A School Auditorium Comes Alive With The Sounds Of French Opera Coming Soon To Pennsauken: A Story Of Sex, Murder And The Devil.

Posted: November 21, 1993

PENNSAUKEN — Hark! What's that sound drifting down the halls of Phifer Middle School these days?


Faust, you say?


Fa, la, la, la, la, fa, fa is wafting out in a dizzying spiral from the girls' restroom.

Bump, bump, bump . . . bam, bam, bam . . . baaaaaaa explodes from behind the main auditorium.

Sweet, lyrical music - flutes and oboes and violins - floats up the long aisles of the auditorium, drifting over the wooden seats and out into the hallway.

Yes, the original "the devil made me do it" - the French opera Faust - is here.

For the sixth year in a row, the Mozart and Friends Festival, a nonprofit group in Pennsauken, will put on what it says is the only opera production in South Jersey.

The principals are professionals from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. So are some of the musicians. As for everyone else:

Can you carry a tune? Do you have 100 or so free hours to give up?

Join the chorus.

About 40 people from this side of the Delaware have done exactly that. A couple from Cherry Hill, others from Clementon, Morristown and Collingswood. Even the superintendent of Pennsauken schools, Harold Kurtz, will sing.

James V. Wiest, an opera performer and director from the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, is responsible for putting all the arias and death scenes together.

Sitting on the front steps of Phifer, where rehearsals are taking place all week, Wiest is chain-smoking and dreaming about a beer. He says he's happy that the crew isn't anywhere near ready for opening night.

"When you are dealing with a company that is grass-roots," Wiest said, ''you don't have all the little things that you have in a major (production). Here everyone does everything."

Wiest, who gives his age as 35-plus, says he got his start singing in a jazz bar in New York. He was 19.

Today, he's busy putting on a $17,000 production of Faust. It's his third time directing the opera, by Charles Gounod, which was written in French.

The plot, although filled with subplots and twists, tells the story of Faust, who just before killing himself makes a pact with the devil so he can be young again and fall in love.

The woman he woos, Marguerita, is a do-gooder. They have a child who dies by Marguerita's own hands. Eventually, as in all good operas, Marguerita dies. She has been torn apart, Wiest says, by the evil in Faust.

Sex, murder, the devil. All for $6.

About the same price as a current feature flick.

That is the idea, says Melinda K. Gaffney, president of Mozart and Friends. ''We were concerned that people really weren't listening to classical music anymore," she said. "Opera probably not at all."

And it's the same reason the French has been translated to English and some of the singing parts have been transformed to dialogue.

"We really are trying to make these things accessible not only to the adults, but students," Gaffney says. "We think people usually get intimidated by language. But for the first-time person, (the change) makes it so much easier to follow. They aren't going to come knowing their first aria."

Carina Krueger, a 17-year-old Cherry Hill singer, had never even seen an opera. "I like singing, and my teacher said I had a very operatic voice," she says. So she auditioned.

Now she's playing the part of a promiscuous woman. "It's a great part

because it's not really me," Krueger says.

In the orchestra, which has 36 members, the professional-to-amateur ratio is 50-50. Violinist Frederick Kuo is 13. "I just enjoy playing as part of a group," he says.

He admits the music is challenging. "School music is a lot easier."

The six principals have a little more experience. Yongmee Lee, 25, a graduate student at Temple University, is playing Marguerita. She auditioned along with 45 others for the principal parts in April.

"At this point in my age and stature, I need to get as much experience as I can," she says, resting against the stage in full costume.

Faust will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Pennsauken High School. For more information, call 662-3431.

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