The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Conductor Andrew Sewell explains why Cherubini’s opera “Medea” is a neglected masterpiece that deserves its production by University of Wisconsin students. | November 7, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

The weekend and early next week will see three performances of the opera “Medea” by Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) by the University Opera and the UW Chamber Orchestra at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Performances are in Music Hall (below), at the foot of Bascom Hill, on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m.;’ and Tuesday, Nov. 13, at 7:30 p.m.

Single tickets are $22 for general admission; $18 for seniors and non-UW students; and $10 for UW-Madison students.

Here is a link to the University Opera’s site:

Here is a link to the extensive program and production notes, with cast interviews, by the outreach and support organization Opera Props:

The student cast promises to be outstanding, especially with soprano Shannon Prickett (below) who had won a stage of the famous Metropolitan Opera auditions and also picked up the People’s Choice Award for her efforts. Prickett also won acclaim when she sang the lead role of Mimi in University Opera’s 2011 production of Puccini’s “La Boheme” and with the UW Choral Union in its performance of Verdi’s Requiem last spring at the Overture Center. Here is a link to the news story about her and other Wisconsin singers:

Here is a list of the rotating roles and performers: Cassie Glaeser (Nov. 9 and 13) and Shannon Prickett (Nov. 11) as Medea; Alex Gmeinder (9), Aldo Perelli (11) and Daniel Lopez (13) as Jason, leader of the Argonauts; Ariana Douglas as Glauce, daughter of King Creon; Bethany Hickman (9 and 13) and Amy Sheffer (11) as Neris; James Held and Erik Larson as rein; Lydia Eiche and Anna Whiteway as First and Second Handmaiden respectively; and William Ottow as Captain of the Guard.

Finally, this time the conductor is not the usual one, James Smith Instead, Andrew Sewell, the music director of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, which performs the popular Concerts on the Square in Summer and the outstanding winter Masterworks series, will be on the podium as a guest conductor.

Sewell (below) recently took time out from his very busy schedule of rehearsals for both the opera and upcoming performances by the WCO to answer an email Q&A about “Medea”:

You have the reputation for exploring neglected composers and repertoire. What would you like to tell the public about Cherubini; about his music in general; and his opera “Medea” in specific?

I think composers like Cherubini carried tremendous weight in shaping the styles of their contemporaries, and heavily influenced younger composers.  So much of his music sounds like Mozart, yet the dramatic fever of this plot, points to a later generation. Hence, it appealed to Beethoven and later Brahms.

The intensity of the three overtures and close connection between theatrical and musical events makes this opera so compelling emphasizing the conflict, and impending tragic result.  There is an underlying sinister element to Medea’s character, in contrast to the innocence and virtue of Glauce’s character for instance, that Cherubini (below) captures. The arias and choruses go at “full throttle” and don’t let up very often. (At bottom,the famed Maria Callas sings the finale.)

What would you like to say about the quality of the UW student players and singers?

The singers are well cast. Bill Farlow (below, the stage director for “Medea” and director of University Opera) has such a passion for this opera, and the singers have responded in kind.  The members of the chamber orchestra have been very engaged and are working hard.  It has been a pleasure for me to conduct them.

Does conducting an opera require any special skills beyond what you normally do with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra?

Yes, you have to have a different mindset. It requires a lot more give and take, and being prepared for anything that may come along. It’s particularly important in recitatives and making them work seamlessly.

You have worked with students before and you are often seen attending student performances. How do you view educational commitments compared to professional ones?

I enjoy working with students at any time, as you know, with the Side by Side concerts that we have done with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). With my own children going through WYSO (below), I’m very supportive of educational institutions.

This has been a great opportunity to work with the university students and the UW opera department. I’m happy to be a support to the UW School of Music and its faculty.

Is there anything else you would like to add or say?

Works like “Medea” by Cherubini should be heard, and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to conduct this neglected masterpiece. Earlier this season, the Chicago Symphony presented Cherubini’s Requiem under its new music director, Ricardo Muti.

1 Comment »

  1. Music lovers in the Madison area have a rare opportunity to experience this intensely dramatic work. By all means listen to the “Medea” excerpt provided above, to hear how Cherubini’s music expresses the awful events of this opera’s finale. And other excerpts, even the whole opera, are available at

    But to really understand what’s going on, you should be there in Music Hall to hear the wonderful student singers enact their roles, with helpful surtitles translating the sung Italian.
    For more information, go to the current Opera Props newsletter at

    As Johnny Brahms himself observed,
    “This Medea, it is what we musicians recognize among ourselves as the highest form of dramatic music.”
    By all means, be there – Friday, Sunday matinee, or next Tuesday.


    Comment by Dan Shea — November 9, 2012 @ 1:10 am

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