Reinhardt University’s next student opera production takes a darker turn from previous performances with its showings of “Susannah” March 15-17.

In the story, based on the Apocryphal tale “Susannah and the Elders,” the titular character is an innocent young woman targeted by others as a sinner. Susannah Polk, played by Victoria Hill and Brianna Perez on alternating nights, faces judgement and abuse from a visiting preacher, played by Dylan Cronan, as well as the residents of her small rural mountain community in Tennessee.

The university opera program presents one full production a year, which has typically been a comedy or a story with a lighter tone. “Susannah” is a departure from those, with themes of abuses of power and sexual abuse in the church, said Assistant Professor of Music Cory Schantz, the opera’s director.

“For us, this opera is a risk, because we have developed this program over the last six years essentially on comedic operas or on operas that are generally hopeful. This opera is very dramatic,” Schantz said. “They are going to be challenged when they come to this opera. This is not a frivolous night out. They’ll come to the opera and they’ll be challenged in their thinking. It forces people to examine authority and whether authority is truly righteous, and it forces people to realize that sometimes they can find righteousness and morality in people that they don’t expect.”

The director said the text, written and premiered in the 1950s, was ahead of its time and for contemporary audiences speaks to the current political climate, including the #MeToo movement.

The play’s Southern setting and realistic dialogue bring the story to life, and some of the characters may be familiar to audience members.

“I grew up Southern Baptist in a very religious home in Oklahoma. I went to a Southern Baptist college, and I have been a part of numerous tent revivals and evangelical meetings with ‘hellfire and brimstone’ preachers. Some of the preachers I have listened to in my childhood could be the preacher that appears in this opera,” Schantz said.

In one such scene, the preacher, Olin Blitch, leads a church meeting initially asking for financial contributions from the congregation and ends up trying to save Susannah’s soul.

Hill, a senior at Reinhardt, said that the opera is very different than the last production she was in, “Così fan Tutte.”

“The music we’re having to memorize is some of the most challenging I’ve ever had to learn,” she said.

Other cast members are Alex Chappell, Spenser Dunn, Jaime Mandujano, John Pawlenko, Max Rampley, Zoe Reddick, Hannah Reich, Slade Searcy, Josh Vavases and Michael Vavases. The music director of the opera is Brian Osborne.

By the end of the play, the story’s heroine is changed forever, the director said.

“Some of the things I’ve read about this opera say that Susannah ends up bitter and alone, as if she’s been cast aside, but my interpretation is that she has made a choice to stand up for herself after everything that’s been done to her. ... And she would rather live a life of solitude than to live in a world so full of hypocrisy and hatefulness,” he said. “That final scene is going to be a very moving scene.”

Hill agreed with Schantz’s interpretation that the ending shows Susannah choosing her own path.

”I believe that through this whole process, she has kind of learned how she needs to survive,” she said. “She definitely comes out victorious. She realizes at the end of the opera that the people she thought were on her side, that loved her, don’t, and she has to be the one to stand up for herself and protect herself.”

Schantz encouraged audiences to support the student performers, and said the opera has beautiful music and talented singers.

“I would hope the community comes out and supports the artists they already nurture and help them continue to hone their craft in front of a live audience,” the director said.

“Susannah” runs 7:30 p.m. March 15-16 and 3 p.m. March 17. Performances are in Flint Hall at the Falany Performing Arts Center, 7300 Reinhardt College Parkway in Waleska. Tickets are $12.50. To purchase or for more information, call 770-720-9167, email boxoffice@reinhardt.edu or visit www.reinhardt.edu.

Shannon is a reporter covering education, city governments, crime, features, religion and other local news. She is a graduate of Young Harris College and currently lives in unincorporated Woodstock.

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