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MIOpera and Illinois Symphony are together at last in a Shakespeare-inspired evening at ISU

A woman in a red sweater and man in a blue collared shirt smile at the camera. They are seated in a radio studio with an NPR microphone in the foreground.
Lauren Warnecke
MIOpera artistic director Tracy Koch and Illinois Symphony assistant conductor Jacobsen Woollen stopped by WGLT's studios to chat about their joint upcoming program, "Scintillating Shakespeare." The concert is Saturday in the concert hall at Illinois State University.

“Be not afraid of greatness.”

These words by William Shakespeare are an apt introduction to the Illinois Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming concert. It’s a first-time pairing of two great local organizations, with MIOpera joining the ISO in a novel collaboration highlighting composers inspired by the Bard.

MIOpera artistic director Tracy Koch said bringing the two ensembles together has been a year in the making.

“We decided that the perfect time for singing is the Valentine’s Day season,” Koch said. “Then we started thinking about a theme and what would go really great with the orchestral music and voices. We came up with a Shakespearean program.”

“Scintillating Shakespeare” takes the stage on Saturday for a one-night-only performance at Illinois State University’s Center for the Performing Arts. Illinois Symphony assistant conductor Jacobsen Woollen will lead the concert.

“One of the things that I love about opera is that there are many cooks in the kitchen,” said Woollen, who prior to joining the ISO this season, spent several years in Vienna — a hotbed for 19th century opera composers.

“You’re sitting in the rehearsal room and there’s the choreographer, the stage director, the pianist, the assistant conductor and the conductor. It can be messy, but you throw all these crazy ideas together and make a collage out of it. That, I think, is what’s happened with this program.”

Indeed, “Scintillating Shakespeare” was developed with input from the evening’s featured soloists — soprano Madison King and tenor Carl Rosenthal, as well as Koch, former ISO music director Ken Lam and Woollen.

“What’s come out of it is something that is greater than what any one of us might have conceived,” Woollen said.

The program consists of excerpts from three Shakespearean operas by Giuseppe Verdi. Shakespeare, Woollen said, was a subject Verdi came back to throughout his career.

“They were both obsessed with theater,” he said. “They were obsessed with using every tool in their tool kit — whether it was costumes, whether it was timing of the speech — to authentically tell the story in the most compelling way.”

Tidbits from Verdi’s “Macbeth,” “Othello” and “Falstaff” are on the bill, plus three interpretations of the tragic love story, “Romeo and Juliet.”

Sections from Gounod’s opera after the ill-fated lovers from fair Verona are followed up by Tchaikovsky’s take. The soloists and orchestra also will perform selections by Leonard Bernstein from the 1957 musical “West Side Story” for a 20th century interpretation of the tale.

What do they all have in common?

“Love,” Koch said. “The power of the human spirit. I know it’s kind of cheesy, but I think the through-line of the program is relationships.”

“And we hope that couples coming to the concert for a date night have more successful relationships than the people in the story,” Woollen joked.

Though acutely aligned with the theme, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1920 suite inspired by Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is the sonic anomaly of the bunch.

“I chose the Korngold,” Woollen said, “and the reason was that I wanted to make sure we captured what I think is so unique about Shakespeare. He captures every single facet of the human experience.”

Not wanting to weigh the program too heavily toward tragedy, Woollen said the piece is “fun and sparkling,” as a nod to Shakespeare’s sense of comedy in the story of unassuming lovers Beatrice and Benedick.

“It’s youthful, it’s playful and it’s fun,” he said.

And for concertgoers apprehensive about opera, Koch said newcomers needn’t be intimidated.

“Do you like music? Do you like dance? Do you like drama? Then you’ll love opera,” she said. “People are scared of opera but I think that once they experience it, they truly embrace it.”

Illinois Symphony and MIOpera present “Scintillating Shakespeare” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb.11 at the Center for the Performing Arts at Illinois State University, 351 S. School St. Tickets and more information are available at ilsymphony.org.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.