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A Penny for the opera: Union professor keeps a classic musical tradition coming back

JACKSON, Tenn.April 19, 2002 – Opera - for many, just the word seems to conjure images of large women with staffs in hand, pointed hats on their heads, singing in another language in a way that isn't exactly your Pop 40 sound. But for one professor at Union, opera is a window to the soul.

“Opera is an art form that combines all arts,” says Michael Penny, music professor, “and certain things are better expressed through opera.” Penny has had a passion for opera since his teenage years.

Holding a passion for opera since he was a teenager, Penny admits that at first listen, he couldn't stand it - but over time, and through gradual exposure, he learned to love it. He attributes his first encounters with opera to his mother, who left her classical opera CDs lying around the house. Penny soon found himself listening to this unique music from a vocal standpoint and was hooked.

Mike Penny working with his singers during rehearsals for the Opera Workshop's eve's odds.

Mike Penny working with his singers during rehearsals for the Opera Workshop's "eve's odds."

“Opera is like being an Olympic singer," says Penny. "It's challenging to be an opera singer.” The difficultly is what intrigued Penny and ultimately became the trigger for his love for opera. “Everything is better expressed in opera. It is a virtual experience- like putting on goggles,” Penny says.

A family man with a wife, two daughters – one married and the other a freshman in college - and one son who will graduate from high school in May, Penny seems to be a witty, modest man with wire rim glasses and always sporting a dress shirt with dress pants and loafers. His trademark, according to Union students, are his golf hats that date back to the 1920’s or 1930’s.

"Dr. Penny is easy to talk to and very approachable,” says Anna Price, an instrumental music major. Anyone who talks to Penny immediately senses that he is informal and carefree and projects a sense of comfortableness for students, staff and faculty to speak to him.

Penny attempts to expose students to opera through a slow process that entails showing various aspects of the art form to them.

“I try to play brilliant excerpts from operas to the students by starting with sugar sticks, the best parts of the opera,” says Penny. “Then I explain what’s going on within the opera. This way students want to learn more and find out why the opera is taking this direction.” It is through this process of exposing the students to tidbits of the opera in which he draws them into the opera world.

Another technique which Penny utilizes is by actually taking groups of students to the local operas in Memphis or Nashville.

“All Union University students should see opera,” Penny remarks, “but it is like pulling teeth to get students to go. There are operas for everyone from athletes to music majors.” Once a person can get beyond the initial assumptions behind opera (like the fact that the performance is often done in a foreign language or that opera is sung by overweight, older women), one can then truly appreciate it, says Penny. “Most students are reluctant at first, but once they relax, that’s when the opera has a chance to grab the your attention.”

Mike Penny directs during rehearsals for the Opera Workshop's eve's odds.

Mike Penny directs during rehearsals for the Opera Workshop's "eve's odds."

Since he came to Union more than 13 years ago, Penny’s passion for opera has trickled in like a rain pipe into campus, with more than 15 different shows notched on his director’s belt. Penny carefully selects chamber operas, or small, short operas, for Union students to put on each year. His favorite operas are from Gilbert and Sullivan, and many of the operas done at Union have been written by the famous composing duo.

Casting parts is the biggest challenge of directing an opera, says Penny. Finding the right voice is more important than matching the part of the character “which is why 45 year old overweight women have played 15 year olds in operas in the past,” explains Penny. A tenor voice doesn’t fully develop until after age 25 and most operas written are extremely difficult and require top of the line voices.

Acquiring the right voice ensemble and getting students to remain dedicated to the hard work of putting on an opera is a daunting task for Penny. “Watching the students who are in the opera realize how much time and hard work it takes to be in one combined with the reaction when they realize the opera will come together in the end is why I continue to put on operas,” says Penny.

Eve’s Odds is Penny’s current project that is set to perform Saturday, April 20th through Monday, April 22nd. A comic opera which is guaranteed to amuse the audience, the performance will be in English and lasts approximately 50 minutes.

“Dr. Penny is very involved during opera practices. There is always something funny going on and he always has good ideas,” says Nichole Crandell, a chorus angel for Eve’s Odds and a vocal performance major. “He has the angels doing the kick-line and Charlie’s Angels and Adam wearing pink for example. You can just tell he’s passionate about what he loves – and that’s opera.”

By Jennifer Eastman,
Class of 2005

Media contact: Sara B. Horn, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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