Humans are irresistibly drawn to drama. Some people even have a penchant for creating it in their own lives, though most are content to witness it run havoc over others — even if those others are fictitious. Thus, the theatrical performance was born, and plays of expansive emotional depth became central to the societal psyche of peoples in locations ranging from the Yucatan to the Japanese archipelago. Music has also been historically associated with drama and emotion, so it’s hardly surprising that the two arts managed to combine into one of the oldest and most theatrical genres in classical music: opera.

This week, contributing a little bit more towards the 400-year-old tradition of opera, students from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance will demonstrate this dramatic art in several performances of two one-act operas.

“Every time we try to select works to produce for the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, we try to find pieces that fit the student population that we have — the singing actors who are in the program — and we try to offer pieces that have as many roles as possible,” said Robert Swedberg, the production’s director and associate professor of music, in an interview with The Michigan Daily.

“We have a tremendous number of really worthy singing actors who we would like to be able to accommodate with more performances,” Swedberg added. “So by doing two one-acts, we’re able to engage like 30, 31 singers, with double casting … so that’s giving a lot of our students a good opportunity to sink their teeth into some performance time onstage, and that’s how you learn to do it.”

“The other nice thing about this double bill is that one is in Italian and the other is in French, so it gives our singing actors an opportunity to increase their ability to sing in these foreign languages as well,” Swedberg continued, expanding his focus on the educational aspects of the production.

The first of the two operas being produced is L’heure espagnole (“The Spanish Hour”) by French composer Maurice Ravel. Ravel, who is associated with Debussy and the Impressionist movement (though they both took issue with that term), is known for his popular composition Bolero, his colorful orchestrations and numerous masterworks. Composed in 1911, the comical opera is Ravel’s first foray into the genre.

“This is sort of a French bedroom farce … although it has a Spanish flavor,” Swedberg said. “The Spanish hour is a time in the day when the husband might be away and the wife might possibly entertain lovers … on this particular day, though, the husband (a clockmaker) is away and the wife has complications with the lover that she expects, who turns out to be more interesting in writing poetry than in her.”

This Gordian knot of romance is further tightened when a muleteer and third potential lover arrive on the scene, leaving the wife to juggle her delicate and amusing situation.

The second of the two operas being performed is Gianni Schicchi, written in 1919 by the seasoned Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini, one of the most frequently performed composers of opera, known for masterworks like Madama Butterfly, Tosca and the unfinished Turandot.

“It’s one of the best written comic operas, in my opinion,” Swedberg said of Gianni Schicchi. “It’s mostly about how groups of people deal with greed, and it’s just a really funny piece.”

The opera tells the tale of a well-off family squabbling over the will of a deceased relative, and how to rewrite it. Matters are further complicated by the fact that a young man within the family has a fiancée from a working-class background, which troubles his snobbish relatives.

The production of the operas also reflects an update to the settings, a change made with the aim of making the themes more accessible to contemporary audiences. Similar adjustments have been occurring with increasing frequency over the past several years — for example, Charles Gounod’s Faust, based on Goethe’s famous retelling of the German legend, was performed a few years ago at the Metropolitan opera in a recontextualization that included the titular character as a physicist involved in the development of atomic weaponry.

“We thought it would be interesting to go for the Victorian, Industrial Revolution and Steampunk look,” the director said of updates to “The Spanish Hour,” drawing inspiration from the clockmaker’s workshop in the opera. Of the Puccini, Swedberg said, “Gianni Schicchi was set in 1299 … but we thought with an update to the ’20s, we would be able to use a different costume and scenic palette that might be more relevant.”

In discussing the complementary nature of the two operas, Swedberg spoke about the slight differences in comedic style between the operas. According to him, Ravel’s work is far more exaggerated and farcical, whereas Puccini’s is more a “slice of life” style.

“They stand up really nicely,” Swedberg said of the operas. “Having the two styles together in one evening is very interesting — two different types of comedy.”

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