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'It's nice to be working': Halverson returns to the stage after bout with cancer

Peter Halverson returns to the stage of the FM Opera for the first time in two years with the cast of "Pirates of Penzance." David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — Peter Halverson is a busy man. The end of the school year is about a month away at Concordia College where Halverson is an associate professor of voice, so he has a full slate of school work and student recitals coming up.

He also has the premiere of his colleague René Clausen's "The Passion of Jesus Christ," in Minneapolis on Saturday, April 8 and at Concordia on Sunday, April 9. The major work enlists the school's voice faculty, orchestra and Concordia's four choirs.

On top of all that, Halverson is gearing up for his performance this weekend with the Fargo-Moorhead Opera's "Pirates of Penzance." The show marks his return to the stage for the first time in two years following bouts with cancer.

"It's nice to be working," Halverson says of his schedule over the next month. "It beats sitting in bed."

In the fall of 2014 Halverson was settling into the school year but had little energy, even with ample rest. He woke up one morning to see that his lymph nodes were swollen, prompting a hospital visit. He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and was told it was treatable, but it had a good chance of returning.

Chemo treatment seemed to work, but in December the cancer came back and Halverson went to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for a stem cell transplant for nine weeks.

Last fall he eased back into performing with a staff cabaret and a speaking role in the first opera of the season, "The Magic Flute."

Three weeks ago he had his one-year check-up and the results came back all clear. His doctor told him that if he gets through two years all clear, the cancer's chance of returning is only five percent.

"Just to have taught a full year has been great," Halverson says. "When you're out with cancer, fighting that is your full-time job."

Right now his focus is on this weekend's role of the Major-General. The character's biggest number, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General," is a patter song and considered one of the trickiest for its rapid-fire tempo and tongue-twisting lyrics.

The role is a different one for the baritone, who doesn't normally get to play comedic parts.

"You get to a certain age when you know you're not going to do the same roles you did in your prime," he says. "It's fun to do these character roles, these roles that are lighter, humorous and entertaining."

David Hamilton, executive director of FM Opera, and Halverson have known each other since 1981 when they were apprentice artists with the San Francisco Opera. Halverson started teaching at Concordia—where he was an undergrad in the early '70s—in '83 and Hamilton joined the staff years later.

"A lot of people may not realize this, but he's a great comedian," Hamilton says. "It's such a well-known classic comic part and he's having a blast with the comedy in it."

When Halverson announced he had cancer, Hamilton says the school was "shell-shocked," his deep tone known as the voice of God at Concordia's Christmas Concerts. The unfortunate news prompted Concordia and the FM Opera to join forces for a charity concert that raised more than $20,000 for their colleague's medical bills.

"He's one of the most kind people I've ever met," Hamilton says. "He's one of the most elegant baritones ever. It's so great to have him back with us."

Healthy again, Halverson is taking things one day at a time and thankful for his busy schedule.

"It's nice to be making music. To have that taken away from you is not fun. You really do miss it," he says. "The work is the fun part. I'm pretty fortunate to do this again and hopefully there will be more to come."

If You Go

What: FM Opera's "Pirates of Penzance"

When: 7:30 p.m., Friday and 2 p.m., Sunday

Where: Festival Concert Hall, NDSU

Info: Tickets are $5 for students and range from $20 - $80 for adults. www.fmopera.org

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