Thursday, June 28, 2007

Insider Rehearsal Report: Principals at Play

The rehearsal process involves many different types of rehearsals: choral rehearsals, technical rehearsals, dress rehearsals, etc. Early rehearsals with the principals take place away from the theater, but are important in allowing principals to develop their characters in the context of the creative team's concept of the production.

In Thursday's Glass rehearsal, the focus was staging the scene in the opera that is most like a sitcom--when Orphée and Eurydice come back to their home from the underworld and Orphée is not allowed to look at her. The scene is chock-full of rapid dialogue over orchestration composed in a cellular style, with phrases of music are repeated again and again. There are also timing issues to tackle, such as Orphée casting near-glances at Eurydice without actually looking at her and making the whole thing look accidental, yet natural.

Director Sam Helfrich began by talking through the scene with singers Philip Cutlip (Orphée), Caroline Worra (Eurydice), Jeffrey Lentz (Heurtebise) and conductor Anne Manson. Discussion jumped to character conceptualization, pivotal points in the work, and interpretation of Glass and Cocteau's work. As they talked in the school gymnasium, the group lounged on the set.

Working with the principals also allows Manson to work in-depth on the music in the scene. Working on music is essential for any opera, but especially a piece that is not in the standard repertoire. Often, all the music is new to the singers until they are cast. Since the singers learned the music and words before they arrived, only small adjustments--a word here, an entrance there--were needed. Even when the singers were just sitting and singing, they were still rehearsing facial expressions and the occasional gesture.

Helfrich's excitement often mirrored that of the principals', lending an air of dynamic creativity to these rehearsals. "I have such a good way for you to get back from the underworld. I'm dying just to do it and watch it."

For more rehearsal photos from the Glass, click here.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Something old, something new

Opera has an ill-conceived reputation for being intellectually challenging, elitist, and overall intimidating here in America. And while anyone who has seen a production of Orpheus in the Underworld, Die Fledermaus, or any number of fine productions can tell you that's simply not true, the myth lingers on. A good director knows how to balance artistic creativity with accessibility. So, how can a director help an audience engage with a piece that's nearly 400 years old, composed before opera as we know it really existed?
Director Christopher Alden has a plan. Having already directed the show with Opera North in Leeds, England, Alden is ready to tailor the production for Glimmerglass. This production of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, marking the 400th anniversary year of its premiere in Mantua, Italy, uses a mixture of elements from 1607 and today.

"It is very edgy," he said. "It's a piece about artists and art—at the core it's about what it means to be an artist. It's amazing how not a lot of things have changed between then and now- to survive as a composer, as a stage director, as a tenor or a baritone." Bringing an older opera up-to-date promises that there will be something in the production for everyone in the audience.

Something Old
One of the challenges of producing such an old show is making the music sound like it did when it premiered. While this has a lot to do with the conductor's choices and knowledge of historical performance practice (ornamentation, tempi, accents, etc.), the most noticeable change is the type of instruments used. The other shows in the season have music rehearsals with a piano, but the Monteverdi will rehearse with a continuo ensemble of baroque keyboard instruments (such as a harpsichord) and stringed instruments. This is not because the piano wasn't invented until the 1800's, but rather because the interaction between instruments and voices in the early Baroque period more closely resembles that of today's jazz ensemble than a traditional orchestra. Although instruments like the recorder and trumpet have specifically written parts, the continuo instruments' score is like a blueprint or chord chart, leaving them free to improvise. This means that while the instruments are over 400 years old, each performance will be new and unique.

Something New
Set Designer Paul Steinberg and Costume Designer Doey Lüthi planned the props and costumes as fusion of faux 17th century fashion and contemporary styles. The assortment of furniture lends an eclectic atmosphere to the stage environment. The costumes run the gamut from classic Greek to frilled collars to patched jeans. "Eurydice is in this sort of Greeky-ish costume, but she also sort of looks like Courtney Love," Alden said.

Something "Borrowed"
Glimmerglass often co-produces shows with other companies. Co-producing a show means that the sets, props and costumes were designed with Opera North, Glimmerglass, and Norwegian Opera in mind, and the designers are at Glimmerglass working with the creative team. All of the sets and most of costumes are the same ones used in Opera North's production, with some alterations for new singers.

The cast will rehearse for four weeks before opening on July 28th. Until then, they'll be hard at work bringing Monteverdi's masterpiece 400 years into the future.

Behind the Magic: Abby Rodd, Technical Director

Looking the finished product of a show, the audience only sees what’s out front—polished actors, beautiful costumes, a seamless set. Often audience members don't consider how these pieces come together—the business behind the magic. A good show keeps the audience so enthralled that they don’t need to think about it.

Technical Director Abby Rodd, a 16-year veteran of Glimmerglass Opera, is in charge of the people who bring the show to life behind the curtain, working in the field of stage operations, carpentry, rigging, or scenic art. Here's an inside look at the world of stagecraft at Glimmerglass.

Q: You’ve been here 16 years, since you were an intern in 1992. How has the company evolved since then?
Abby Rodd: There was no stage ops when I started. The carpenters ran the shows. We didn’t build any full sets in-house. I don’t know specific numbers, but I think [the size of the company] has at least doubled since I’ve been here. And the sizes of the shows and the sizes of the budgets have gone way up. But I came here knowing nothing. It was just a summer job, because I lived in Cooperstown.

Q: You said you were in charge of Stage Operations. What exactly is that?
AR: Stage Ops is a crew of 19 people and they do the changeovers from one show to the next. They're also there for running the shows and for bringing rehearsal scenery and props to rehearsal halls. They do all the fly cues and open the trapdoor.

Q: Fly cues—like flying people?
AR: We're not flying people this year—we were going to. When people do fly cues, they are pulling the ropes that make the sets fly in.

