Alisa Belflower tackled Voltaire. She won over Leonard Bernstein. Now, a new obstacle stood in her way.
It was February 2013. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's production of “Candide” was scheduled to open that night. As coordinator of Musical Theatre Studies at UNL and director for the opera, Belflower invested a year of her life in the project. It took several months just to negotiate the rights. She directed a cast of more than 40 students, all playing multiple roles. Now, finally, it was showtime.
Then it snowed. And snowed.
For hours, she and her cast waited to hear from the university's administration, until finally they learned opening night would have to wait.
But the wait proved worth it. This past Saturday in New York, Belflower accepted first prize from the National Opera Association for UNL's 2012-13 production of “Candide.” The school competed with other universities in a division for operas with similar budgets and student casts.
“I'm very humbled by it in that I look back on it and it feels like I did the impossible,” said Belflower, a South Carolina native who came to UNL in 2000. “Or almost impossible.”
It was no small feat just landing permission to do the show. She first needed approval from Mary Zimmerman, the Nebraska-born playwright and Tony Award winning director whose 2010 interpretation for Chicago's Goodman Theatre left Belflower in awe.
“There wasn't even really a script for the work,” Belflower said. “I just got basically the notes, which sometimes didn't include character names, and sometimes included actor names instead of character names.”
She also needed permission from the estate of conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein.
“I had to sign an agreement that I wouldn't change any notes within a measure,” she said.
The back and forth dragged on for months, but Belflower persevered. She researched everything from the original 18th century Voltaire text to the various productions employing Bernstein's music through the years.
“I hesitated for a quick minute at the beginning of the process, because it was just so labor intensive and it frankly rested on me,” she said. “I worked with some great designers and an amazing cast and wonderful musicians in the orchestra, but still there was the responsibility of binding it all together into something that was cohesive art.”
It was an ambitious production with many significant roles filled by students with busy schedules and many demands. But that played into what Belflower considered a strength.
“I have so many talented singers and actors who need and deserve on-stage experience, that I just thought this was the perfect production,” she said.
It also agreed with Belflower's personal agenda to never underestimate what student performers, designers and musicians are capable of delivering.
“If they're going to be professionals, I believe they're capable of work that is artistically at a professional level,” she said. “I fought really hard to help the cast do as professional level work as they were capable of doing. That involved a lot of teaching and asking more from them than perhaps they're asked in other areas because they are still students.”
It took months before Belflower could wake up in the morning and not instinctively think of tweaks to make to the show.
“I think the thing I learned is maybe that nothing is impossible if you give it enough of your energy,” she said.