Q&A: CCM student Emma Marhefka discusses her company debut with Knoxville Opera
Marhefka shares her experience working professionally while earning her MM in Voice Performance
Emma Marhefka, a second-year master’s student in the UC College-Conservatory of Music’s Voice Performance program, made a company debut this fall with Knoxville Opera singing the role of Younger Alyce in Tom Cipullo’s 2007 opera Glory Denied. The production, directed by Dean Anthony and conducted by Steven White, ran Sept. 9-11, 2022.
Marhefka’s debut in Knoxville came after a busy year: in February, she made her professional debut singing Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi with Opera Tampa, and covered the role of Ännchen in Der Freischütz as an Apprentice Artist with Wolf Trap Opera this summer. At CCM, she has appeared as Susanna in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, and was a winner of CCM’s 2021 Opera Scholarship Competition.
Below, follow along as Marhefka transforms into the character of Susanna from The Marriage of Figaro.
Q&A With Emma Marhefka
In the following interview, Marhefka reflects on her experience of working professionally while still in school and talks more about the impactful story of Glory Denied.
How did this opportunity come about? When did you find out you were going to be a part of the project?
I landed this job through a director and mentor of mine, Dean Anthony, with whom I had previously worked on multiple productions. We actually met doing the world premiere of another Tom Cipullo opera Mayo. I found out I would be part of this project at the end of last year and had it finalized around February.
Can you talk a bit about the opera's plot? How did it feel to know you were portraying a person who actually lived?
Glory Denied tells the story of Captain Jim “Floyd” Thompson, the longest held prisoner of war in American history. During the Vietnam war he was a POW (prisoner of war) for almost nine years. The opera explores the time of his imprisonment and the early years of his return home. The opera tells this story through a collage of timelines featuring four characters: Older Thompson, Younger Thompson and his wife (Younger Alyce and Older Alyce.) The counterpoint of all four characters and timelines help to tell this dynamic, heartbreaking and little-known story. The opera is based on a book of the same name by Tom Philpott.
I felt a great deal of responsibility portraying a real person. Particularly since this story is very recent history and the children of Jim and Alyce, who are mentioned by name in the opera, are still alive today. Since the opera is based on a book of interviews and letters from the people themselves, majority of the text I sang is words that Alyce actually said or wrote. With that gift I just tried to approach the story and “character” with as much respect as possible.
Younger Alyce is a bit unique as during much of the opera she is representing an idealized version of Alyce in Jim’s head.
Tell me about Cipullo's music. Do you have to focus on something in particular while preparing it?
I believe his music has a beautiful ability to portray nostalgia and some of the more beautiful aspects of humanity profoundly well. It’s such an honor to be singing his music again. Because of the sheer amount of material and emotions this piece covers the music is quite complex and difficult. I had to focus a lot on rhythms and internalizing meter changes when learning the score. Also, since the music is sometimes a collage of different emotions and stories, learning how my music fit into the bigger picture was an important aspect I had to focus on.
What was the rehearsal process like?
The rehearsal process was wonderful. It was a unique show for three reasons: the first being that we almost never left the stage throughout the opera, the second that we hardly ever interacted with anyone else on stage and the third being that there were two versions of the same character standing within a few feet of each other at all times. The rehearsal process called for a lot of attention to detail, prop organization and ensemble work. Although we as performers rarely interacted, there was a deep sense of trust and connection we had to form in order to tell this story.
How was it “sharing” a role with a singer who portrayed an older version of the same character?
It was an extremely unique experience “sharing” a role with someone portraying an older version of the character, especially since we were existing simultaneously on stage. It was wonderful to have a part of the character which I could develop on my own and another part of the character in which I could collaborate with someone else to discover. I was so lucky to be working with Caroline Worra, an incredible colleague and performer who has done the role of Older Alyce many times before. She knows the character so well that it was truly an honor to witness and be a part of her Alyce’s world. There are many moments in the opera when the two versions of Alyce sing together or mimic a similar gesture or movement. It was a beautiful thing to be connected with a colleague in such a unique way. It was certainly a challenge as a performer but one that I found very exciting.
And lastly, coming back to school, what are you looking forward to this year?
I’m very much looking forward to singing Mary Johnson in Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers with CCM Opera in the spring. I’m also excited to be singing Younger Alyce with the same wonderful team at Opera Roanoke in February! New American opera is so important to me and any chance I get to be a part of it is a real treat.
About CCM Opera/Voice
Declared a top college vocal program by Backstage Magazine and described as “one of the continent’s major music schools,” by the Toronto Star, CCM’s Departments of Opera and Voice provide one of the most comprehensive training programs for opera singers, coaches and directors in the United States. CCM offers an international faculty of dedicated educators who are also celebrated professionals in their own right, widely and currently active in their respective fields.
CCM sends its students out into the profession. Several national opera companies now hold auditions at the conservatory, and the Opera Department also hosts a series of informational talks by nationally renowned professionals working both in America and in Europe. CCM students frequently advance to the final rounds of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and CCM graduates have performed on the stages of the world’s greatest opera companies, including Cincinnati Opera, the Metropolitan Opera (New York), Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, Royal Opera (London), La Scala (Italy), and more.
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Lucy Evans is a master’s student studying Vocal Performance at CCM. She is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, and was recently an Apprentice Artist with the Santa Fe Opera.
Featured image at the top: CCM student Emma Marhefka as Younger Alyce in Knoxville Opera's production of Glory Denied; Photo/Eli Johnson