Thursday, February 26, 2009

Got Opera?

After a fantastic day off on Monday, I returned to my computer to contemplate this whole blogging experience and the opera itself. The end of an opera's run with a company is always bittersweet. While it's nice to return to a less-crazy schedule, it's sad to say goodbye to the cast and crew. There's no fun rehearsals, wig fittings, photo shoots, or interviews to look forward to.

Getting to go behind the scenes was a great experience – something I wish I got to do more often. It made seeing the opera on Friday extra-special, and I hope those of you who watched the opera felt as though you got some special insight into the production, as well. I know there was so much I would have liked to do but couldn't find the time.

Fortunately, I did find the time to watch the opera on Friday – which was also our Fashion Night at the Opera. (Check out partner group Fashion Denver to learn more about the fashion scene in Denver.)

After some time in the lobby with the fashionistas, it was time to finally see the opera! And it lived up to everything I'd heard and seen. The production simply popped – the color, the staging, the singing – it was all larger than life, which is exactly the way opera should be. I sat about 10 feet away from the stage and really felt like an insider. I'd seen the singers without the wigs and makeup. I'd seen what goes into rehearsing the chorus parts. I even knew that one of the supers (our own Ben Davis) was wearing a shell necklace because he won a push-up contest. And all that made the opera experience richer. I would've been blown away by the production regardless – but getting to go behind the scenes gave this opera a special place in my heart. And I hope it did for you, as well.

So let me know what you thought of this experience – and would you like to see something similar for Così fan tutte? And if you'd like information on future performances, be sure to sign up for our e-mail club – you can join quickly and easily by clicking here.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Opera. It's What's For Dinner.

Ah, Opening Night. I love the gowns, the glamour, the excitement that builds in the air. If you've ever been in the lobby for the first performance, you know what I mean. But chances are you've never been backstage – or performed in an opera yourself! That's why in this entry we're checking in with Ben Davis, super and ticket-seller extraordinaire to see how it all went.

AG: You can officially say you've been in an opera now. How does that feel?
Ben: It's awesome. My mom and sister even flew out to see me make my opera debut. I took them backstage and they got to see the dancers warming up and the chorus rehearsing, which was cool.
AG: Did they get to stay for your transformation into a pearl diver?
Ben: No, they went back to the lobby. I wish they could've seen it – I start by putting on this thick foundation on my face and put on black eyeliner and eyebrows and this black bindi in the middle of my forehead. Then I get into costume – throw on the blue diaper/loincloth – and go to the wig and make-up room to sponge on the body make-up. Then I wait while it dries and they call me on stage.
AG: That's really elaborate – how long does that all take?
Ben: About 30 minutes. But then I've got two other costume changes in the show, so after Zurga becomes chief, I run off the stage and have about 8 and a half minutes to get ready. I hand my props to one of the stagehands and get help getting the wig off and putting the new costume on. There's bands that go around my wrist and upper arm and ankles, so I need help tying those on. Add a pink bindi, mustache, orange pants and a bright pink turban and I'm a litter-bearer. After that I have about 10 or 15 minutes to change to become a guard.
AG: Is that your favorite scene – where you're a guard?
Ben: Sort of – my favorite scene is when I shoot the gun. But I'm so impressed by the storm scene – where we carry the cages off with the singers inside. You've got to time it to the music and it's a little intimidating because their lives are kind of in your hands. It has to be intense for them, too, because they're being carried off and the chorus is yelling and beating on the cages.
AG: So what do you do when the show's over?
Ben: Well, we do the bow thing. The supers take the first bow with the chorus and then stay on stage and take one last bow. Then it's time to run back to the dressing rooms. There was the after party, so I showered and got all the body make-up off.
AG: I bet the opera goes really fast when you're on stage – were you nervous?
Ben: No – nobody was really nervous. We've been rehearsing for three weeks, so we all know what to expect and we're in the flow of things. We ran through the opera about five times in full before it opened, including three times on the main stage.
AG: Despite all that preparation, there can be glitches.
Ben: [groans] Yeah. Everything was perfect – except the gun didn't go off like it was supposed to.
AG: But that's your big scene!
Ben: I know! I aimed, got the signal, pulled the trigger, and – click. Nothing.
AG: So what'd you do?
Ben: Nothing - I didn't know what to do. About 2 seconds later the backup gunshot sound went off – props to Mike who saved the day with that. I have to mention Dave, too – he's the stagehand who's in charge of the gun and always hands it to me.
AG: It really does take a lot of people to make this whole thing come together, doesn't it?
Ben: It does – and that's my favorite part of this whole experience. The people I've been working with. I became friends with some of the other supers – Jim, Randy, Michael, Adam, Bill – they play divers, litter bearers and guards, too.
AG: So you guys all got along? There was no rivalry?
Ben: Well, maybe a little. Before the first orchestra tech, the Assistant Director Diane Lin came out and gave me a seashell necklace to wear. I told everyone I was the head pearl diver. One of the other divers, Adam, and I even had a push-up contest to see who would get to wear it.
AG: You're kidding.
Ben: No. I won, but we're cool. Like I said, it's the people that made this such a great experience. I loved getting to watch Andrew [Sinclair] direct and Sebastian [Lang-Lessing] conduct – it was a thrill to meet Zandra [Rhodes]. What's great is everyone is there because they want to be there.
AG: It sounds like it was a really great experience. So you'd do it again?
Ben: I think I would. It really gave me a greater appreciation for all the technical aspects of a production. And I was really lucky to be so involved in this one – I have three roles and a part in every act – so I'd definitely do it again if I was as involved.

