Nights at the opera

Stephen Prins attends a rehearsal of the Menaka Singers and Opera Ensemble

Singing voices - singers unseen but voices ringingly, thrillingly clear - greet us as we scramble up the steps leading into the Lionel Wendt Theatre auditorium.

The scene before us is "Seville, Spain." Well, not quite. The stage is bare of props, except for a couple of boxes serving as seats. The three singers on stage wear T-shirts and jeans, campus-style. Their mature, trained voices belie their years. They look in their early twenties. And they are singing the famous trio, "Ah, qual colpo inaspettato!" from Rossini's popular opera, The Barber of Seville. It is a dramatic moment of revealed identities, declared love, imminent danger, and plans for escape off a balcony and down a ladder. The soprano, the tenor, and the baritone look determined to convey all the passion, intensity and urgency of the occasion.

Menaka de Fonseka-Sahabandu Dhanushi Wijeyakulaso-oriya, soprano – Rosina Gehan Cooray, baritone – Figaro Jaliya Senanayake, tenor – Count Almaviva Laknath Seneviratne, bass– Dr. Bartolo

The rehearsal in progress is for this week's opera treat, "September Songs", a somewhat misleading concert title, as the songs are all arias and the concert is dedicated to opera. The Menaka Singers and the Menaka Singers Opera Ensemble will perform highlights from two of the most popular operas in the repertoire - Rossini's Barber and Bizet's Carmen.

The singers and ensemble have devised an interesting double bill out of the two operas. The two works' most famous arias will be sung in sequence by soloists and chorus, and between arias a narrator will tell the story of the opera.

"By performing the highlights and outlining the plot, we capture the spirit of the whole opera," said Menaka de Fonseka-Sahabandu, director of the Menaka Singers and the Menaka Singers Opera Ensemble. "It's as close to giving the audience a complete opera experience without performing the opera from A to Z. By the end of the evening, you will have two famous operas in your heart and mind to take home."

Mrs. de Fonseka-Sahabandu is being helped in the choreography by the baritone, Gehan Cooray, a theatre major from the University of Southern California, USA. He is in town for his summer vacation. His role is that of Figaro, "barber and factotum."

"The average age of my soloists is 21, and they're all still at university or just out of university," Mrs. de Fonseka-Sahabandu says. Tenor Jaliya Senanayake, who plays Count Almaviva, is an engineering student and music scholar at Jesus College, Cambridge, and he too is on summer vacation. Bass Laknath Seneviratne, who plays Bartolo the Doctor, is just out of Law College and has started his apprenticeship to become a lawyer, while soprano Dhanushi Wij- eyakulasooriya, who plays Rosina, Dr. Bartolo's wealthy ward, is an undergraduate at the University of Colombo, studying financial maths and industrial statistics.

"By day, they are focused on the real functional world, very non-opera, and in the evenings they come over and relax, singing their hearts out and losing themselves in operatic fantasy!" Mrs. de Fonseka-Sahabandu says with a laugh.

- "September Song", an evening of opera favourites, will be held at the Lionel Wendt Theatre on 6 and 7 September (Tuesday and Wednesday), starting at 7.30 pm. The concert is sponsored by the Earle de Fonseka Trust. Proceeds will go to the Professorial Paediatric Unit of the Lady Ridgeway Children's Hospital, Colombo.

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