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 http://malashockdance.wordpress.com/. Go, check it out!