Friday, December 19, 2008

Opera: It Looks Good On You

As a little girl, I loved playing dress-up. (Truth be told, I still do.) How amazing is it to put on a shiny dress or wig and suddenly be transformed into someone else? One minute, you're the same old you – and the next minute, you're a princess. Or ballerina. Or Valkyrie, depending upon your parents' love of Wagner.

Costumes have this amazing transformative power. I think that's why I'm looking forward to the sets and costumes of The Pearl Fishers so much. I know that while having the performers in street clothes wouldn't make that famous duet any less beautiful, the sets and costumes really bring it home.

So I wanted to share some interviews with Zandra Rhodes, the costume and set designer. One is a piece she wrote on what it's like to design for the opera – you can read it here. There's also a pretty cool video from the great folks at San Diego Opera where she talks about the process – see it here.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Zandra, she made a name for herself in 1970's Britain by revolutionizing the punk scene. She's gone on to design for the cast of Sex and the City and Princess Diana and has designed two other operas – Aïda and The Magic Flute. I've seen pictures of The Pearl Fishers, and it's pretty wild. Tons of color and a lot of texture and prints. Thanks to Zandra and the good folks at San Diego Opera, I've also gotten my hands on some renderings and production photos:

I'll be going to a costume fitting in January and taking a lot of photos. I wonder if they'll let me try anything on…

Friday, December 12, 2008

All the Opera That's Fit to Print

In October of this year, Opera News magazine featured an article on The Pearl Fishers, "Perles before Swine" by James C. Whitson. (Read the article here.) It got me thinking about the age-old debate in opera of words versus music. It seems like opera fans come down on one of the two sides. I think it depends on the opera – there are plenty of heart-wrenching operas with less than stellar music and many lyrically gorgeous works with kind of flimsy plots. I keep hearing that The Pearl Fishers falls into the second category. I don't know if I agree – a friendship torn apart and a priestess struggling to maintain her vows of chastity in the face of love is pretty strong stuff – but there's no doubting that Bizet wrote some amazing music. Or so I keep hearing, so I decided it was time to really listen to the opera. Now, keep in mind that I have no musical training. But when people are using words like "exotic," "sensuous," "fragrant," and "colorful," it seems worth checking out.

"Au fond du temple saint"
The big kahuna of the opera. I'm told most people have heard this, and I have to admit, it sounds familiar. It's the duet where the two male leads see each other after several years apart and talk about their promise to avoid a woman who'd come between them. What I really like about the piece is there's a level of gentleness; it's almost feminine. A little over halfway through, the music briefly turns harsh and angry – appropriate, since the men are recalling the first time they saw the priestess and the jealousy they each felt. But overall, I think the piece shows a tenderness and almost tentativeness that reflects what it must be like to see a friend after so many years. The singers seem restrained – as if they're worried about saying the wrong thing and sparking up old anger. I'm looking forward to hearing our singers perform it.

"Je crois entendre encore"
This is Nadir's solo after following the priestess, Leila, and his struggle with his desire for Leila and his promise to his friend Zurga. I feel as though I've heard this before, but I don't know where. I'd say this is actually better than "Au fond" – you can really hear the simultaneous longing and desire. It's a simple piece – no elaborate vocal exercises, just a heart-tugging song that makes you feel for the character's situation. This is probably my second-favorite aria (after "Nessun dorma").

"Comme autre fois"
The priestess Leila's aria when she sees Nadir in the temple. I'm not going to lie – I've never been a big fan of sopranos. The high range is certainly impressive, but give me a tenor any day. The piece includes a cavatina at the end, which is where the soprano is supposed to show off her talent by sort of ad-libbing musically. This piece, though, is relatively short and doesn't seem to have as many high notes that go on forever.

Overall, these pieces all share a level of gentleness coupled with a rolling sound that makes me think of waves on a beach. I've heard French opera is pretty different from Italian opera, so I'm looking forward to seeing how all the pieces come together.

So those are my thoughts – I'd really like to hear yours!

Friday, December 5, 2008

What Can Opera Do For You?

A few weeks ago, my boss sat me down and told me I would be writing a blog on The Pearl Fishers. After a few seconds of being thrilled that opera is joining the 21st century – face it, the art form does have a stodgy reputation – I questioned the wisdom of having me do it. After all, I'm no opera expert. I've seen seven in my life. I've learned more about opera itself, but I don't know anything about what it takes to put one on. And I realized that's why I'm doing this. I want to learn how an opera goes from designs on a page to players on a stage. I want to get to know the artists and the crew. I want to see what a staging rehearsal is like. And I want you to get that, too.

I remember being a young girl and watching a television special on "The Making of The Lion King." (To this day, one of my favorite movies.) My crush on one of the actors not withstanding, I loved feeling like I 'got' the movie more because I watched clips of how it was put together. To this day, I remember watching the animators try to sketch an enormous full-grown lion that had been brought into the studio. While there are no lions in The Pearl Fishers, I hope I can give you that same feeling of wonder and involvement I felt. So stay tuned – it's gonna be a fun ride. See you next week!