Saturday, June 16, 2007

Steven Blier Masterclass

One of the many perks of being one of Glimmerglass’ 29 Young American Artists is masterclasses with true masters in the field. Attending these masterclasses means watching the finest teachers of today work with some the most promising young artists of tomorrow. Reading these singers’ biographies is like reading a roster of the nation’s finest music schools and conservatories, such as The Juilliard School, Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and New England Conservatory. Glimmerglass’ Artistic and General Director Michael McLeod pointed out that the over 800 applications to the program “almost by definition suggests that the standard is extremely high”.

Steven Blier’s resumé speaks for itself—Artistic Director of New York Festival of Song, faculty at Juilliard, collaborative pianist for recitals with great artists including Renée Fleming and Samuel Ramey, writings appearing in The Yale Review and Opera News, and a long, Grammy-winning discography, ranging from German lieder to Gershwin. Although these are all indicators of a good masterclass to come, the teacher must be able to keep the class interesting for three hours. Steven Blier certainly met and surpassed this basic requirement.

Blier addressed many issues that come up in a masterclass right after the thunderous applause for him ceased. He pointed out that not all teaching can be done in a public setting. From the moment he started speaking, the air of a lecture evaporated from the room; this was a discussion and a mentoring conversation. The philosophy of music was a focus.

Music is a thought process as well as an intricate art form; the voice is as personal and unique as the singer, and the strength it takes to be vulnerable is monumental and one of the biggest challenges facing performers. To use a masterclass as a laboratory, a Socratic vocal forum, seemed to be Blier’s intention and he certainly fulfilled it.

Singers Juliet Petrus, soprano; Todd Boyce, baritone; Margaret Gawrysiak, mezzo-soprano; Jon-Michael Ball, tenor; and Susan Jean Hellman, soprano, each presented one art song or aria. Blier made his intentions clear at the beginning of the masterclass. “I would see teachers bring up issues in masterclasses that I felt were not effectively dealt with in public. I once watched a very famous opera singer whom I had admired a great deal as a child. She spent the whole class trying to get everyone’s tongue into a certain position. Is this what made you a great Carmen? I seriously doubt it.”

Therefore, his lessons were more about the dramatic journey inside each song than technique. Of course, Blier raised issues about diction and range, but his primary concern was interpretation issues—expression, dynamics, and phrasing. Blier pointed out to baritone Todd Boyce that although his performance of Pierrot’s Tanzlied (“Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen”) from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt would serve as a technically brilliant audition, he did not seem to be performing the piece. “I would love for you to take some of your defenses down," he said. "I want you to be thinking about showing us more of your heart when you sing.”

On the other hand, Blier suggested that Susan Jean Hellman, soprano, was over-expressing her selection, “Ain’t it a Pretty Night” from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. “It’s coming from a very good expressive place, but I think it needs to be deepened if it’s really going to work. I see all your acting choices and I see them as acting choices—I can see little rabbits there, the sky, the majesty and the fear.”

Hellman, like the other Young American Artists, integrated Blier’s suggestions into her performances, using his expert feedback to improve their expression. Much of a singer’s success is dependent on judge’s or director’s impressions of the singer, so getting as much feedback as possible is crucial for these young singers to make it in the world of opera.
-Amelia Northrup and Brooke Cartus

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Insider Rehearsal Report: Introduction to Offenbach

On a steamy weekday afternoon at Saint Mary's school all-purpose room, five free-standing doors replace neatly stacked tables, and rows of cornstalks line the walls, blurring the myriad of 1st communion pictures that adorn the cinderblock. It is clearly time for an Orpheus rehearsal, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Opera. The question is... which one? There are 5 distinct options this season, ranging from the avant-garde Glass to the traditional Monteverdi. Today's rehearsal however, has been reserved for Offenbach.

Filth, lust, beekeeping and showgirls are just a few of the topics touched on in this hilarious operetta that pulls at both hearts and funny bones as the myth of Orpheus is, well, transformed. The once happy marriage between Orpheus and Eurydice has become a mockery, and the chaos that ensues as the gods bicker for her affection will keep everyone laughing each minute. By the end of the show, every audience member will be dying to know: Who will Eurydice choose?! Well, you are just going to have to come see it because I certainly will not tell you!

