By Rachel Mann

The UTRGV Opera Theater will present Michael Ching’s “Speed Dating Tonight!”, a one-act comic opera in three parts based on a concept by Dean Anthony.

Following a global pandemic and an extended period of socially distanced living, this contemporary, 2013 opera is all about meeting people and making connections. The opera takes place in a bar and begins with an opening scene introducing a bartender, waitress, and speed-dating coordinator all preparing for a speed-dating event.

The opera’s middle section—the part that consists of all the “speed dates”—follows an improvisatory choose-your-own-adventure kind of path. The composer and librettist, Michael Ching, has written more than 90 arias, from which ensembles can pick and choose and arrange in any order, enabling them to select the numbers that best fit their singers’ abilities and personalities as well as the story they wish to tell.

According to Shayna Tayloe, assistant professor of voice, the opera chose and arranged arias based on chemistry and how funny one aria would be going into the next.

Rebecca Coberly, associate professor of voice, said, “We picked arias based on the students we had and the arias we liked, and partially, to some degree on character and voice. We also chose a few ensembles, duets, and trios, and we tried to do as many of them as we liked, to give the students the chance to do that as well.”

Many of the arias Coberly and Tayloe selected for the UTRGV show were actually part of the original production cast in 2013.

One of the reasons there are so many arias to choose from, the professors said, is that Ching is willing to write new material for different ensembles that put on this opera.

This made “Speed Dating Tonight!” a popular choice for many universities and opera companies during the pandemic since the concept is quite adaptable to Zoom. For example, some of the numbers focus on having an online happy hour or a speed date in sweats, and while Coberly and Tayloe have not selected those numbers for performance, the UTRGV production will include one song to be performed for the very first time—an aria titled “Coffee or Sex”—and the composer hopes to get an archival, world-premiere recording.

“My students were really confused at first because they were like, ‘what’s the story?’” Tayloe said. “And I told them, ‘You’re the story.’ It’s people meeting people and telling them about themselves. Your personalities are the story, and then it ends. And maybe you go home with somebody, and maybe you don’t. Maybe you go on a second date, and maybe you don’t.”

Tayloe shared how her students have really come to love it, especially those who have had to step out of their comfort zone at bit with some of the topics they are singing about, since not all the arias are necessarily PG.

For Coberly, her students like it because it’s in English, the language is modern, and the music is current.

“I know that for the ones I’ve been working with over here in Edinburg, that’s been one of the things they’ve really enjoyed. Singing something that’s contemporary feels more immediately relevant to what they’re doing. That’s been exciting, but at the same time, they can’t gloss over some of the topics they’re singing about and so that’s been absolutely been a big part of it,” Coberly said.

Though some of the topics may push boundaries for some, the students can all relate to many of the opera’s lyrics.

For example, one of the selected arias, “I’m over you”, is about a girl who had been broken up with. It shows her anger about the person who broke up with her and how she’s moving on, and because it’s set in such a way that the character likes to sing it—a little jazzy and a little poppy even—it’s actually kind of empowering.

Tayloe said that her students are a lot more receptive to the opera because, while yes, the music is current—it has a lot of jazz and musical theater influence—she thinks they’ve been itching to do some of that, and it makes them even more excited about it.

“I think they like that it’s not all prim and proper,” she said. “No, I tell them there’s lots of different kinds of opera; they love the old stuff, of course, but this is a nice change for them.”

“Speed Dating Tonight!” is funded by UTRGV student service fees meant to specifically enhance projects on both campuses. Coberly and Tayloe were awarded extra funding for striving to bring back both live performances and joint opera productions, the latter of which hasn’t been done since the staging of Bizet’s Carmen in 2019.

The Brownsville performance of “Speed Dating Tonight!” is scheduled for Saturday, April 2, at 7 pm in the TSC Arts Center. The Edinburg performance is scheduled for Sunday, April 3, at 3 pm in the UTRGV Performing Arts Center.

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