Opera students prepare for their performance of ‘The Scarlet Letter’


Rachel Rudisill/ The Sunflower

Chorus member, Madison Roths, prays with the villagers that Hester’s sins will not bring evil into the community. Roths and the villagers bombarded Minister Arthur Dimmesdale to reveal Hester’s punishment.

American composer Lori Laitman brought Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel “The Scarlet Letter” to life through her opera production. Written in 2008 and revised in 2016, the production has only been performed about four times. On April 8 and 9 Wichita State University will perform Laitman’s piece with two groups of students.

“Yes, we do Mozart, we do all of the classic composers, but to get to do [a production by a] living composer is pretty exciting,” Director of Opera Studies Alan Held said. “It’s fun because the music has different harmonies, different sounds than we’re used to, but it’s still put to such a relatable story that most people have read in high school.”

The plots are the same in the novel and the opera. After two years of no contact from her presumed dead husband, Hester Prynne has relations with another man and becomes pregnant out of wedlock. She is condemned by her community, and chooses to take the punishment alone after refusing to reveal the identity of her lover. 

Hester also is forced to wear a scarlet A on her chest representing adultery. After she gives birth to her daughter Pearl, it is revealed that her husband, Roger Chillingworth is alive and well. 

The production revolves around Pearl’s life and the audience watches her grow up. Early in the opera, the identity of Pearl’s father is revealed to be Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, but only Chillingworth knows identity and uses that information to torture him.

“In some ways, it’s an allegory for our times as well,” Held said.

Auditions for “The Scarlet Letter” occurred last October, but rehearsals did not occur until the middle of February. 

“Every day, the students are being thrown a little something new, but as a whole they have taken the challenge and done extremely well,” Held said.

For many WSU students, including first-year master student Cole McIlquham, the production will be their first major opera piece.

“I am really excited,” McIlquham said. “The music is modern, but it still kind of harks back to some old traditions of nice thematic material and tuneful melodies. Everything is working nicely and it feels really good to be back on the stage.”

McIlquham performs as Dimmesdale on April 8. To prepare for his role, he studied character analysis.

Ashley Ruckman, seen in previous WSU operas including Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera, returns to the stage as Hester Prynne on April 9. 

“I have done so much practicing, diction and character work,” Ruckman said. “I’ve read a lot of books about Hester specifically, and obviously ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and just trying to figure out what Lori Laitman wants from the character has been the focus of my preparation.”

Tickets are available at the College of Fine Arts Box Office or by calling 316-978-3233. WSU students receive one free ticket with their Shocker ID.