NOVEMBER 22, 2023 — UTSA music students are temporarily exchanging their spots on stage for on-screen roles in a first-of-its-kind collaboration. Chamber opera students from the university’s School of Music and students in the Film and Media Studies Program partnered to create a short film called Soul of Word.
The 10-minute film is based on an original short opera written by music faculty and staff and performed by music students, who play the main characters in the film. The film students’ adaptation of the opera is scheduled to make its premiere at the Film and Media Studies end of semester screening Wednesday, November 29, at the Santikos Entertainment Palladium.
The opera explores the importance of language, specifically how the words we understand and utilize can make a person feel connected or disconnected to their cultural heritage. The storyline explores three different relationships: a Mexican family experiencing a language barrier; two Romanian friends disagreeing about the role the church plays in their lives; and a couple interpreting various paintings at a museum.
Performers Callan Sramek (left) Emma Madalina (right) talk to director Selah Major on set.
Inspiration for the opera was taken from the Japanese word, “Kotodama,” meaning “soul of words” or “soul language,” and from Mexican and Romanian cultures. The original piece explores themes of language and culture with rich original music and lyrics.
“I expected the filming process to be a lot more stressful, but working with the film crew was so rewarding for us,” said music student Callan Sramek, who plays the Romanian woman wanting to worship at an American church. “It was a brand-new way of creating that I hope I get to experience again.”
Leading the project is Jourdan Laine Howell, associate professor of Instruction, Voice and Lyric Theatre in the School of Music, and Guillermina Zabala Suárez, professor of practice in the Film and Media Studies program.
“We wanted to touch on cultures that were meaningful to the people involved in the process, which we examined through the lens of language,” Howell said. “Wesly S. Uchiyama Penix, the composer of this opera, is Japanese-American, which is why I wanted to focus on Japanese culture as the primary link between each vignette in the show.”
When it came to selecting singers for the opera and film adaptation, Howell said, she chose students who could offer their own unique voice.
“We have jazz singers, contemporary singers, musical theatre singers and opera singers in this cast; I love the variety,” she said.
Howell’s course and Zabala Suárez’s senior seminar in humanities ran simultaneously so that students on both sides could drop in on one another’s classes throughout the process.
Music students spent weeks pre-recording their songs for film and working on character development and vocal delivery. Divided into teams, film students tackled different aspects of film production such as sound, lighting, screenwriting, directing, production design and cinematography.
Together, they bounced ideas off one another and solved visual and narrative puzzles. Film students attended vocal rehearsals, took notes, asked questions and offered valuable suggestions about character portrayals for filming.
“The idea of the collaboration is that the music and films students are going to work together to make this adaptation possible,” Zabala Suárez said. “It’s like a two-part project. The music students worked on the opera, and film students wrote a script based on that same opera to adapt it for film.”
Zabala Suárez added, “They kept the opera’s story pretty much the same but changed it into a short musical that is more cinematic with real locations and broken into different scenes with different camera angles.”
Sramek said everyone was outside of their comfort zone, but it was an eye-opening experience to see each other’s world.
“I’ve never done any kind of acting or anything like this before, but I'm so glad I tried it,” she said. “It’s so fun. If you imagine yourself on stage at any point in your career, this is definitely the class to take. Or if you want to step outside your comfort zone, take this class; the exposure is outrageous.”
Music students also got the chance to perform the opera version of Soul of Word as part of Lyric Theatre’s new initiative, called Epigrams, last week. The initiative commissions mini-operas composed by students-artists studying in the School of Music and by professional composers.
When Soul of Word makes it to the big screen, Zabala Suárez hopes viewers will see more than just a movie.
“I would like the audience to appreciate the beauty of these two disciplines, film and music, and see how this student and faculty collaboration is bringing them together in a unique film experience,” she said.
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