Q: So hell drops in?
AR: Well, not really. Mount Olympus comes down to cover up Earth, so the side walls come down. Then at the intermission, we change all of the walls for hell. There are essentially four sets. It works with a lot of counterweight. There are two side walls, so we have 2000 pounds of counterweight on the other side, so it’s an equal balance. So one person can fly rope and pull 2000 pounds.

Q: What do you use for the actual counterweights?
AR: They’re iron weights—they’re called pig-irons and they come in 25-40 pound bricks that we stack up on an arbor that holds it all. The rigging people install that rig and the Stage Ops people operate it under the riggers’ supervision.

Q: Shows are only running two months during the year. What is your schedule like during those two months—the official “season”?
AR: All four shows are only running for one month together. August is kind of an easy month for us. These two weeks here in June—teching the first two shows while we’re getting the third and fourth shows ready—are difficult. The weeks we’re in right now are probably the most difficult part of the summer.

Q: What about the “off-season,” September through April?
AR: Well, we started building the Glass in April. Before that, I was doing a lot of budgeting and drafting for that show and also the other shows. Two of the other shows were in contract shops being built. They started building in early February, so there were trips to where they were being built and lots of meetings. January is bidding out any contract shops and that tends to be a long process, because it never comes in on budget the first time. September’s sort of quiet, and then we start having preliminary planning meetings in October and November. We do shop maintenance and stuff. It’s a little bit more of a 9-to-5 job in the winter, until March.

Q: You mentioned drafting. John Conklin and the other production designers submit drafts for the shows. What sort of drafting do you do?
AR: They draw what it’s supposed to look like and I draw where the frame goes and how it all fits together and where—bolt-holes and where it needs to break to fit into the truck, where it needs to break to fit for storage.

Q: What would you say the biggest challenge is in coordinating these four very different shows?
AR: It’s different from year to year, really. [This year] we have a major storage issue. The stage is a specific size and we fill that four times. Our storage space to store everything in is smaller than that space, so we need to store three of those sets in the one smaller space. It all doesn’t really fit right now. Right now, the Offenbach is on stage, but we have a Gluck wall upstage and a Monteverdi wall on stage right—it’s just going to have to be there, because there’s nowhere else to put it. That’s not typical. We have more scenery this year than we’ve had ever here before, but we make it work; we just figure out how to fit things in. There’s a lot of stuff in the air—more lighting than scenery now.

Q: So you guys are the one who make the magic?
AR: I don’t think I make any magic happen. I make the set stand up.

Q: Well, that’s pretty useful.
AR: It’s more useful than lying down.

Opera Extras in CCAL seminars

While the staff at Glimmerglass Opera is hard at work preparing each opera production, they are also whetting the appetites of operaphiles and neophytes alike with a variety of related events. The company holds seminars during the year about the operas, but for those who enroll in Cooperstown's Center for Continuing Adult Learning (CCAL) Opera at Glimmerglass course, the company offers a seminar on each of the four operas of the season. Participants hear talks about producing the operas and excerpts from the operas sung by members of the Young American Artists Program.

Last week, the group met John Conklin, set designer of the Gluck, and Kelley Rourke, titles guru and lyricist of the Offenbach. Conklin took them on an in-depth journey through the process of building a set for an opera, showing set models, costume designs, and his own sketches used to plan the set.

He discussed the initial conception of the show's design. "Always the question is 'is the Gluck an 18th-century opera?' Yes, it was written in the 18th century, but it's being seen with modern sensibilities, so in that sense one doesn't want to make it a historical, archeological object. We want to make it vivid and human, but still reflecting some of the ideas of the 18th-century world."

Rourke treated the audience to her take on translating and writing English lyrics for operas. The Offenbach, originally written in French, has undergone many translations, but Rourke created an original one for Glimmerglass to use this season.

"I'm careful about the word 'translate.' It is step one—the translation is one part, but it's not a direct translation of what is going on in the libretto." Rourke tries to stay as true to the libretto as possible, but sometimes the language is convoluted and wouldn't make sense in English. As an example, Rourke cited a line in the Gluck where Amour literally asks Orpheus in French, 'What do we owe you?' "I don't think it's actually true to the intent of the librettist," Rourke said.
After hearing excerpts from the opera, participants go to a production seminar, which is also attended by the staff and guild of the company. Here, the creative team for each of the operas meet and discuss their choices in producing the opera. Friday's rather lively discussion about Offenbach featured Kelley Rourke, Director Eric Einhorn, Set Designer Allen Moyer, Costume Designer Gabriel Berry, Lighting Designer Shawn K. Kaufman, and surprise guest Production Manager Matthew Kirby-Smith. Discussion topics ranged from Offenbach's off-the-wall plot, to the concept behind each set location (Olympus, Earth, and the Underworld), to creating crazy hell costumes.

Berry explained, "Luckily, I got the 'Orpheus goes to France.’ I mean, going in your underwear is fun, going to the underworld is better, going to France in your underwear to the underworld—that's best of all. I had a few mandates from the company and from [director] Eric, and one of them is that we're in the 19th century. I'm like 'great', because that's corsets and hoop skirts." Berry's designs are definitely not strait-laced Victorian, though, warned her audience to be prepared for "cleavage and the occasional studded leather garment."

"What I wanted to talk about with this particular team is pushing the envelope, because I think that that is the quintessential point of this show, whether it is scenery or lighting or costumes,” said Kirby-Smith, who pointed out the sheer size of such a spectacular and grandiose production, especially "the automated moving instruments that we have, the sheer number of costumes, and the thousands and thousands of pounds of scenery that somehow goes up and down."

For more information about CCAL, click here.
For more information about Glimmerglass events, click here.