Blair student stars in “To Hell and Back” opera

Confronting domestic abuse through the arts

Students on Vanderbilt’s campus are not afraid to share their ideas. Through student organizations, rallies, walks and meetings with the Chancellor, Vanderbilt students use every medium possible to get the word out about causes that are important to them. But what about the arts?

In the opera “To Hell and Back” by Jake Heggie, senior vocal performance major Bavli aims to use the arts as a means to tackle a difficult topic: domestic abuse. The opera, which she is starring in alongside Blair Professor of Voice, Dr. Gayle Shay, and Professor of Collaborative Piano, Jennifer McGuire, aims to use an uncommon medium to share a disturbing story.

Show and Music

The opera delves into the relationship between Stephanie (Danielle Bavli) – a woman who has endured domestic violence from her husband Peter – and her mother-in-law, Anne (Gayle Shay) – a woman wrought with contemplation over realizing her son is an abuser. Some may be critical of a production that is entirely sung, but Bavli emphasizes the value.

“New opera is trying to integrate current issues. Art is supposed to bring awareness to important issues to share with the world,” said Bavli.

The vocal styles utilized facilitate the plot and feature two juxtaposing styles, a musical theatre and operatic soprano.

“Jake Heggie is actually known for combining musical theatre and operatic styles. While the whole thing is sung, the melodic content is quite accessible to most people,” said Bavli. “Since this is such an emotionally dense show, the fact that it is all set to music means that the contrast between the characters is all the more clear.”

Each character has a musical motif that conveys elements of their characters’ essences.

“You can hear Stephanie’s innocence and her hope in the way her music is written, and you can hear the dark boozy nature of Anne’s character in her music,” said Bavli.

The role of the abuser is physically absent in the show, so Danielle and Dr. Shay had to work to create his character in their minds.

“We wanted to not only look at the character of the abuser and the experience of the abuser but also the experience of the creator of the abuser because when we talk about abuse, we rarely look at the responsibility of bringing someone into the world and having them become what they will be. That’s something that you have to live with forever. One line in the show says ‘you can leave your husband but how do I leave my son?’,” Bavli said.


In a show that deals with such a disturbing topic as domestic abuse, it can be difficult to imagine what a character going through such a torturous event may be feeling.

Bavli articulates this challenge, “I feel a greater obligation to do this justice. I know how important and personal this is to so many people. It has definitely been a challenge to step into the shoes of what someone going through this would actually be feeling.”

To prepare for the role, she studied women’s stories and watched their body language and their responses when asked about these events.

“I watched a lot of interviews of women who had been through domestic violence to see what mental space they’re in when they talk about their experience and abuser,” Bavli said. “I tried to put myself in their shoes in order to understand how if you’ve been broken down and really love someone and that person is charming enough and convincing enough to apologize to you and come up with ways to beg for your forgiveness, you might be willing to give them chance after chance. The character is really realistic and really relatable on so many human levels, so I was able to connect to her in that way,” said Bavli.


When asked about what this show taught her, Bavli was committed to a very important idea.

“This could literally happen to anyone,” she said. “We could all fall victim to it, and it’s given me greater perspective in terms of the different ways people deal with such tragedy and how to react to people who may or may not know [what you’re struggling with].”

On relating to Stephanie’s story and what she has learned from that, Bavli noted, “Stephanie’s story shows that there is always hope to move on from something like this. One of the beautiful things about Stephanie’s character is that, despite what she’s gone through, she still feels like she has her whole life ahead of her and so much that she can grow towards. You don’t have to go through this alone, and there are ways to move on from something this devastating.”

“To Hell and Back” will be performed this Saturday, February 4, 2017 at 8 p.m. in Turner Hall at the Blair School of Music. Admission is free. Run Time: 45 minutes.