BG Opera Theater presents 'Cavalleria Rusticana'

By David Dupont

Operatic tenor Shawn Mathey’s career has taken him to stages around the globe.

Now approaching a new stage in that career, he’s circled back home to Bowling Green. Looking to add teaching to his repertoire of skills, he’s treading the same halls his father Professor Emeritus Richard Mathey did for 32 years.

That will bring him into the spotlight in the Bowling Green Opera Theater’s production of “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Pietro Mascagni. The one-act opera will be staged Friday, Feb. 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 28, at 3 p.m. in the Thomas B. and Kathleen M. Donnell Theatre in the Wolfe Center for the Arts on the Bowling Green State University campus.

Since 1998 when Shawn Mathey left BGSU to attend the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, he’s returned frequently. For the past few years he and his wife, Sujin Lee, an adjunct voice professor at BGSU, and their two daughters have made Bowling Green their permanent residence. Mathey’s visits, though, were a respite from a busy international career.  

Now he looks forward to adding teaching to his resume. He’s back studying at BGSU where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree before starting his musical studies.

“Things are cooking,” Mathey said of his operatic schedule. That includes performing in John Adams’ “The Flowering Tree” in Lisbon this spring. “But you start looking ahead for the next phase, looking ahead to when you don’t want to be single handedly funding the suitcase companies.”

Lee is the one who encouraged him to start laying the groundwork for an academic position now. Colleges want to hire singers who, as Mathey said, “can still honk.”

But even a resume full of international performances and a diploma from a prestigious program is not enough to secure a teaching position in higher education. “The advanced degree is not an option,” Mathey said.

So he’s studying to earn a master’s degree in vocal performance. He does what students do, addressing his teachers as “doctor” and “professor,” dreading music theory classes, and performing in an opera. 

“Cavalleria Rusticana” is not an opera usually done by colleges, said Jenny Cresswell, who plays Santuzza opposite Mathey’s Turiddu.

“This is the quintessential verismo opera,” she said. The late 19th century Italian style favors earthy, realistic subjects and calls for heavier spinto voices.

Like Mathey, Cresswell is a veteran operatic performer returning to earn a graduate degree. Those more mature voices, including as Turiddu’s mother Lucia, Betsy (Reichard) Bellavia, a former choral student of Mathey’s father, give the production the vocal heft it needs.

Mathey finds the role “enticing.” 

“It’s not something I’d normally be hired to do, but I get to do it here and have fun. It’s an opportunity for me to explore and to expand.”

For Cresswell, who has performed with the Toledo Opera and other companies nationally, the role of the scorned woman is “a viable role for me professionally.” 

The mother of two, she said, her voice has gotten “darker and bigger and fuller” since giving birth. “That’s pretty common.”

“Cavalleria Rusticana” tells the story of Turiddu, a soldier who returns home to find that his fiancée Lola (Kyle Schreiber) has married another man, Alfio (John Mink). To spite Lola, he seduces Santuzza, and that drives the jealous Lola back into his arms.

Turiddu, Mathey said, is “young and naïve.”

“He’s not someone who would set out to devastate anyone,” he said, “yet that’s precisely what he does. There’s a lot of heart and a lot of soul in him...and all that spunk and lust for life go for nothing because he makes a bad decision in a fishbowl where everyone knows what’s going on.”

Santuzza, Cresswell said, is often viewed as “pathetic,” but “I see her as incredibly strong,” Cresswell said. “A weak person would avoid the confrontation. Of the five major characters she has the strongest moral fiber.”

Visiting director Jesse Koza, who earned master’s degrees in music and theater from BGSU, said all the main characters in the opera behave horribly in some way. Still he wants them to be empathetic. “What I want people to know is that we’re more than the worst thing we’ve done in our lives. Just because this story is filled with people making mistakes doesn’t mean we should sit in judgment of them.”

As a director, Koza enjoys working with the seasoned professionals in his cast. “You can give Shawn the barest hint and he will come up with something wonderful. It’s the same with Jenny.”

For Cresswell “there’s a lot of pressure taken off when you don’t have to worry about the other singer...performing is fun, but the rehearsal process when you’re on stage a great deal with someone who gets it and you can give your all, that’s where the fun is.”

“It’s really working,” Mathey said.

“Cavalleria Rusticana” has Mathey playing a role his father performed in the 1970s on campus. In those days, Richard Mathey recalls, the faculty performed the lead roles in operas. 

Now he’s looking forward to sitting back and listening to his son sing the same iconic melodies, including the opening “O Lola ch'hai di lattila cammisa,” an aria many tenors dread, and the raucous cantina scene.

"He’s a singer and he’s my son. He lives the life of opera singer,” the elder Mathey said. “This is what he does for a living. It’s going to be enjoyable for me to sit and hear it.”

Shawn Mathey said he and his father do discuss singing. He obsesses over the functioning of the voice. That’s why he’s attracted to teaching.

“We talk about voice but we kind of have an invisible singer in the room,” Shawn Mathey said of these father-son discussions of vocal technique. Yes, the father could tell his son what he should do, after all he has taught voice for decades. “We don’t go there and it works out beautifully,” the younger Mathey said. “He affords me the greatest respect as a singer.”

Tickets for the opera are $15 in advance for adults and $5 for students and children ($20 the day of the show), and are available at bgsu.edu/arts, by calling the ticket office at 419-372-8171, or in person at the Wolfe Center for the Arts ticket office, which is open Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m.