Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Insider Rehearsal Report: All the way through Offenbach

Think opera is all about Viking hats, long-winded Italian sopranos, and extended death scenes? Think again! Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach is a satiric comedy, taking the traditional myth about the loving couple separated by death and standing it on its head. Sung in English, Orpheus in the Underworld is perfect for the newcomer to opera, as well as great fun for the veteran opera-goer.

Offenbach’s whimsical approach to the Orpheus myth seems to have affected the feel of the rehearsals themselves. Although the work ethic is no less focused than in Gluck rehearsals, the light-hearted nature of the opera shines through in the personalities of the singers and staff, which are as vibrant as the characters they portray. It's easy to see that the singers, conductor, and director love what they do and love planning gags that will make the audience laugh. The singers wear parts of their costumes and their shoes, creating an interesting mix of modern and antiquated clothing. Upbeat tunes and comical staging complete the eclectic atmosphere.

Today's rehearsal was the first run-through before rehearsals on the stage of Alice Busch Opera Theater. The run-through can give the cast and creative team (the lighting designer was in attendance) a better idea of how the show itself will flow, as opposed to perfecting tiny sections. The director and conductor can also assess which sections need the most work. In the next few days, the crew of Orpheus in the Underworld will add sets, costumes, props, and lighting to their rehearsals, so the cast and production staff have a better idea of how their production will come together.

Everyone is looking forward to learning how the various production elements will enhance the cast’s already excellent work. Joyce Castle (Public Opinion) alone, in all her proselytizing glory, is worth the trip to Cooperstown, Jill Gardner's (Eurydice) high notes are sparkling--add in the other hilarious, consummate professionals and you've got magic!

To view more photos from rehearsal, click here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Gluck Discussion Panel

What does it take to put on an opera? What sort of research is done? Over 150 people were asking themselves the same questions today at noon, when the first of 4 panel discussions were held in Alice Busch Opera Theater (ABOT). At the helm were seven members of the production team for Berlioz’ edition of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, all integral components of the planning, rehearsal, and performance stages of a performance. The panel included, from left to right, Kelley Rourke (Dramaturgy/Projected Titles), who moderated the discussion, Lillian Groag (Director), Nicola Bowie (Choreographer), Julian Wachner (Conductor), Robert Wierzel (Lighting), Constance Hoffman (Costumes), and John Conklin(Set).

In planning the production, Director Lillian Groag focused on not just the story of a man, but the story of how a community deals with death—in this case, a community in the 18th century. An understanding of Gluck’s cultural context helps explain the alterations he made from the original myth, mainly, that Eurydice is resurrected a second time. As a German Lutheran, Gluck's belief in redemption would have been a central tenet of his faith. Resurrection and rebirth is a central theme in Christian literature, from the raising of Lazarus to the resurrection of Jesus. Gluck was also living at the crux of the Enlightenment, a time when human invention and intelligence were held to the highest standard. “To send the audience home depressed would be a highly illogical decision,” quipped Groag; rationality had to prevail, as was the style of the time.

Conductor Julian Wachner said that cultural surroundings played a significant role in the music as well; Gluck was working right in between the Baroque and Classical periods. Wachner called the piece “a watershed event [in that] musical expression could be connected to everyday life”. This opera unfolds in real time, meaning a character does not have a six minute aria to portray one emotion. They only have as much time as we do—sometimes mere seconds—to show the world what they are feeling. Wachner also touched on which aspects of the show were altered by composer Hector Berlioz. Keeping the libretto in French, Berlioz reworked the piece less than one might presume. He did, however, create an orchestration that substituted modern instruments for those no long longer in existence, with careful attention to creating a more Baroque sound. He also transposed the role of Orpheus, which already existed in versions for castrato and haut-contre, to a mezzo-soprano. This, of course, required a few key changes. Wachner confessed that he, along with the whole production team, has been “swimming in the love of the music”.

