Although the genre of “opera” may call to mind antiquated images of women in corsets and men in wigs, this music comes to life for sophomore Ben Burwell.
Every Monday at 4 p.m., Burwell shares his appreciation for opera with the Knox and Galesburg communities with a radio show on 90.7 WVKC. It is titled “Cantiamo,” which is Italian for “let’s sing.” This is the second term that the show has aired after it premiered last spring.
Aware that not all listeners may be familiar with opera, Burwell provides background knowledge throughout his show.
“Before each piece, I do a little intro to explain what’s going on so they can have some context of what they’re actually singing about. And then I play it,” he said. “I usually start with an overture and try to build up to a finale.”
Burwell said, though, that he had “no idea” if anyone listened to his show. He has had two visitors this year, both of whom are friends of his.
Regardless, he said that he liked the challenge of putting pieces together and creating an “emotional arc” in the span of an hour.
“It’s just really fun. I enjoy the music. Planning the show is something I really enjoy,” Burwell said.
Even if he has no listeners nearby, Burwell’s mother consistently tunes in via streaming. He said that she has been instrumental in cultivating his interest in opera.
“She would check out DVDs from the Lake College library, because she works at the Lake College library, and bought a bunch of DVDs and CDs. She’s interested and has really helped develop my collection,” he said.
Burwell first became interested in opera at a young age.
“There was a program called Opera for the Young, which visited the elementary school I went to,” he said. “They did condensed versions in translation into English. Those were really fun.”
Over the years, Burwell has refined his taste. He said that he enjoys mainly Italian operas and cited Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” as a favorite. Translating to “The Fallen Woman,” the opera is based on the play “La Dame Aux Camélias,” which is based on the novel of the same title by Alexandre Dumas.
Verdi remains one of Burwell’s favorite composers, along with Giacomo Puccini and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
What Burwell finds so compelling about opera is the emotional content, drama and, especially, the characterization.
“A lot of characterization in opera happens through the music,” he said. “If you just look at the text, it’s generally pretty cliché and bland. Not always — some of them have really interesting texts — but usually, the compelling stuff is that you get a sense of who the character is through what they’re singing.”