A letter from an alumna

Ilana Walder-Biesanz '13 won the Gates Cambridge scholarship last year to pursue  MPhil in European Literature and Culture at Cambridge. Below is one of her frequent updates to us about her experiences in Europe and the things that are keeping her busy. Since Ilana's email, she has accepted the Fulbright Scholarship and will be spending the 2014-2015 academic year studying the use of technology in theater and opera in Germany.

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I'm now on break between Lent and Easter terms (I told you they had funny names). 'Break' is a bit of a misnomer when I'm hard at work on my dissertation, but right now technically qualifies since there aren't any undergrads around.

When I wrote my last update, I was about to take the ferry to Normandy and continue to Vienna and Prague. All of those destinations were great fun! In Normandy, we stayed at the chateau of a friend of a friend. We experienced lots of delicious food as well as an unfortunate flood. (We spent much of one day helping pump water out of the ground floor of the main house, but we were rewarded for our efforts with a fabulous bottle of champagne.) Vienna came next, and it was a whirlwind of palaces, art museums, theatre, opera, and dancing. The New Year's Eve ball was the undoubted highlight of my week--not only were the surroundings and dresses gorgeous, but the room was full of gentlemen who could actually dance! I stumbled home at 5am with very sore feet after eight hours of waltzes and polkas. Prague, in contrast, was all about the opera: I saw five operas in seven evenings. My first had me very worried because it was an obscure, new-to-me piece, and the supertitles were in Czech (fortunately, the singers' Italian pronunciation was quite good, so I still caught almost everything), but the remaining four all had English translations. I was especially excited to attend two operas in the Theatre of the Estates, where Mozart conducted the premieres of Don Giovanni and La clemenza di Tito. One evening, I was even seated in the imperial box!

Sadly, all vacations must end, so after a month of travelling, I begrudgingly returned to Cambridge for Lent term. It's been an enjoyable term (even if I would rather have stayed in Vienna for the social season!), with two courses and six shows. My favorite class was on women writers of the Italian Renaissance. We started by reading conduct manuals of the time, which generally said women shouldn't speak in public, write, or even leave the house... and we proceeded to read fabulous poetry and plays be women who broke all of those rules. I wrote my essay about how the actress-playwright Isabella Andreini used both her gender and her theatrical experience to one-up the male authors whose work she imitated. My other course--banditry and wrongdoing in Spain--was a bit disappointing, as it was too historical and un-literary for my tastes. (Also, there were two professors and I was the only student, so there was a lot of pressure during meetings.) That said, I had fun writing my essay about ideas and uses of honor in various versions of the Don Juan story.

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You read the beginning of that last paragraph right--I did six shows this past term. Two were as an American accent coach, and at least one was pretty successful. (A review began, 'The most striking thing about 4000 Miles was the flawless American accents of the whole cast. There wasn't a single wobble or dropped vowel during the whole performance.') The other four were acting gigs. The plays were bloody: I killed a Duke and a Cardinal as an ensemble member in The Massacre at Paris (part of the Marlowe Society's attempt to stage all of Marlowe's plays over two years) and killed an Archbishop in Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. The latter got me my first personal mention in a Cambridge review ('especially artful in her delivery of lines, sweeping up and down the nave with gusto')! The musicals--Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Into the Woods--both featured stellar casts and got rave reviews and huge audiences. Overall, it was a successful theatrical term.

Less classical singing happened this past term, both because of my busy rehearsal schedule and on account of a bout of bronchitis. However, I have some exciting gigs coming up: singing Pauline's aria as incidental music for a play early next term and, more excitingly, my staged operatic debut as Phani in Rameau's Les indes galantes in June. I have a few more opera auditions coming up too, so keep your fingers crossed for me!

So what's next? Assuming I manage to write my thesis next term between theatrical endeavors and trips to far-flung conferences/workshops (one in Oxford, one in Austria), I'll wrap up my Cambridge degree in early June, in time to enjoy the insane week of all-night partying confusingly termed May Week. I plan to stay in the UK during July and August, joining a theatrical production at either the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival (I've been offered a chorus place in a production of Princess Ida) or the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (I have a few auditions coming up for Fringe shows). I'll visit home in September, and then it's back to Europe! I've been offered three different grants in continental Europe--two (a Fulbright and a DAAD stipend) for one year of opera studies in Germany and one (an Erasmus Mundus scholarship) for a two-year Master's program split between Italy, Spain, and France. I haven't decided what to do yet; it's a difficult decision!

I'll let you know what I've chosen in my next update. As usual, please keep me updated in turn if you have any States-side news to share.


Ilana Walder-Biesanz

Posted in: A Broader World View, Alumni Speak, Graduate School, Scholarships and Fellowships