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Staging an Opera in Taiwan and at Trinity

Monday, March 31, 2014

Music professor, student combine talents to perform comedy in Italian through funding from Mellon Initiative

by Susie P. Gonzalez

SAN ANTONIO – Senior Kevin Culver thought briefly about staging an Italian opera in English, but quickly rejected the idea for his final production at Trinity University because, he says Italian is “innately musical when it is sung.” Further, he says the story will not “hit home unless we are singing in Italian.”

To help audiences grasp the tale, Culver is instead translating Puccini’s Gianni Schicci into English subtitles that will be projected onto screens at the Ruth Taylor Recital Hall when he also stars and directs the dark comedy based on Dante’s Inferno.

Culver is, in the view of his voice professor Chia-Wei Lee, is fulfilling his dream – the goal of Lee’s tutelage. “As a music educator, my destiny is to help students love what I teach, but I don’t push. I help guide students do what they want to do,” Lee said. “At Trinity, Kevin will have an opportunity to star and direct in an opera. At other schools, he might only have sung in a chorus before graduating. For me, it’s his dream come true.”

At Lamar High School in Houston, Culver sang opera but learned to love the genre while studying with Lee. The duo, along with seven other Trinity students, spent two weeks at the end of summer of 2013 in Taiwan, where they performed Gianni Schicci as the first music project supported by the Mellon Initiative, a program for research in the arts and humanities that was launched in 2013 with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Culver spent eight weeks on campus researching Puccini, examining why his operatic style varied from that of his contemporaries and conducting character research of Gianni Schicci. He also wrote a paper. As a result, Culver landed the title role in the opera. Meanwhile, Lee left for his native Taiwan, where he completed arrangements to conduct music for the production and also serve as general director of 23 American and seven local Taiwanese students. The students received voice lessons, a daily master class, and vocal coaching. The opera was performed four days in Taiwan in August.

Culver said he recently watched a recording of the opera and was “pleasantly surprised” by the range of talent in the production, including some performers who plan to join a professional opera company. “Doing something like this pushes you to do better,” he said.

He will get the chance to showcase his talent, and that of 11 other Trinity vocalists, when he completes the stage and costume design, the translation, the direction, and the singing for Gianni Schicci while preparing for a senior voice recital, a choral performance, an off-campus recital, weekly lunchtime concerts as part of the all-male a cappella group known as the Trinitones, and applying for graduate school.  Gianni Schicci, the Spring Opera Workshop at Trinity, will begin at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 12 in the Ruth Taylor Recital Hall. It is free and open to the public.

Culver, a double major in music and economics, said Trinity has prepared him for a career in music along with the business savvy to succeed.  He credits Lee for being a professor who loves what he does, and who, “can tell you why you love it, so you can't help but love it yourself.”

Lee, on the other hand, is happy to meet his goal of helping students develop their talents, even if they are not majoring in music. “I listen to them to guide them to the right path,” he said. “It takes four years, but I watch them grow.”

Susie P. Gonzalez is director of public and media relations at Trinity University and can be reached at susie.gonzalez [at]