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Frostburg State University Vocal Musicians Embrace Unordinary Opera

Frostburg State University Vocal Musicians Embrace Unordinary Opera
Marse Romero, David Cook and Sakkara Turner perform in “Opera Surf: Find Your Own Channel.”

Opera isn’t all Verdi and Puccini, as Frostburg State University music students found out this spring. Musical numbers, classic opera pieces, music theatre scenes and even a rap all came together for an opera variety show called “Opera Surf: Find Your Own Channel.”

The performance included a multimedia component so the audience could feel like they were flipping channels on a TV to see different types of songs performed in an opera style. It was a special approach last semester, a way to change the minds of those who might think opera is stuffy and can’t be fun.

“The idea for this semester was to embrace different genres, but with the main course being the opera,” said Dr. Mariana Mihai-Zoeter, an adjunct professor who leads the opera course and production of the opera. Mihai-Zoeter, a native of Romania, has performed in numerous operas around the world in her career.

The numbers ranged from “Good Morning Baltimore” from “Hairspray,” “I Feel Pretty” from “West Side Story” to “The Flower Duet” by Leo Delibes, a duet from Gaetano Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” and much more.

The show was intended to break the misconceptions about opera for audiences, but it also brought new perspectives to the performers.

A jazz singer, freshman Tony Dyson of Lexington Park in St. Mary’s County, wasn’t so sure about joining the opera, but he became hooked after seeing all the elements combined.

“I thought I was going to just be standing there and singing, and I was going to be really upset,” he said. “But there's a lot of acting. That's my favorite part about the entire thing – I like the acting.”

That combination of singing, acting and the production is what makes opera so special, said Mihai-Zoeter, who was honored with the 2016 Outstanding Faculty Award at the FSU Leadership Awards this spring.

“It’s the voice that you hear when you listen to opera, but then you go to the plot and the story. All of this together, I can’t even describe how this makes me feel,” she said.

Vocal performance classes and other courses, including Music 346: The Opera, helped students prepare for the opera theatre program, held each semester. Non-music majors taking voice classes still receive direction and instruction from Mihai-Zoeter to perfect their performances.

“The music is a lot of legato singing – very bel canto kind of singing,” said music performance and philosophy double major David Cook of Silver Spring. “I love it because one day maybe I'll be a bel canto singer.”

Bel canto singing allows the voice to resonate while maintaining excellent breath control to give that Italian opera sound.

While minoring in a foreign language is suggested for the vocal performance concentration, knowing Italian wasn’t needed for “Opera Surf.” Singing opera in English can actually be more challenging, Cook added.

“In order to cut through the notes and move through the music, you have to go vowel to vowel,” Cook said. “The vowels are so important for the voice to move on. Italian, German and French – it’s a lot easier to travel on the vowels than it is in English, and I’m an English speaker!”

Sakkara Turner of Rockville is used to singing in choirs, and opera helps put the shoulders of a song on her.

“In choir, you focus on the overall sound of everybody and blending your voice. But in opera, you're up there and you have to perform. They all know it's you because you're the only one singing at that time. It gives you a lot of confidence to be able to present yourself and your talents.”

Pateley Bongiorni’s father is a second-generation Italian, but country music dominated her home growing up in Charles County’s La Plata. It’s fair to say that no one expected her to devise an “opera rap” as part of the show, but she followed through on her proposal.

“I really like rhythm, especially body percussion,” said the music education major. So, she came up with lyrics using a beat-box type of rhythm doing a shout-out to each of the cast and crew members during the show.

“I was a little nervous because people look at me and think OK, this girl is going to rap? I don't look like your typical rapper,” Bongiorni said. “It felt really good. People responded to it really well.”

The students are also fortunate to have the proscenium-style Pealer Recital Hall in which to perform the opera, Mihai-Zoeter added.

“I think students here at Frostburg State University lucky to have this wonderful performance recital hall,” she said. “The acoustics are amazing. The conditions are wonderful. The lights have panels on the ceilings so we can change them, and the sound changes. We are lucky to have this space for us to perform. “

Turner realizes how lucky she is on the stage and seeing how the technical crew enhances the production.

“It was kind of awestruck and awesome when you're up there singing, too, because you hear how it goes out in the room,” she said. “You're like, ‘oh my God, this is good!’ And the lights and the … everything!”

For more information about FSU’s Department of Music and its programs, visit

Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit or Follow FSU on Twitter @frostburgstate.

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