Mercer University Opera to perform scenes from Macon opera ‘Hugh Smalling’


Image: Rebecca Braun

Students prepare for the upcoming Hugh Smalling opera.

Yiren Zhang, Staff Writer

Macon has a long and colorful history, which has been well-preserved not just in books and buildings, but also in memories. The true tale of one Maconite has been rediscovered and immortalized in the new opera “Hugh Smalling,” composed by Mercer professor Christopher Schmitz.

The story took place during World War II, around the time Smalling joined the Navy. During his deployment, Hugh traveled and fell in love with an Australian girl, June Thomas.

However, in September 1943, the ship Smalling served on, the USS Nauset, was sunk. Hugh has been listed as “lost” since that day.

The play is based on Smalling’s many letters home about his journeys in the Navy and his newfound love. The opera also includes a sub-plot concerning the racism faced by black serviceman Benny, a friend of the Smalling family, after returning home from war.

“Hugh Smalling” is a collaboration between Schmitz, a national award-winning composer and Mercer professor, and local poet and historian Suzanne Doonan, who wrote the opera’s libretto.

“I was very interested in the prospect of composing an opera tied directly to the history of this region,” Schmitz said. “Suzanne and I brainstormed ideas for a subject, and the Hugh Smalling story immediately appealed to us.”

Mercer University Opera is preparing an upcoming performance of “Hugh Smalling” in a workshop format: there will be no scenery, minimal costumes and props, and only selected scenes from the opera will be performed.

All the focus will be on showcasing the artistic talents of the actors and musicians. The company includes a cast of 17, including soloists and a chorus, accompanied by an orchestra of 14, all students from Mercer.

“I am continually amazed at the talent of our students,” Schmitz said, “They are truly bringing the characters to life in front of our eyes! Mercer faculty [director] Martha Malone and [musical director] Rich Kosowski bring a wealth of operatic experience to this project with their expert stage and musical direction.”

Director Martha Malone is particularly confident in the opera’s production value.

“The story of this young man’s experiences and the culture and time in which he lived is compelling, and composer Chris Schmitz has given a masterful setting to Suzanne Doonan’s  powerful, evocative lyrics and dialogue,” Malone said in an email. “We hope to mount a full production of the entire opera in the near future. The fact that the story is drawn from local history adds an immediacy and relevance to the experience of our student cast. It’s been a wonderful opportunity for all of us to participate in the creation of a new work written specifically for our singers.”

The premiere of “Hugh Smalling” (as a work in progress) will be held in Fickling Hall of the  McCorkle Music Building on March 28 from 7-8 p.m. It is open to the general public for a $7 admission fee at the entrance, and free for students with a school ID.