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Bethel opera tradition to celebrate 50 years

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- Not many small liberal arts colleges can boast the kind of long-lived musical tradition that Bethel College will be celebrating this year. Each year since 1955, the Bethel College theater and music departments have collaborated to produce an opera, operetta or major musical (sometimes more than one in a single season).

That 50-year tradition will be celebrated on Saturday afternoon, March 12, with a retrospective for all former performers and directors. A performance of selected works, as well as a sing-along, will take place at 3 p.m. in Memorial Hall. The program is free and open to the public.

The first actual opera to be staged at Bethel may have been "The Secret Life of Menno Hansheimer," the creation of some of Professor James Bixel’s music theory students in 1953. The subject was Bethel campus life and the piece was based on James Thurber’s "Secret Life of Walter Mitty," a favorite of Bixel’s.

"Bixel was quite ambivalent at what he had set in motion," says Harv Hiebert of North Newton, one of the students who wrote the piece, "but more at ease when [president] E.G. Kaufman sat in the front row laughing heartily at scenes such as the one of the faculty meeting."

"Menno Hansheimer" notwithstanding, the first broadly recognized opera to be given at Bethel, as a collaboration of the music and theater departments, was "Gianni Schicchi" by Puccini, performed in Memorial Hall during the 1954-55 school year. The first production in Krehbiel Auditorium of the new Fine Arts Center was "The Gypsy Baron" by Strauss in 1966.

The past 50 years have seen more than 80 productions at Bethel. Sometimes there has been both a musical and an opera produced in one year. At other times, two shorter works have been offered during the same performance weekend.

Bethel productions have ranged from such classics as Menotti’s "Amahl and the Night Visitors," Mozart’s "The Marriage of Figaro," Strauss’ "Die Fledermaus" and most recently (Spring 2004), Smetana’s "The Bartered Bride," to the less well-known, such as Britten’s "Albert Herring" and Copland’s "The Tender Land."

Some of the more unusual productions over the years have included "Benjamin Grede," an original opera inspired by Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol" and featuring music by Bethel alumnus and professor emeritus of music J. Harold Moyer and a libretto by Ruth Unrau.

Moyer also composed the music for "The Blowing and the Bending," given in October 1975. The musical drama, rooted in Mennonite pacifist experience during World War I, had a libretto written by alumnus and professor emeritus of history James Juhnke.

The 1988 production of Mozart’s "Cosi Fan Tutti" featured an alumni cast. Current students will perform in this spring’s opera, Gounod’s "Faust," to be presented March 10 at 8 p.m., and March 11 and 12 at 7:30 p.m., in Krehbiel Auditorium.

Alumni and other participants in Bethel College operas and musicals are being invited to prepare solos or an ensemble piece to perform at the 3 p.m. program in Memorial Hall on March 12. The program will also include an audience sing-along, with scores provided.

The special anniversary celebration will conclude with the performance of "Faust" at 7:30 that evening. Tickets for the opera are $10 for adults, $8 for non-Bethel students and adults age 65+, and $6 for children. Purchase tickets or make reservations in advance by contacting Thresher Bookstore, (316) 284-5205.

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