Director Alan E. Hicks assumes leadership of Texas Tech’s renowned opera program at a time when opera needs to hit a high note.
They will soon transform from vocal students into Italian characters vying for true love, revenge and a little glory. The ensemble in the School of Music, housed in the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts, will perform Donizetti's “L'Elisir d'Amore” – “The Elixir of Love.”
The choice is an intentional setting of the stage by new director Alan E. Hicks. While operas everywhere are struggling to attract audiences, Hicks hopes to buck the trend by producing shows that can both stretch his students and easily welcome even the least knowledgeable of viewers.
Hicks explained most people know more opera than they think they do.
The general public listens to a great deal of opera, starting early in life with cartoons. The genre's arias and overtures are the soundtracks to many commercials. They add suspense to the movies we love and humor for our favorite characters.
Despite that exposure, many people never attend a live opera.
Hicks and the performers at Texas Tech hope Lubbock audiences will now go a step further and attend a live performance.
“The Elixir of Love is one of my favorite ‘bubble gum operas' so to speak,” Hicks said – it's funny, energetic and will get you home before 11 p.m.
Creating an opera scene that is relatable, approachable and open to all walks of life is paramount to Hicks. That and creating the best opera program for students.
Hicks started at Texas Tech this fall, after finishing his tenure as resident stage director at the San Diego Opera. He has been in professional opera for more than 25 years, first as a performer then as a stage director. He also has an extensive background in teaching.
He has been on the faculty at San Diego State University, University of Houston, The University of Iowa, Sam Houston State University, as well as the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the Actors Studio Drama School.
Because of the resources this state puts into extracurriculars, students arrive at college with a better foundation and techniques. While Hicks has enjoyed teaching across the world, he insists there is something special about Texas.
“I returned to Texas because it has the most talented students, period,” Hicks said.
It's not the 20-plus opera companies Hicks worked with that made him the ideal candidate for the job, though that never hurts. Hicks brings a sincere sense of responsibility for students and a love for Texans that will serve him well.
“Hiring a new faculty member charged with overseeing an opera program is a pivotal moment for any music school, but especially for Texas Tech considering the success its program has enjoyed,” said Andrew J. Stetson, director of the School of Music. “Dr. Hicks brings a rare balance of professional credits, academic credentials and university teaching experience to Texas Tech.
“There is no one better situated to guide our students on their journey from the time they audition to the moment they take the stage.”
As a Costa Rican-American, Hicks possesses an understanding of opera that transcends the typical Western expression of the art.
“I am eager to have our students learn some Spanish operas,” Hicks said.
Spanish operas are the exception to their Italian, French and German counterparts (and would be greatly welcomed, as this writer has sat through incredibly long German operas and is still recovering).
Hicks feels it would be a disservice to ignore the Spanish repertoire at a Hispanic-Serving Institution, in a community that is almost 40% Hispanic.
While most performances will be in a foreign language, Hicks assures audiences there will be subtitles. He also hopes to explore multimedia usages to make shows even more breathtaking.
While the operas will look imaginative and transport audiences to another time, they will always aim to be relatable.
“Opera is storytelling at its core,” Hicks explained. “It's a form of storytelling that predates operetta and musical theater. It laid the foundation for storytelling through music. Without it, we would have no ‘Mama Mia!' or ‘Hamilton.'
“If audiences enjoy those shows, it's worth exploring the art form they originated from.”
So why don't audiences flock to the opera like they do to other types of shows? Especially in West Texas?
Some may not know there is opera in Lubbock. But Texas Tech has a long legacy of first-rate performances and has produced some of the world's most renowned opera stars, including Susan Graham.
Second, and more likely, opera faces the public stereotype of being high-brow and a bit snobbish.
“It's unfortunate because that's not at all how opera used to be,” Hicks said.
While conceived as entertainment for the Courts of Renaissance Italy, it took only 30 years for the first public opera houses to open and become entertainment for the masses.
Along the way, though, opera again became associated with the rich, the elite and the nefarious.
“One of the things that drives me crazy is how movies portray villains always listening to opera,” Hicks asserted. “What's with that?”
Hicks and his students want to revitalize the art form.
In addition to creating awareness and overcoming unfavorable stereotypes, there is an overarching audience apathy throughout the performing arts right now. Whether it stemmed from COVID-19 or was in the works beforehand, artists now have the task of engaging audiences in an increasingly virtual world.
“We might try producing operas online,” Hicks said, not closed off to any ideas. “But at the same time, we'll always need a live audience. That's how our students learn. Without an audience, their education will suffer.” But Hicks isn't too worried about that; he has some ideas up his sleeve.
What those are? Well, you'll have come to find out.