Christmas Madrigal Dinner Celebrates 49 Years

For almost five decades the Saint Mary’s Christmas Madrigal Dinner has been delighting the community with holiday cheer. Each December, guests are whisked back in time to a Renaissance banquet hall for a night of music and merriment. The Renaissance-style dinner and performance celebration is a unique tradition to the South Bend community, capturing audiences year after year. After a virtual madrigal performance in 2020, Saint Mary’s community members are excited to welcome back the guests in-person with a few changes in 2021.Madrigal Singers

The Christmas Madrigal Dinner features singers from the Saint Mary’s Women’s Choir, directed by Nancy Menk, dancers, actors, and musicians who join together to produce a Renaissance dinner theatre. Other campus partners including dining services, the costume and scene shops, building services, and Campus and Community Events help make the weekend of performances a success. 

Traditionally, “madrigal'' refers to a type of song from the renaissance and early baroque eras. However, the Christmas Madrigal Dinner at Saint Mary’s features holiday carols from an array of periods. In addition to song and dance, the performance includes a story told by actors from the Saint Mary’s community. This year’s Christmas Madrigal Dinner follows the second play in a trilogy written by Susan Baxter, professor in the Department of Communication Studies. As the story progresses, the audience experiences song, music, and dance while enjoying a delicious meal of roast beef, carrots, potatoes, salad, wassail, and cheesecake. 

Although some elements of the Christmas Madrigal Dinner will remain the same, due to the renovations in Regina Hall, this year’s performances will be held in Rice Commons located in the Student Center. This location change comes with new challenges and new opportunities for production design, staging, and seating. It also requires patrons, performers, and servers alike to adapt. Fireplace in Rice Commons
Richard Baxter, director of Campus and Community Events, ensured that the format, structure, and mood of the dinner will remain the same, but elements of the setup and staging will be adapted for the new space. For example, in Regina, the “stage” was set up as a long aisle between two rows of tables. Now, the audience is seated on three sides to create a thrust stage. Compared to the Regina North Lounge, Rice Commons is a much warmer venue, containing wood floors, a working fireplace, and rich colors, which allows for new possibilities in ambiance and production design. The move from Regina, a residence hall and classroom building, also eliminates the displacement of students living in the dorm. 

Michaela Duffy, the event’s scenographer and technical director, shared where her inspiration comes from when preparing for the show. “I looked at paintings, tapestries, and notes from historians on Christmas celebrations during the medieval & early Renaissance period. In particular, I found the color palette and textures of using spices and preserved fruits as a wonderful design idea to incorporate in this year’s redesign. The aroma is actually noticeable in the space,” she said. 

Rice Commons is typically used as a lounge or meeting space during the year. Finding ways to give a modern space a period look with theatrical lighting proved to be the biggest challenge. Duffy used the redesign as a teaching opportunity for her Introduction to Design and Technology course. Together, her students discovered new ways to reinvent the space. One of her favorite design aspects is using the pendant lights in the center of the room to display coats of arms, each of which have a connection to different buildings on campus. Students helped Duffy research the crests for the banners, create the decorative garland, and write lighting cues.

Although the theatrical elements of the show are important to its success, the centerpiece of Madrigals is the music and the season. Baxter said that the success of each performance is a reminder that the time and energy invested into the performances is always worth it. “The yearly Christmas Madrigal Dinner is a way for the performers, contributors, and guests to start the advent season and be reminded of the meaning of Christmas,” he said. When the performance ends, the community leaves with carols in their heads and holiday cheer in their hearts, he added.

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