Choreographer Nicola Bowie brings movement in all forms into both earth and the underworld. Although Bowie worked closely with all members of the cast, it was Trey Gillen and Katarzyna Skarpetowska who were a large part of her focus in the rehearsal process. Trained at The Julliard School, both dancers play the roles of instigators, guides, storytellers, as well as a constant reminder of death and its presence in our lives. Their transformation scene by scene, as well as that of the chorus, is overwhelmingly impressive and like a good lighting plot or set design, instantly pulls the audience into the moment.

Since this production just started rehearsing in the theatre this week (their rehearsal space up until now has been off campus), many elements of production including sets, costumes, and lighting were only recently added. This panel discussion allowed the designers to shed some light on their individual and collective inspiration. John Conklin, who designed the set, rooted his inspiration in the spirit of the 18th century, and, like Groag, wanted to connect the audience to the urgency and universality of the story. Conklin tapped into the work of two period artists, Francisco Goya (1746- 1828) and Giovanni Piranesi (1720-1778). In these artists’ depictions, Rome’s fall had left behind countless grandiose ruins and fallen architecture. The people of the time used what they could, by taking pieces and using them as building materials, or squatting in the rooms of crumbling palaces. Conklin used this theme of “melancholy in lost grandeur of a classical world” and allowed his set a pastoral element while still remaining aware of the outside world and its influences.

Costume designer Constance Hoffman was also drawn to Goya; her goal was to make sure the person wearing the costume was the focus and not the other way around. Simple, breathable clothes made from modest materials like linen and cotton allow the singers to portray different characters over the course of the opera.

Light designer Robert Wierzel focused on creating a singular mood for each scene. The lights give the audience an instant hint to the scene they are about to walk, writhe, or dance into. Wierzel also added that one of the advantages of working at the Glimmerglass Opera is having the time to experiment in the space through the whole summer. And considering that Gluck opens in two weeks, it is incredible to think that the performers and designers already have a chance to put the piece together on stage.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Insider Rehearsal Report: A Blank Slate for New Orphée

Beginning work on any opera is exciting. However, beginning work on a modern opera that's only been staged 3 times in North America--that's a landmark moment for any company. The opera in question is, of course, Philip Glass' Orphée, which premiered in 1993 at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Glimmerglass rehearsals began Monday. Director Sam Helfrich created a open atmosphere by using the first meeting to share his conceptualization of the show and encourage discussion amongst the cast and crew.
Artistic and General Director Michael MacLeod began the rehearsal by introducing himself and the idea behind the season-- why Orpheus? To follow the distinguished 29-year tenure of Paul Kellogg, MacLeod searched for an imaginative way to make a mark on the company for his first season. To his surprise, three of perhaps the most famous operas based on the Orpheus myth had never been done at Glimmerglass, and it only seemed appropriate to do a season of Orpheus in 2007, the 400th anniversary of the first widely-recognized opera, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. "The four operas complement each other perfectly," he said. "You can't ask for a wider range of style."

Unique style won't be a problem for Helfrich, who is directing the only modern opera of the season. Glass' Orphée is based directly on the 1950 film by French director Jean Cocteau, which integrated modern film techniques such as reverse footage. Helfrich and the show's designers made a conscious decision to move away from the staging and scenery of the film version. "It's a beautiful movie, and with beautiful movies, it's easy to get lured into aesthetics. I thought, we have to get into this piece in some other way."

The piece, as well as the movie it's based on, presents a host of puzzles. Helfrich touched on this, discussing the second to last scene in the opera, where the Princess lets Orpheus go, supposedly for some greater good. "That's a huge question without an easy answer," he said. Conductor Anne Manson pointed out similar challenges with the score. "One of my first frustrations in looking at the score was that the orchestration reveals so little about the inner lives of the characters. The music doesn't give you clear answers."

Fortunately, with no clear answers, the potential for creativity in all areas of the production process is nearly limitless. For Helfrich, rehearsals are a mental process, complementing the physical process of staging. He encourages the actors and the audiences to talk about these questions. "This piece will be a success to me if I leave the audience not only asking what just happened, but dying to talk about it."