Directing an opera has its own distinct and monumental challenges, and directing a comedy requires precision and incredible detail to timing. To seamlessly combine both is nothing short of a rehearsal colossus, but director Eric Einhorn is up for the challenge. His eclectic background, ranging from Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte all the way to Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, gives him the dramatic knowledge and the theater savvy that will guide the actors through the hysterical dialogue as well as the extravagant vocal lines. In rehearsal, Einhorn stays focused while constantly thinking up images to help the actors imitate the specific musical comedy style without overdoing it (unless it is necessary, of course!) One of my favorite images was when he asked the female chorus to "loom in like in West Side Story" on Pluto, a god who does not see them coming.

The actors are remarkably good sports, especially with such a brief period of time to put the piece together. Tenor Kurt Lehmann started rehearsal Saturday, June 9th, and by the time I saw him on Monday, June 11th, the script was out of his hands. For an opening on July 7th, time is precious and each second counts. A three hour rehearsal can fly by if time is wasted, but the synergy needed by both the staff and performers is crucial for making sure details are not ignored. A conductor, vocal coach, accompanist... these important staff members are at every blocking rehearsal to catch musical notes while the directing team is focusing on dramatic arc. At a break, an actor may receive a different note from each member of the staff and must implement it as soon as they can. There is no wasted time in operetta, no matter how clever the delayed punchlines may be!

Insider Rehearsal Report: Gluck Staging, Week 2

Demons, a tragic accident, a trip to hell and an enduring romance. No, it’s not Hollywood’s latest blockbuster. It’s Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice.

The second week of rehearsals is well underway and the exciting story is coming to life, guided by director Lillian Groag’s artistic vision.

With only three days left until the first rehearsal on Glimmerglass’s Alice Busch Opera Theatre, the schedule is becoming increasingly intense. Actors must be available all day for music rehearsals, costume fittings, and stagings. Staging rehearsals take place in a school gymnasium, creating an interesting juxtaposition of the school’s wrestling mats and pieces of the real opera set—in this case, large broken chunks of Greek architecture. Groag, choreographer Nicola Bowie, and conductor Julian Wachner share responsibility for running rehearsals, dictating new blocking and movement, correcting old staging, and polishing the music, both for expression and accuracy. When it’s rehearsal time, singers often rehearse in front of as many as 10 staffers—the director and assistant director, choreographer, stage manager and assistants, conductor and assistant conductor, chorus master, rehearsal pianist, and various production staffers. Fortunately, these singers are used to performing in front of an audience.

Stagings this week are all about what works and what doesn’t. Coming up with creative, believable staging is all about experimentation. Groag often allows her leads, Michael Maniaci (Orphée) and Amanda Pabyan (Eurydice), great freedom in their blocking, letting them determine how best to physically express their character and tweaking where she sees fit. Other times she has very specific ideas of what she wants from them, even giving exact measure numbers when blocking is to occur. Still other times, she decides to wait until the staging rehearsal to see how things look on the big stage.

With an opening on July 8th, the cast is well on their way, but a number of elements still need to be added to this dramatic production—set, lighting, titles, costumes, orchestra, and of course, the audience!

To see more photos from Gluck rehearsals, click here.
To visit the Glimmerglass website with ticket information and more, click here.

A Work in Progress

It's about a month before the first production and already Glimmerglass is bustling with activity, off-site as well as on-site. Glimmerglass employs over 300 people in the summer and all are vital to the success of the season. During the season, designers, directors, stage managers, builders, administrators, marketers, costumers, conductors, and interns of all ilks descend on the Alice Busch Opera Theater and work furiously to bring their individual efforts into one cohesive piece of artistry.

Set building is well underway. The production crew saws and welds away in the scene shop, but often share the stage with the lighting crew, who must hoist approximately 300 lights over the stage of Alice Busch Opera Theater. The set is not merely built on stage, though. Smaller set pieces and props must be constructed, painted, and polished to be ready for opening night.

The costume shop is busy constructing and fitting costumes for four different productions. The racks overflow with over 200 costumes for the summer season.

The 29 members of Glimmerglass’s prestigious Young American Artist Program are busy as well. Several members have lead roles in the summer’s productions, but all are participating in smaller roles or chorus responsibilities. They also have to prepare for masterclasses, on-site auditions, and recitals.

Rehearsals began last week for Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice and Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. The singers came with their music already memorized (“off-book”), so the directors, choreographers, and conductors started work almost immediately on staging the opera. Singers rehearse daily in preparation for the opening night in three weeks.

While most of the staffers’ efforts revolve around the current season operas, plans are already in the works for next season. This week the director of Glimmerglass’s much-anticipated North American premiere of Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot, Nic Muni, toured the facility in order to explore the space in which he will stage the production.

It looks to be an exciting summer all around. For more info, please visit the Glimmerglass website, keep checking back here, or add us to your feed.