(from Michael Christie's behind-the-scenes blog at the Minnesota Opera)
As you can imagine, the staff, board and performers are thrilled with the outcome of Saturday’s opening performance of Nabucco.
It’s so interesting to experience the bit of human nature that adds a now expected but never certain bit of performance “oompf.” The singers conjure up a bit more sound or someone on stage is seized for an extra second because of something their colleague did. Could have been a glance or an outstretched hand no one had discussed.
I’m in the fortunate position of knowing what they’ve rehearsed but then have to be ready for how we all live the performance in that moment. Very cool and almost inexplicable experience. There were definitely some of those performance moments on Saturday. Brenda Harris’ performance returned long applause mid-show. Everything stopped for that moment. Others normally entering as the aria ended tastefully started their arrival but froze when it was clear that the audience needed this moment – and Brenda deserved it...
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I admit freely that I am an aviation nut. Not only am I pilot but I am fascinated by the history that has connected our world via the air we breathe.When it comes to these final days before opening night on Saturday, I am reminded of the enormous aviation hangars where massive unpainted aircraft fuselages are centrally perched off the floor with other components being joined from all sides before the hangar door opens to reveal a shiny, smooth vehicle that beautifully hides the cumulative hours of work, coordination and inspiration.So goes opera this week as the Minnesota Opera moves its artistic and production operations from our spectacular Opera Center in Minneapolis to our performance home, the Ordway in St. Paul...
This is when the rehearsal process gets interesting.What I always find so compelling about working in opera is seeing what singers bring to their characters from the outset, and how those portrayals evolve with input from the director and responding to their colleagues’ concepts.Since singers have their roles memorized, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they are deeply connected to the morality and motivation of their characters. The dynamic at Minnesota Opera is very special in this regard. For this production we have two stage directors who are superbly balancing the conventions of the art form such as placement on stage to accommodate a proper balance with the orchestra, in tandem with the internal and interpersonal relationships that are so important to portray...Read full article
I think we all came into Alice in Wonderland with that hyper sense of (in strained, halting voice) "must.... get.... this..... impossible rhythm....right."
I should have known better and slept better in the lead up because as soon as we got everyone together, the process lifted off the page and we resumed what this OTSL team does best: great theatre with a focused yet organic work ethic.
That isn't to say this music isn't keeping everyone on their toes. We are about two-fifths of the way through the initial staging and this piece has gone from stressful to buoyant and clever. No one is kicking back by any means, just able to take the process in stride.
I think stress will reenter the scene when I meet the St. Louis Symphony a week from today because we are doing tricky maneuvers the whole show as various cast members enter and exit the scene. The good thing is that Alice is in one act, so after two hours of patternless scurrying sixteenth notes and super exposed harmonics you'll know where to find all of us seriously kicking back and striving for serenity. I can't tell if there will be stunned silence or a release of concentrated energy among us. Whatever happens will be under the tent just outside the theatre.
Some of the best things that have happened in the past couple of days involve the creation of the animal characters. There was a particularly funny gathering around stage manager Kim Prescott's computer to view a YouTube video about a Honey Badger. 44 million people have viewed this madness.
Now, this isn't exactly authoritative research but a great moment for people to have a good laugh as they thought about how their characters' behave. Yes, there is a badger character along with a duck, crab, owl, frog, dodo, squirrel among many others. These folks won't be dressed like the animals per se but have accents within the costume that represent the animals. I like it this way. The performers have to get into the idiosyncrasies without hiding behind a mask. It's actually more surreal this way. Perfect for Alice!
Tomorrow we stage one of the opera's most musically complicated scenes. I may be referring back to the first sentence of this post by dinnertime.
After thanking Olga Kern for two amazing weeks performing the four Rachmaninov piano concerti and the Paganini Variations with me and the Phoenix Symphony, my daughter and wife took me up to the Phoenix Deer Valley Airport for my last general aviation departure as a resident of Arizona. The easy non-stop five hour night flight was a chance to decompress after an amazing spring.
Of course, my next project, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' Alice in Wonderland, has been on my mind for the better part of a year and it may stay with me for years down the road! There will be some sleepless nights. I can tell already!
After spending several months getting into the score, I watched the dark and intense world premiere performance available on DVD. Sometimes I'll start the process in reverse with an opera so I can both see and hear what is going on, but seeing the opening pages of the score, I realized that this piece is best served by one's personal imagination and sound concept. Hearing Dame Gwyneth Jones navigate the role of the queen from Munich was particularly exciting and certainly very individual to her. She is a force of nature!
Today we had the first musical coaching sessions I could attend (thank you, Greg Ritchey, for doing it the past couple of days while I finished up in Phoenix). It's always so interesting to meet a new cast. We all have such personalities, and it's interesting to see how a singer has prepared to present their role.
The things I am always negotiating are faithfulness to the printed page and the endless interpretative decisions each singer and director bring to the piece. There are some easy cues that guide me. A singer may have particular personality traits that I want to bring into the character so I may adjust tempo or dynamic. A singer's voice tells even more of the story. Relative lightness or heaviness in their technique impacts tempo and balance decisions, for example.
The dynamic here at OTSL couldn't be a better place to experiment with those options. The resident artists are at various stages in their pre-professional development and the visiting artists come from an enormous range of experiences.
Apart from making sure the music is well in hand and everyone understands how we are going to negotiate some very tricky music, I'm also looking for how those roles are developing over the course of the opera and trying to be mindful of that evolution or encouraging more of it if there is uncertainty.
I have my marching orders for personal study after today. There are several passages that have Rite of Spring rhythmical difficulty that I know will need extra care. It's one thing to conduct an orchestra or a singer alone, but put those elements together with the thrill of live performance, memorization and "x factor" type things that just happen, and I know I have to be especially ready.
Unsuk Chin has given us a work that can go in any number of directions. With Jim Robinson in the director's chair, I know this production is in great dramatic hands.
On to the staging rehearsals. Likely with musical brush-ups as we go!
One of the projects I most look forward to every season is the Valley of the Sun road tour the Phoenix Symphony embarks upon, bringing the complete Messiah or Highlights to area churches and venues. This December we will perform 10 concerts in 12 days from Litchfield Park in the West to Pinnacle Peak in the Northeast of the valley and everywhere in between.
I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly religious person, but the choral masterworks of composers like Bach, Handel and Mozart, among others, bring something out of me that I always find surprising.
I think this is a keeper and my friends in Boulder will hear it this summer at the Colorado Music Festival and the Atlanta Symphony audiences will hear it in April 2012.
The picture below is the first page of Tyberg’s completion. His mother was his copyist. Incredible care given to every note.
The rest of the program is fun, too. John Corigliano’s Salute was written as a “welcome to Brooklyn” fanfare for me in 2005. Get your kazoos warmed up!
I have a thing for Bruckner, I must admit. The repetition in the symphonies drives some people nuts but it can be handled in such a way to transcend that trait. The sacred choral music on the other hand takes performer and listener alike to a completely different place. I am over the moon to be working on this great e minor Mass.
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