‘Medium’ Conjures Up Good Spirits

Fresh from the soul-wrenching chaos of World War II, Gian Carlo Menotti quietly opened a play in 1947 that became a Broadway hit. The opera is a haunting tale of Baba, a charlatan medium who preys upon the longing desire of people to connect with their dead relatives. Baba fails to cope with the real world and turns to alcoholism, while refusing to believe in the spiritual world that she professes. The result, along with somber haunting music by Menotti, is a contemporary ghost story framed by the melancholy despair of the postwar years.
The play awakened the interest of Vince Tycer, a third-year Master of Fine Arts candidate. “The Medium” will be Tycer’s first time directing an opera, an experience that is “vastly different” from his previous involvement in Shakespeare plays. Though separated by 60 years, Tycer believes the play still retains its postwar relevance.
“There are still people dying in wars every year in Africa and the feeling of endless war in the tensions of Eastern Europe,” Tycer said.
Tycer met with Robin Buck, the associate professor of music and the director of the UC Irvine Opera Program, about a year and a half ago to start talks about making “The Medium.” Buck was instrumental in producing the opera and getting the gears of production moving, as well as ensuring the cooperation of the drama, music and dance departments. A short time later, Kevin Kreckzo joined the team as production stage manager and fight choreographer.
As the drama, music and dance departments began to come together in the fall of 2007, the first design and concept meeting occurred, featuring the introduction of costume designer Martha Gretsch, a third-year Master of Fine Arts candidate. Gretsch and assistant Rachel Stivers are working with both the UCI and Fullerton College costume shops, which are collaborating on not one, but two complete wardrobes for the opera. Due to its large scale, “The Medium” has two full casts, and each member has a costume individually fitted, but otherwise identical to his or her counterpart.
This challenge did not daunt Gretsch, whose period costumes range from the rich outfits of the séance regulars, Mr. and Mrs. Gobineau, to the magnificent, haunting séance dress worn by Monica. Typical budget restraints led the costume department to refurbish or rent costumes from local shops, but the large production has allowed each costume to be created from scratch. Monica’s dress, in particular, contains fabric from an old christening dress from the 1860s. “It adds history to the dress,” Gretsch commented. “Almost as if the dress itself was haunted.”
Although the opera was cast in September, Sonja Karenek began learning the music in July on her own. This dedication helped her win the part of Monica, the eponymous medium’s daughter. “You will walk out of [the opera] completely creeped out,” guaranteed Karenek, an undergraduate music major. Although the production directors are mostly graduate students, the majority of the cast members are undergraduates.
Karenek commented on the typical operatic production, which consisted of choice scenes from several operas but limited in budget to whatever costumes the singers could find.
“We’d often bring the furniture for the production out of our living rooms,” Kreckzo said.
Not since the 1980s has there been this level of interaction between the music, drama and dance departments under the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. The lighting, sound and costume shops have been allocated additional time to focus on the production of “The Medium,” and the set has been meticulously crafted. The relatively small cast of eight individuals is offset by the large production efforts going into “The Medium.” “The effort is not evident in the cast size, but more a reflection of the artistic team’s entire sets, the lighting, sound and special effects,” Kreckzo said. Stephen Tucker is the music director for the production, which will be performed by the UCI Symphony Orchestra.
The year of preparation and extremely hard work will culminate in one weekend run, featuring shows at 8 p.m., Thursday, March 13 through Saturday, with a 2 p.m. matinee showing on Sunday, March 16.
Though the production directors are loath to say goodbye to their labor of love, the demands of other performances limit “The Medium” to a single run. “That’s part of the nature of theater