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Former Penn Law professors (from left to right) Alan Cathcart, Morris Arnold and Paul Bender participate in a 1980 Light Opera Company production of “Princess Ida.” The Light Opera Company has been putting on a show annually over the past 35 years.

Credit: Courtesy of Penn Law Alumni Relations

For the past 35 years, a group of law students has taken time to set aside their case books in exchange for another stack of paper: the lines and lyrics of musicals.

Established in 1977, the Light Opera Company is a Law School student group which produces, directs and performs a musical comedy during the spring semester of every year. This school year, the group — with a cast and crew of more than 20 — will perform “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

The actors, which occasionally include members of the Penn Law faculty, arrive at auditions with varying levels of experience, but across the board the productions serve as a contrast to their academic lives.

“The stereotype and sometimes the reality is that law students are really busy and stressed out all the time. But that mentality isn’t reflected in our shows, so in that way it’s kind of an oasis in the life of a law student,” said third-year law student Sarah Edelson, who is the producer for this year’s show.

In addition to serving on the business side of the production, Edelson performed in Light Opera Company shows during her first two years at Penn Law.

“It’s a forum for expression in creativity,” she said.

Penn Law Dean of Students Gary Clinton agreed.

“The Light Opera Company provides the opportunity for camaraderie, creativity and the opportunity to do something different,” he said.

Soon entering his 36th year working at Penn Law, Clinton has seen all but two of the Light Opera Company’s productions. In addition, he has even held some minor acting roles himself over the years.

For the first 15 years of its existence, the group performed operettas — short, humorous operas — written by 19th century writers W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. In 1991, the Light Opera Company broke with that tradition and began performing a wider repertoire of comedic musicals.

Last year, for the first time in the group’s history, the Light Opera Company performed a musical that was written by one of Penn Law’s own. The production, called “Intervention,” was the brainchild of third-year law student Matt Corriel, who wrote it before he arrived on campus.

Corriel, who will be an actor in this year’s production, had worked for five years writing musicals before starting at Penn Law. He recalled moving from the world of theater to the world of law after thinking seriously about “what art could and could not do.”

Corriel, though, rejects the notion that his new career path is independent from his old profession.

“I have not by any means traded writing for law,” he said. “The two really go hand in hand.”

Clinton also discussed how art and law can be complementary.

“Certain lawyers are, by nature, performers, and this is an opportunity to stand in front of an audience and perform,” he said.

The time commitment for participants, according to Edelson, ranges from two to five hours a week at the beginning of the spring semester and reaches up to 10 or 15 hours a week closer to the date of the performance. But Edelson said the commitment “fits in with our school schedule,” and believes the experience is rewarding.

“I love the moment when it all finally comes together,” she said. “There’s that moment when everyone’s on stage and it just clicks — I think that’s really cool.”

Corriel also sees a great benefit in participating.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “Everyone is very nice; we’re very supportive of each other — it’s a very safe place to go out on a limb and to embarrass yourself.”

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