Thursday, July 26, 2007

All About the Journey: Jill Gardner, Offenbach's Newest Muse

After a brief illness opening weekend, leading lady Jill Gardner is back in the role of Eurydice in Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld. An alumna of Glimmerglass' Young American Artists Program, Gardner earned her bachelor's degree in piano, but decided to focus on voice instead after a fellow pianist recommended a voice teacher whose students he accompanied.
Offenbach's Eurydice is unique. In every other Orpheus opera Glimmerglass is producing this season, Eurydice takes a back seat to the heroic Orpheus, the center of the action. Offenbach puts a twist on the myth by placing Euridice as the heroic figure of the story--the only character who doesn't cave to the domineering Public Opinion. Jill sees the character of Eurydice as a multi-faceted, beyond the frivolous veneer usually linked with comic characters.

"It's easy to think that Eurydice is naive, that she doesn't know what she's doing. She's skirting the societal influence, that which is always trying to wield its sword over us in whatever guise. She is the only one that does not operate in this socially influenced way. That's why I find it interesting and that's what I ultimately want to bring to this portrayal, not just someone who sings a ton of high notes."

Despite much experience in opera and operetta, Orpheus in the Underworld marks the first comedic role for Gardner, a thrilling challenge for the young soprano. "That's another reason why I found it interesting to try myself out at this. I'm not a big TV-watcher, but I've taken the time to watch some Sex and the City and Seinfeld and even going back to watch I Love Lucy and The Carol Burnett Show. When you sit and watch it totally from the aspect of comedy--not the story, just how they deliver the comedy-- you realize how much real life actually operates in that realm. You see human nature in the most real kind of way. Your instincts are really driven to deliver the comedy in a timing and a specificity that is very multi-layered. This kind of comedic timing is very hard. I have a lot more respect for it than I did.
"When you're singing all the time, when you have music to suport your words, that already sets up a multi-layered dimension and the music often expresses so well the subjective aspect of a character. You realize with dialogue how much energy's got to be in it and how quixotic we are as human beings."

As well as being her first comedic role, this is Gardner's first opportunity to sing a show with her husband Jake Gardner. Jake plays Jupiter, the head god and one of the many men who fall in love with Eurydice. The pair sing the famous "Fly Duet" and share a few romantic moments on stage.
"It's been great. Jake and I have sung quite a bit of concert work and oratorio work together, so it's not like this is the first time we've worked together. We have a lot of respect for one another. There's a lot of give and take in our relationship that's a part of that respect. To be able to have a flirtation with one another as we do in the Offenbach is wonderful. It's fun, not only for us, but for other people as well. You want people to feel enjoyment, happiness, magic, lust, love, flirtation. There are pieces that we'd like to be able to do together where that flirtation isn't there. We'd love to be able to do Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, for instance. I think as long as that mutual respect is there and that we're always reaching for this artistic integrity, that's what guiding us. And then our mission is the same, whatever ego is there or need to control."
"Having this much time to be together with Jake is just nirvana. It's a real gift."

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Through the Glass Darkly

Last week the creative team and singers of Philip Glass' Orphée moved from the gymnasium of Richfield Springs High School to the stage of the Alice Busch Opera Theater. It was during this week that all of the elements of the show came together to form one cohesive artistic production. During each rehearsal, about 20 people from various departments were in the house of the theatre and about 10 are in the lighting booth and backstage, running the show and taking notes. Some of the corrections, like music and lighting cues, were addressed immediately. Other corrections were made later--changes in costuming, wigs and make-up, and set details.

Director Sam Helfrich explained the challenges he faces during a tech rehearsal. "I've spent three weeks in a room sitting in this one place at this one table, watching the stage from about five feet away and creating the show. The minute you move out into the house and start watching the show from 50 feet away, 100 feet away, it changes. Now it's a question of finessing things."

While looking forward to the show's opening and all the work ahead, the creative team took time last Wednesday to look back at the work they've done so far and present it to the entire staff of the opera. Orphée is based directly from French filmmaker Jean Cocteau's film of the same name. Helfrich's first concern was translating a 1950 film with over 15 sets and effects -- such as reverse motion and people walking through mirrors --into a viable opera.

"You can't avoid--I almost regret it now-- starting out by watching the movie. It's such a beautiful and exquisite piece of filmmaking that the designers and I made the decision early on to try to find a way to approach this piece that would be theatrical, that would work on the stage and that would really have something to say that was contemporary and modern and of its time," Helfrich said.

The design team decided to create one set for the entire opera, rather than 15. It is set up like a living room--complete with walls, ceiling, and realistic furniture. It took over 5 hours to put all the pieces on stage for the first time.

Lighting was a challenge because of the shape of the set. During the seminar, nearly everyone on the creative team pointed out lighting as one of their major challenges during the tech rehearsal process.
"It should be noted that this actually is an enormously difficult set to light. It's not just because it has a ceiling. There are some limitations on what you can do from above, but we wanted to do it all using practical lighting fixtures. It's very tricky finding a balance between looking at the lighting fixtures themselves and looking at a person's face lit next to a light fixture," Andrew Lieberman, Set Designer, said.

Production Manager Matthew Kirby-Smith pointed out that the "practical lighting" is not always enough to fully light the stage. "There are lighting instrument hidden throughout backstage--over doors, in alcoves, etc. We placed lighting instruments anywhere we could to help."

Mirrors play a large structural and thematic role in the opera. To create the same atmosphere as the mirrors in the movie, each major character has a double that matches them exactly in hair, make-up, and wardrobe.

To Wig and Make-up Designer Anne Ford-Coates, the doubles presented a special challenge. "With Caroline Worra, her natural appearance makes it very easy to believe that she would have the big heart that would anchor a really temperamental artist for years. That's already there, so there wouldn't be the need to change that, except when we get to Brenda Rae, her double, who has dark hair and a different look. We have to style Caroline so she can be Eurydice, but also so that Brenda can be her for a split second on stage."