Grand Debut

A Philip Hagemann composition brings USI its first opera

The University of Southern Indiana’s music and theater programs are steadily building steam. This semester, they hit a milestone with the university’s Philip H. Hagemann Performing Arts Department’s semi-staged production of the opera “Ruth.”

Hagemann, the department’s namesake, is a Mount Vernon, Indiana, native and award-winning composer, conductor, and theater producer. He helped bring the Biblical story of Ruth to USI not just as a patron of the arts, but as the opera’s composer.

Photo by Shari Baird, Content Marketing Specialist for USI’s College of Liberal Arts. USI Associate Professor of Music Dan Craig leads students Julianna Korba, Mya Jaquemai, Maria True, and Ethan Hoover in a “Ruth” rehearsal.

Murray Rosenthal, Hagemann’s longtime business partner with Hagemann Rosenthal Associates, thinks the Bible story’s message inspired his friend’s adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s “Passion, Poison and Petrification.”

“We have all these instances in the Bible that indicate the acceptance of diversity,” Rosenthal says. “… Ruth is the most beautiful one of all these stories.”

To ensure accuracy, Hagemann shared the opera’s libretto with theologians. Once complete, the Tony Award-winning duo of Hagemann and Rosenthal turned to their good friend, acclaimed soprano and Pegasus Opera Company Artistic Director Alison Buchanan. They asked her to accept the opera’s title role for the production’s original run in London in 2018. Now, she will lead USI’s first performance of an opera.

The production involves all hands. Music is supplied by the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra under the director of Maestro Roger Kalia. Four members of the philharmonic chorus will join a dozen USI choral students. The six principal soloists sport costumes created by USI Theatre Department faculty and students.

Photo by Shari Baird, Content Marketing Specialist for USI’s College of Liberal Arts. Soprano Alison Buchanan rehearses with University of Southern Indiana choral students ahead of their production of the opera “Ruth.”

The university’s production teams say they are thrilled at the opportunities the project has given them. USI Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre Joshua Robinson serves as the opera’s director. In his first year at the university, he is using his experience in opera to solve fresh complications.

“One of the challenges has been putting all of the action and singing really far downstage … so the singers are communicating the meaning of the libretto and the music,” Robinson says.

Buchanan is the only Black British female artistic director of an opera company in the United Kingdom. After years of working with Hagemann, Buchanan has relished connecting with her friend’s Southern Indiana roots while preparing for her starring role in “Ruth.”

“It’s so nice to bring Phil’s music (to) the area that he’s connected with,” she says. “It’s a great inaugural production with a phenomenal finale.”

When You Go
7 p.m. Jan. 26-27, 2024 (Editor’s note: Both performance are sold out as of the morning of Jan. 25.)
University of Southern Indiana Performance Center, 8600 University Blvd.
Tickets: $20; $2 for USI students and $4 for non-USI students.


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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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