MHS graduate Gracelynn Penn looks back at canceled opera, national award

MHS graduate Gracelynn Penn looks back at canceled opera, national award
Dave Faries

Gracelynn Penn remembers vividly the day campus shut down last March. “The Clever Artifice of Harriet and Margaret” was set to open the next day, with Penn in the role of Margaret.

“It was Friday the 13th, too,” she said.

The 2019 Mexico High School graduate and her University of Missouri-St. Louis cast mates never got the opportunity to perform the unique opera. In November, however, they received some welcome news. They had won first place in the National Opera Association’s Division 1 Opera Competition.
“I could not believe it,” Penn said. “It was really exciting.”

The award more than softened the blow of having the show canceled. Penn, along with Madeleine James, Sophie Loban, Lexi Neal and director Stella Markou had worked for months. The costuming was elaborate.

The rigors of opera were new to Penn, who was wrapping up her freshman year as a music major specializing in vocal performance. Her last stage production at MHS had been the musical Oklahoma.

But Penn’s voice instructor urged her to audition for the show.

“It was different from anything I’ve ever done,” Penn explained. “I was singing in the stratosphere.”

The crew received permission for a final dress rehearsal before family members that was also recorded — a bit of fortune that allowed the UMSL Opera Theatre to send an entry to the prestigious competition.

Penn’s character, Margaret, is locked in a cutting argument with her friend Harriet about an artist. The opera, which was written by Leanna Kirchoff, has a unique twist. While the two characters converse for the public, two others — representing their inward thoughts — share what they are holding back from the dialogue.

Recently the music department held a cabaret that allowed Penn and other performers to take the stage, though again without an audience. She sang “So This Is Love” from Cinderella.

“I wore a big blue dress,” Penn said with a laugh.

Except for the budget, she says differences between stage productions in high school and college are small. Directors at both levels can be equally demanding.

But, she added, “all the girls in the cast are talented and they all worked to get there.”

The experience of Harriet and Margaret continues to resonate. Penn points out that her voice developed during rehearsals as she met the demands of opera. And she says with a chuckle that the award “would look really good on a resume.”

But there is still that curious sensation of having lost the chance to perform after all the effort.

“It’s a little bit heartbreaking,” she said. “Hopefully next semester.”


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