Opera troupe strung together

January 15, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Just as their college counterparts of today do for spring break, Spanish university students of the 19th century celebrated the pre-Lenten carnival season -- which signaled the onset of their end-of-term exams -- with song, drink and pranks. The only difference was garb: Where today's students wear T-shirts and patched jeans, the estudiantes dressed up in medieval garb.

So for the Washington Opera's production of "Dona Francisquita," a zarzuela or Spanish folk opera, which takes place on Mardi Gras, who better to play the onstage ensemble of student musicians than student musicians? Or at least musicians who weren't too far from their student days.

That's why the opera called Michael Decker, director of the guitar program at Towson University, who also plays guitar, lute, mandolin, ukulele and most other strummed string instruments when they're needed for symphonic, opera, ballet and musical theater events.

"Dona Francisquita," a co-production of the Teatro Lirico de Zarzuela in Madrid and the Teatro Colon of Buenos Aires, opens a month-long run today at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.

But putting together the rondalla, a band of strolling guitar and mandolin players, began months before the staging or musical rehearsals. Decker had to find the instruments, which are made only in Spain, as well as the players; he had to transcribe the music; and then he was in charge of rehearsing the ensemble.

The eight former students he collected are accustomed to all kinds of free-lance musical work, from teaching to studio sessions. However, this was their first time as troubadours, and they had to feel free enough to stroll around, flirt with tavern girls and drink. That's what the estudiantes do in the opera, where they appear in crowd scenes.

"I was terrified," Decker said. Between the musicians' salaries, Decker's fee and instrument rental, the rondalla will cost the opera about $20,000. "They're putting a lot of trust in me, and these are people they've never heard before."

The rondalla music was scored for guitars and two kinds of Spanish mandolin: the bandurria and the laud. Like the standard Italian mandolin, the Spanish version has a pear shape and is plucked with a pick. Unlike the Italian instrument, it has a flat instead of a convex back and 12 strings instead of eight.

The bandurria is a treble instrument, the laud lower and deeper. Its name, like that of the lute, is probably a corruption of the Arabic aoudh preceded by the Spanish article el, and the instrument itself may be a legacy of the Moorish occupation of Spain in the Middle Ages.

"They're tuned in perfect fourths," Decker said of the Spanish mandolins. (All common string instruments are tuned in fifths.) "They're like no other instrument in the world."

Through the Internet, Decker tracked down an instrument-maker Valencia, Spain, but found that all his limited stock had been sold to a California collector.

After negotiation, Decker ended up buying four bandurrias and two laudes from the collector, paying about $1,000 apiece. (He plans to keep one of each and sell the others.) The opera is renting the instruments from him.

After collecting the musicians -- most live in Baltimore, but one, Dasher Egger, took a leave of absence from his job in New Orleans to play for the opera -- Decker rehearsed with them on Sundays at his Charles Village home until they had memorized the music and were comfortable as troubadours.

"Luckily, we turned out to have a couple of real hams," Decker said.

Even so, "things fell apart" when they got to the first staging rehearsal and found themselves in the midst of the singers and dancers. But Decker said the players had learned their parts well and were able to integrate music and acting within a few days.

"They said they wanted the best of my students and graduates," he said. The ones he picked were "fine classical guitarists, very good readers with ensemble experience. And I wanted someone who thought this would be the chance of a lifetime and not just another gig."

The ensemble comprises students who have worked with Decker over his 20-year career at Towson, where he chairs the guitar program within the music department. The program has about 40 majors and represents about a sixth of the music department's undergraduate enrollment.

Other than Egger, the players are Dan Ferris, Shawn Heming, Mark Herlihy, Frank Kalthof, Marc Musser, Michael Sauri and David Vergauwen.

Though at one time he considered being part of the rondalla, Decker decided he'd do better as its rehearsal coach. So he'll be there opening night to give an "Ole!" for his former students, but after that moves down the hall to the Kennedy Center's Opera House, where he's in the pit orchestra for the national tour of the Broadway show "Dreamgirls."

While the rondalla plays Spanish classical guitar, Decker will be playing Motown.

Washington Opera

When: 7: 30 p.m. today, Saturday, Jan. 20, 23, 26, 29, Feb. 4, 7, 11 and 13; 2: 30 p.m. Feb. 1 and 15

Where: Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center, Washington

Tickets: $36-$205

Call: 800-876-7372

Pub Date: 1/15/98

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