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A Sesquicentennial Celebration of Song

In early May, an owl, cat, frog, and zebra sat among the theatergoers at Lang Concert Hall. As the house lights dimmed and the all-student orchestra struck the opening notes to Tom Whitman ’82’s original operatic score, the “animals” in their brilliant costumes, sprang to life. They crept, leapt, and flew—the zebra, in spring-loaded stilts, bounced—introducing awed spectators to the magical realm of The Royal Singer.

Maurice Eldridge ’61, vice president for College and community relations and producer for the children’s opera, said the proposal for the College’s final sesquicentennial event immediately resonated. 

“I put out a call for ideas that would celebrate but also contribute to the community,” says Eldridge, who is retiring next spring. “[The opera idea] really engaged students and affected their academic and artistic lives.”

Perhaps no one would agree more than Kimaya Diggs ’15, who led the ensemble. English Professor Nathalie Anderson wrote the libretto and Assistant Professor of Theater K. Elizabeth Stevens directed the production. Diggs portrayed Professor Song, an ambitious, but past-her-prime chanteuse eager for one of her students to become the new royal singer. 

“It was challenging to learn the music and figure out the character without being able to read reviews or watch previous versions,” says Diggs, an English literature major who plans to pursue music professionally in Boston. “Having the opportunity to originate a role was a huge and exciting honor.” Diggs describes the opera collaboration with Whitman, Daniel Underhill Professor of Music, as “awesome.” She says that Whitman wrote her part specifically for her vocal range, listening to voice recordings and conferring with her vocal coach. 

The College’s celebration, through an interdisciplinary convergence of dance, voice, theater, and music, was made all the more Swarthmorean by the inclusion of eight elementary-school children from Whitman’s Chester Children Gamelan Project, which introduces youth in Chester, Pa., to traditional Balinese music through the xylophone-like Gamelan Angklung. 

“Tom [Whitman] and Nat [Anderson’s] commitment to involving both Swarthmore students and those young students in Chester throughout every aspect of the production has meant they all got to have that learning experience,” says Eldridge. “I think that is a true reflection of Swarthmore’s values.”