Well, based on the audience's reaction on Saturday, they enjoyed watching Ben and everyone else – I heard the words "magnificent," "superb" and "incredible." I'll be going on Friday, which is also Fashion Night at the Opera. So if you're wearing something by a Denver fashion designer, stop by the fashion table and get your picture taken. And if you're attending on Sunday, drop by The Pearl Fishers Bazaar and say hi!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Please Don't Squeeze the Opera

We had the final dress rehearsal last night. It's always a good time – lots of student groups come in and get to experience opera, many for the first time. We also had a few people come in off the street wanting to know if they could see the show (one couple had no idea what we were doing, but kudos to them for wanting to try something new).

I was at The Pearl Fishers Bazaar (open at all 4 performances – buy scarves, prints, books and more!) but briefly snuck backstage. If you've never been backstage at an opera, it's just as crazy as you'd think. There are singers warming up, people in full (or partial) states of costuming running around, and voices coming from the speakers giving cues like "This is the 10 minute warning for dancers" and "Mr. Panikkar to stage left, please."

I went backstage not just because it's fun, but to check out Opera Colorado's own Ben Davis – he sells tickets by day and acts in opera at night! Ben and the other male supers took some time out to pose for pictures – available on the slideshow on the right side of the page. Ben will check in with us later on how Opening Night went (as a super, he's got a unique perspective).

The only downside to last night was my camera being a bit on the fritz, so I couldn't take as many pictures as I wanted. But because I know you all want to see the sets and costumes – and I certainly can't blame you! – I posted some pictures taken by our own photographer, Matthew Staver. (He puts the "awe" in "photographer." No, it works. Say it out loud.) So check out the slideshow, have a great weekend – and I'll see some of you on Opening Night!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

An Opera is Forever

Opera singers have it tough. All joking aside, they have to sing, act, breathe, move, and sometimes even dance – all while making it look natural. (Which seems difficult – imagine pretending to be madly in love with a woman you've only met a few weeks ago!) So it was really cool for me to watch it all come together at a staging rehearsal. So I walk in to the studio and everyone's taking a break and getting ready for the next scene to rehearse. There's a stash of gorgeous pillows from the show on the floor (I had to tell myself it was the pillows or my job – I couldn't have both.) The conductor, Maestro Sebastian Lang-Lessing was there along with director Andrew Sinclair, the assistant director, the stage manager, and the assistant stage managers. And, of course, the four principals – Sean Panikkar (Nadir), Heidi Stober (Leila), Brian Mulligan (Zurga) and David Cushing (Nourabad).

The scene Andrew started with was where Leila and Nadir meet in the temple for the first time in three years. The singers had parts of costumes and props to work with and the Maestro directed while the accompanist played. And then they started singing. Those are some amazing voices. I've said it before and I'll say it again – these guys make it look as effortless as tossing off a commercial jingle. Opening night at the Ellie is going to be awesome.

So – they start singing and Andrew would occasionally stop the scene to give advice. He'd explain the motivations of the characters – like that Nadir is an experienced lover who's been waiting for this for years, but Leila is an innocent, and "it's all totally overwhelming to her." So Sean and Heidi don't just sing and swoon into each other's arms – you can see the musical and vocal battle play out in their movements – he's into it, she's trying to resist but really struggling. Amidst all that, the singers are also getting advice from the Maestro on how to sing the parts. There are so many elements that all come together and I'm still in awe of these little parts nobody thinks about – like how to get from standing to laying down without it looking awkward and making sure it fits the tone of the music (Leila wouldn't just hop onto the bed and curl under the covers!). The sheer logistics of how to sit, your hand position, where you're facing – all of that movement has to take the audience's viewpoint into consideration but balance that with a level of naturalness. You don't have to know anything about opera to be impressed with all that goes into it.

