In the months before graduation, many students in UVA’s fourth-year class embrace “senior spring” by soaking up sun on the Lawn, checking items off the list of “118 things to do before you graduate” or hanging out with friends instead of attending class. But Wesley Diener, who’s graduating from the music department’s distinguished major program, won’t have any of those luxuries until after April 21, when he presents and performs in his second capstone project—Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s opera Le Devin du village.
Diener’s love of music and performance began when he was 8 years old, and evolved into his current specialty as a baritone. “I’m an opera performer, but I’ve become passionate about directing in the past few years,” Diener says. “Opera is a perfect marriage of music and theater, and being involved in the production lets you choose what the product is going to be.”
Though Le Devin is the first opera Diener will direct, he’s no stranger to the director’s chair. Last year he shepherded a musical and a play performed at UVA’s Helms Theatre, and last summer Diener worked on the directing team for Charlottesville Opera’s performance of Oklahoma!.
“It’s always a learning game, and each thing I’ve done has been so different,” he says. “It’s exciting. Since I’ve started directing, it’s informed me as an actor.”
Diener hopes to take Le Devin’s timeless yet old sensibilities and imbue reinvented humor and contemporary qualities into his interpretation of the piece—to “breathe new life into it” and “bring it into today.”
First performed in 1752 in front of Fontainebleau’s royal court, the one-act French opera was originally presented as an intermezzo and would show between acts of a larger opera. Diener chose to “cut the fluff” even further and forego a lot of music, the ballet divertissement and courses that the traditional French presentation of the opera would include.
“My first priority was choosing something that was realistic and practical in order to be successful,” he says. “It’s a small cast with music appropriate for young singers.” (He points out that his baritone voice won’t be in its prime until his late 30s.)
“The opera’s generalized story is one that is contemporary in nature,” Diener says. “It’s two lovers who aren’t able to express themselves in the way that they want to or should.”
Playing the role of Colette is Josephine Miller, another distinguished major in the performance concentration, and performing the role of Colin is Rachel Mink, a recent graduate and development officer for UVA’s architecture school. Diener will play Le Devin, the soothsayer and the opera’s third and final character. His presentation will reinterpret the soothsayer as a puppeteering tarot card reader whose ill-advised recommendations and antics sway the young lovers and cause chaos.
“In today’s world, it’s very easy to look into each other’s lives and think we have clarity over other people,” says Diener. “It’s so easy to say, ‘This person should do this, and that person should do that.’ How far is too far in directing one another’s lives?”
With the role of Colin written for a tenor, Diener’s choice to cast two female leads was less an act against heteronormative operatic traditions, and more an act of necessity. He says it’s exciting to see actors who are actually close to the age of their characters.
“Rachel has been working on her masculinity. I have to tell her to keep her wrists down,” Diener says of the cast’s preparation. “In reinterpreting the opera, we have to use physicality the most. It’s what we have the most freedom over.”