 16 and 17 at 8 p.m. in Bloomington's Musical Arts Center.

10 - West Side Story
IU Opera and Ballet Theater will close its opera season with "West Side Story," opening April 9.

The production, presented at the one-year anniversary of a major gift by the Bernstein family to the Jacobs School of Music, will be conducted by guest Rob Fisher, with sets and costumes designed by Jacobs Professor C. David Higgins.

New York director and choreographer Joshua Bergasse returns to IU Opera after having choreographed The Most Happy Fella last year. In addition to performing in several Broadway productions, he has choreographed multiple productions of West Side Story as well as having performed in a national tour of the show.

"The students have been working so hard!," said Bergasse. "It's exciting to see their growth as singers, actors and dancers as they discover the richness and texture of this monumental piece of theater."

This contemporary Romeo and Juliet is set in New York City in the mid-1950s and explores the rivalry between two teenage street gangs -- the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Caucasian Jets. Complications arise when Tony, a member of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, who has just arrived from Puerto Rico to marry Chino, a member of the Sharks.

The work will feature the original choreography by Jerome Robbins set to some of the most popular music of all time -- by Leonard Bernstein -- with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, based on the book by Arthur Laurents.

The production celebrates the 2009 announcement of an unprecedented gift from the family of Bernstein that contains the contents of his Fairfield, Conn., composing studio, including a conducting stool from the Vienna Philharmonic that is said to have been used by Johannes Brahms and 39 Grammy nomination plaques.

Selected items from the gift will be on display in the Musical Arts Center lobby during the two weekends of the West Side Story performance run.

The Jacobs School plans to create a Leonard Bernstein Studio that will contain the items of the Leonard Bernstein Studio Collection in substantially the same arrangement as they existed in his Fairfield, Conn., studio. Following planning for the Jacobs School's new East Studio Building and consultation with the Bernstein family on the arrangement and appearance of the studio, a location will be announced.

Bernstein's history with the IU Jacobs School of Music

Leonard Bernstein had a long-standing relationship with the Jacobs School of Music that began in the early 1970s, when Jacobs Dean Emeritus Charles Webb received a call from Bernstein's manager, the late Harry Kraut. Kraut invited the IU Opera Department to do a one-month tour of Bernstein's opera Trouble in Tahiti in Israel to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Bernstein's first conducting in Israel.

Bernstein and Students
"West Side Story" composer Leonard Bernstein had a special relationship with The Jacobs School of Music. Several items from the Leonard Bernstein studio in Connecticut that were donated to Jacobs last year will be on display in the lobby of the MAC during the opera production of "West Side Story" that closes the IU Opera Theater season.

"The philharmonic wanted to do the opera with young voices of people in their 20s, for whom the opera was originally written," said Webb. "The one caveat was that they wanted to see the opera first."

The school mounted the opera and impressed the Bernstein representative enough that they invited nearly 30 Jacobs students to Israel for a one-month tour.

In 1987, Bernstein established the Leonard Bernstein Scholarship at the Jacobs School of Music after winning the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, West Germany's most prestigious music award. Two thirds of the prize money was used as a contribution to the scholarship, an amount that was matched by funds from Herman B Wells. The scholarship, established to further the education of talented students, is made available to two Jacobs School of Music students each year.

In 1988, the Paris Opera was in a bind: The company was preparing to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day with performances in a new opera house -- but the house wasn't ready on time, and then the general manager of the opera was fired, spurring a slew of walkouts by irate performers.

"The president of France contacted Leonard Bernstein and said, 'Could you help us?,' and Leonard Bernstein had an ingenious idea," said Webb. "He said, 'Why don't you forget about professional singers? As soon as your opera house is ready for an opera, they'll be back. Open the opera with the four best student orchestras in the world and put on an orchestra festival of one week, with each one playing a different night,'" Webb recalled. Once again, Bernstein thought of the Jacobs School (then the IU School of Music); the Paris Opera paid for 100 School of Music musicians to spend the week in Paris.

The most significant School of Music-Bernstein connection came in 1981, when Webb got another call from Kraut saying Bernstein was working on what would be his final opera, A Quiet Place, and sought a place where singers could learn parts quickly, where he could discuss his compositions and receive their feedback.

"Harry Kraut said, 'How would you like to have Leonard Bernstein in residence for two months?'" Webb recalled. "This was unheard of -- of course I said we'd love to have him. We had a great presence here -- probably the world's greatest living musician."

During his time in Bloomington, Bernstein worked on compositions at night and brought them to student singers during the day, also making time to work with conductors and composers. He also spent a lot of time with the Webb family at Charles Webb's home.

At the time, Bernstein said, "I am working well here; we have accomplished a lot. It's extraordinary to have so many talented people in one place. I'm honored that such beautifully prepared students have taken time from their studies ... to prepare my opera. … I have to report, albeit a bit reluctantly, that I have fallen in love with the school."

In 1988, the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts was planning a celebration in honor of Bernstein's 70th birthday and asked the composer which of his compositions he would like to see performed. He suggested his Mass.

"The people at Tanglewood said they didn't have the resources to do that -- it requires a huge orchestra, a jazz band, children's chorus, regular chorus, ballet dancers . . .," said Webb. "So once again, Leonard Bernstein said, 'Why don't you call Indiana University?'"

After the performance -- which involved 250 IU students -- Bernstein reportedly said, "This is one of the greatest concerts I have ever heard."

"Then he went on to say, 'I don't just mean one of the greatest concerts of Mass, I mean of anything.' It's quite a statement to say that," said Webb.

If you go

The opera West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein opens April 9 at 8 p.m. at the Musical Arts Center, 101 N. Jordan Ave., just north of the intersection at Third Street. Additional performances April 10, 16, 17, all at 8 p.m. Tickets for the April 9 performance, which is general admission, are $25 ($12 for full-time students of any age with valid ID). Tickets for all other performances are $15-$35 ($10-$20 for students). The Musical Arts Center box office hours are Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Get ticket information online at http://music.indiana.edu/opera, or call the Musical Arts Center at 812-855-7433.

This story was originally published April 1, 2010.