So this particular scene gets to a good point (I got goosebumps) and everyone gets ready to rehearse the next scene: where Nadir and Zurga first see each other at the beginning of the opera. They practiced maybe 2 minutes of the scene several times – Andrew would run around and pretend to be supers, dancers, or chorus members – while the accompanist sang the chorus parts. Because of scheduling needs, space and a variety of other reasons, the principals, dancers, chorus and supers all practice separately at the beginning of rehearsal time and then closer to Opening Night, it all comes together at the end.

I was pretty bummed that my schedule made it difficult to get to a dancer rehearsal. (How can you not be impressed with what they can do with their bodies?) I always wanted to peek inside the choreographer's head to see how they decided how and why the dancers should move. Ah, there's always next time. You're in luck, though – Michael Mizerany, Assistant Choreographer, is keeping a blog of dance rehearsals at Go, check it out!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Is It Live, Or Is It Opera?

Last Wednesday was our "Meet the Artists" panel at the Tattered Cover in LoDo. If you've never been, figure out a way to go. You get all sorts of interesting nuggets of information – like Brian Mulligan learned to play the fiddle at a young age – and you get to hear about the production from the horse's mouth, as it were.

The panel was made up of 3 principals – Brian, Sean and Heidi – as well as director Andrew Sinclair and choreographer John Malashock. The panel is moderated by General Director Greg Carpenter and he always begins by having the artists tell a little bit about how they got their start in opera. These stories are always pretty fun – more so this time because none of the panelists started school thinking they'd go into opera.

Sean, for example, learned to play piano and violin at a young age but wanted to be an architectural engineer. He entered a choral competition and got really far – and there went a career designing buildings. Heidi, though a piano player at age 5, planned a double degree in environmental science and music education. She found that performing on the piano gave her a terrible case of tummy butterflies – and singing had the opposite effect. Andrew trained as an actor but found he also didn't have the nerves for it. And John's first loves were science and skiing. He later turned to theater and dance – even working with dance legend Twyla Tharp for several years – and had a tiny part in the movie "Amadeus."

Since we had the people who worked to create the show, Greg asked John and Andrew to talk about the process. With dance, John felt that a lot of operas just sort of dropped ballet in for the sake of having a dance component. So he and Andrew sat down and found 9-10 parts of the opera where they could integrate dancing – parts where it would help accentuate the story. Or, as John said, "When words aren't enough, dance takes over."

The artists were asked how they prepared for their role. Brian noted that he creates a shell of who he thinks the character is, but is prepared to be flexible since the conductor and director often have their own ideas. He also acknowledged that French opera can be difficult since the language and diction is so exacting, but he feels he can really sing into the music. Sean had covered the role at San Francisco Opera and sang excerpts at a concert and was amazed at the changes to the production since he was at SFO. He said that Andrew really catered to the cast's strengths. Heidi agreed, noting that they didn't feel as though they were just being plugged in to the roles, but that "Andrew was creating something fresh for each member of the cast." Heidi went on to say that she loves French operas and Leila in particular is a great role, musically and as a three-dimensional character.

The panel ended with a Q&A session and then the artists got to eat lunch before they went back to rehearsal. We're always thankful to TC for doing this program with us – and it always has such a great turnout. (Don't forget to support the Tattered Cover Gives Back program – spend money at TC and a portion of the proceeds comes directly to us! Find out more here.) If you missed this one, we'll be back at the corner of 16th and Wynkoop with the cast of Così fan tutte on April 15 at noon – mark your calendars!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

It's Not TV. It's Opera.

It's not every day you get a wig fitting by an Emmy Award-nominee. Ronell Oliveri, the wig and make-up designer for our production of The Pearl Fishers, has not only been nominated for an Emmy but her work has been seen on TV and on the May 2008 cover of Opera News. Is she awesome and down-to-earth? You betcha. (Granted, I brought brownies to bribe her into letting me play with the wigs.) Ronell and her associate Sarah Opstad are wig goddesses. If the wigs for the production seem realistic – it's because they are. The wigs are made from real human hair and hand-sewn into lace mesh caps – which takes about 40 hours per wig! (A lot of smaller regional companies use synthetic wigs.)

Since everyone's head is shaped differently, a mold is made of the person's head so the mesh cap will fit perfectly. Then the gals use ventilating needles to sew the hair into the wig. The hair comes on a "weft," which is almost like a curtain of hair. The hair goes in about five or six strands at a time in the back and ONE strand at a time in the front. It's no wonder the wigs run about $1500-5000 to buy! So we rent the wigs from Ronell and she figures out what the wigs should look like for each character, since the wigs don't come with the costumes for a rental production. Ronell either starts from scratch or uses wigs from other shows to outfit the 60-some performers and has three other assistants besides Sarah to put the wigs and make-up on all the performers before the show. Bonus: I figured out how to post pictures on a slideshow - check it out on Flickr!

I stuck around for the wig fittings with Heidi Stober (Leila) and Brian Mulligan (Zurga) and I was amazed – it took less than 15 minutes! After the singers left for rehearsal, I hung around and chatted with the gals who taught me a lot about the art of wigs. Did you know the mannequin-looking head that wigs are kept on is called a block? Or that blocking is when you pin down the wig to prevent it from moving during styling and keeps it from getting ripped. I wanted to stay and learn a bunch more, but I was due at the second half of rehearsal.
Before I left, though, I got to try on one of the dancer wigs and see what I'd look like with black hair. Ronell and Sarah pinned my hair, slipped a stocking cap over it and got the wig into place. And the final result? I think I'll stick with my natural color! You know, there are days when I have a pretty cool job.

Monday, February 2, 2009

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Opera

Much like a movie, a lot of behind-the-curtain work goes into an opera. Flip through the program and you'll see hundreds of people who make it all come together – and that's not even including the thousands of donors and patrons whose financial contributions help make it all possible. Though I can't interview everyone who works on The Pearl Fishers, I wanted to talk with some of the crew and get a feel for what they do. So I got to peek inside the brains of our two assistant stage managers (ASMs), Katie Riedel and Whitney Martin, and learned a little bit about what it is that they do.

What does an assistant stage manager do? What’s your main function?
Katie: The ASM is like an artist liaison. We are usually responsible for the organization and communication between crew and artist. A lot of times the duties are split--for instance, in this show I am in charge of communicating with the Wardrobe and Wig/Makeup department whereas Whitney communicates with Props. We are the "people persons." We direct the flow of people backstage by knowing where everyone needs to be and when.

Whitney: The assistant stage manager is responsible for acting as the crew during the rehearsal process. They are usually given a part of the show to be the liaison for. In this show, I am responsible for all the props. This means that it is my job to generate all the paperwork the crew will need to manage all the props once we get to the theatre. Often, this means an inventory list, a prop preset list, and a prop running sheet. The other ASM on this show is in charge of costumes and so it is her job to do the same for the wardrobe crew on the show. The ASMs are responsible for keeping the rehearsal hall clean and set for that day's rehearsal. When the director tells us which scenes he wants to rehearse that day, it is our job to make sure that all the props and costume pieces that they need for that day are in their proper place. It may also mean that we will need to step in and walk the part of singers that are not called to that rehearsal. During a rehearsal, we are responsible for keeping track of every entrance, exit, prop, and costume that is on our side of the stage. We usually "call" the entrances which means that we tell the singers when to go onstage. Because an opera is so music specific as far as action is concerned, it is our job to make sure that the entrances, exits, etc. stay consistent and with the music. Once we are onstage we are also responsible for the safety of the singers. Many times, there are pieces of scenery or drops that are moving at times that the singers may or may not be aware of, and it's our job to make sure that we keep them out of the way of moving scenery, drops, etc.

What are you looking forward to with this show?
Katie: I am looking forward to learning as much as I can from the brilliant staff and crew I will be working with.

Whitney: I'm looking forward to working with Heidi and Brian again! I worked with both of them in Houston. I'm also excited about working at Opera Colorado for the first time. I always love getting to try out new companies.

What are you nervous about with this show? What challenges do you anticipate?
Katie: The only nervous energy I have is excitement. I am looking forward to all aspects of this show and I am proud to be part of the Opera Colorado Team. I foresee many challenges (as with any show) who is to say what they will be? You have to be ready for anything. I do know however, I will approach each one with a healthy sense of humor and a good dose of patience.

Whitney: It's always a challenge working at a new company, getting to know how things work. This show is actually pretty simple for me because I ASMed on this exact show in DC about 3 months ago. It is VERY fresh in my mind so it makes it a lot easier to know what is coming up.

What would you tell someone who’d never seen an opera to convince them to see this one?
Katie: I think this show embodies talented principals, gifted dancers and wonderful costuming. I think the storyline is fun because it is somewhat magical and fantastical while staying grounded in true human emotion. I also think the music is just plain beautiful - and that's why we continue to support opera, isn't it?

Whitney: Well, the plot is pretty simple and easy to follow, which is always good for people new to opera. There is also a lot of beautiful dance in this production. John Malashock does a wonderful job of moving the show forward with dance. The costumes and set are also stunning. This is just a beautiful show.

Do you have a favorite scene in the opera?
Katie: So far my favorite scene is the opening with the dancers. It's wonderful to see such great choreography in opera. Perhaps that will change after we rehearse it 1000 times!

Whitney: My favorite scene is Nadir's aria after the entrance of Leila. It's just so beautiful and the way Andrew Sinclair blocks the scene shift that happens during the aria really leaves me breathless.