Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Hum of Sewing Machines and the Clip of Scissors...

Many do not know that most of the costumes you see on stage are created in the Houston Grand Opera Wardrobe Department which makes its home in the basement of the theater. Even if a show is rented from another opera company most of the beautiful costumes that accompany the production must either be altered or completely recreated (according to designers specifications as to material and design). Of the six operas in the 2008-09 season at HGO, three are “new build” productions (Chorus!, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Andre Previn's world premiereBrief Encounter). A “new build” production is one in which everything you see on stage, from the amazing sets to the beautiful costumes and every tiny prop, will be brand new (nothing borrowed and nothing rented. This means that the HGO wardrobe department is in ultra-high gear and has been for months. With over 600 costumes for Chorus! alone, (the biggest costumed show in HGO history) all being created from working sketches and miles of fabric hand chosen by costume designers, you can bet that the department is a well oiled machine of creativity and talent.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream will take the audience to a fantastic forest where the fairy kingdom intermixes with the human world. The fairies, all 25 of them, will be costumed in stretch body suits made of a paisley patterned slinky knit and then hand painted to look like a full body tattoo. The body suits, which are measured to the exact fit of the singer, take more than two hours to cut out to insure that the paisley pattern matches at the seams. The costumes will then take another 2 hours to sew and 4 hours to hand paint. That’s 8 hours for each costume for a grand total of 200 hours just for the fairies!!

Chorus! costumes line the halls of the huge Wortham basement like a storeroom for Macy’s. From blue shiny zoot suits to poofy polka dotted skirts this show will run the gamut of musical theater and the costumes are there to prove it. Costumes for Tales of Hoffman intermix with those of Carousel and Candide.

The photos below show the progress of the Russian coats for the scene from Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina from bolts of grey upholstery fabric to a finished coat ready for fitting. Also sketch and finished costume from

Here is a sketch and finished costume that will be used in Chorus! from a scene from Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

The racks of costumes multiply daily and are beginning to fill the dressing rooms as well. It’s definitely a busy, yet exciting time for the HGO wardrobe department.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I’m Officially a Rock Star

No, it’s true. That’s how the students that attended Beatrice & Benedict’s High School Night made me and the alternate cast feel throughout the performance and its red-carpet aftermath.

Last week saw 3 performances of the B&B alternate cast, which consisted of studio members Faith Sherman as Beatrice, Beau Gibson as Benedict, Caitlin Lynch as Hero, Jamie Barton as Ursula, and yours truly conducting. Tuesday and Friday mornings were for younger students at 10 am matinees, meaning that the singers were up at the crack of dawn to wake up and warm up their voices.

Every year HGO presents a special performance sold only to high school students, and the High School Night of this production on Wednesday will go down as one of the most special nights of theater that I’ve ever been a part of. The audience responded with the enthusiasm and transparency of a sporting event. They laughed, oohed, aahed, and vied for each character with palpable earnestness.

My favorite moment came when Beatrice and Benedict’s tension culminated with Benedict grasping Beatrice, saying, “But I will stop your mouth,” and planting a big black-and-white movie worthy kiss. What follows musically is the loudest moment in the entire score, but all I could really hear coming up over the pit were the cheers of approval that lasted the entire 2-minute number.

Afterwards, the red-carpet treatment came as Beau and Faith signed autographs for 100 eager audience members. Louisa Muller (who directed the alternate cast) and I shared moments in the literal spotlight as we were interviewed by students from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

It’s wonderful to be a part of such unadulterated energy, but mostly I’m just glad that we rocked it Berlioz style.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Audience Factor

On Monday evening we had our final dress rehearsal for Houston Grand Opera's Beatrice and Benedict. It was great fun! FINALLY we had a small audience to play to, and what a difference it makes to a piece like this - it begs for an audience to participate in the frolicking and merry-making, etc. Since day one there has been a wonderful atmosphere with this particular team: a wonderful cast full of energy and humor, a great directing team with wonderful insight and a deft hand at timing the comedy, fabulous musical values under the baton of an energetic and positive maestro and now a receptive audience that arrives ready to lighten their mood and get carried away for a few hours! Woo HOO!

I ADORE the rehearsal process (provided it's stimulating, challenging and productive...) for it's a place of exploration and discovery, as well as often building friendships and a family atmosphere, so it can be a tiny bit melancholic to bring that process to a close. But then the audience arrives, and the work we have done takes on a life of its own, energy infuses the stage, and we're off! I decided a number of years ago to always aim to ENJOY myself on the stage, for this life, this process, this career is so demanding, draining and tough, that if the pay-off of the performance isn't there, it simply isn't worth it to me. So to finally have the audience jump into the equation is a thrilling moment, and we all enjoyed the final rehearsal immensely. I have a feeling the opening night audience is going to enjoy themselves a lot.

So I took the opportunity to capture the above photo of Ailish Tynan, who sings the role of Hero, relaxing in her costume between acts. Yes, there are some big dresses in this show! But little did I know that my dresser and my dear friend, Larissa, was capturing my capturing of Ailish on her cell-phone! I suppose no-one is safe!!!!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Becoming Beatrice

I'll admit it - this role of Beatrice has been WAY down on my radar screen, and I was finding it quite difficult to find the motivation to dive into this. To be quite honest, if you compare it with Octavian, Alcina, Ariodante, Romèo, Elvira - well, those roles spoke SO loudly to me, like black holes they pulled me into their vortex and didn't let go!!! Beatrice? Not quite so much ... I welcomed the opportunity to procrastinate and avoid learning what seemed to be a rather glorified operetta, with seemingly little to offer artistically. Well, shows you what I know! I arrived in Houston ready to hate the piece and the process. ("Where's the DRAMA?!?!?!" I asked, having been so spoiled with those iconic, heart-wrenching roles of the first paragraph! "Where's the DEPTH?!?!?") Well, ok - there really isn't any drama, it's true. And the depth is there, but it's definitely not the deep end of the pool. BUT, it's sunshine! It's a spring breeze! It's panna cotta! And it's been a joy to jump into - thanks to a fabulous atmosphere, cast and team!

Our conductor, Michael Hofstetter will be making his US debut with this piece, and he's a real discovery for me. He has a beautiful sense of the French style and has a wonderful sense of humor, freshness and enthusiasm that I just appreciate more and more. The longer I am doing this career, the more I gravitate to those people who unapologetically love what they do!The production's effervescent quality fits the music perfectly, and our cast is just a complete and total joy. It hardly feels as if we're working, as the atmosphere is so light and easy. I had no idea how much I needed a production like this, for it costs me nothing (in terms of vocal power, stage energy, relentless concentration) - and instead, I feel as if I get to dress up and just go PLAY for a few hours, tripping along without a care in the world. It's as if the "Opera Career Doctor" knew the exact, perfect prescription I needed!! The other beautiful thing about this experience, is the dialogue in this piece. It is taken expressly from the Shakespeare, which means that I don't mind TOO terribly much singing this piece in English - for it brings it back to its theatrical origins. (Although, I can't lie: I do miss the ease of the French as Berlioz perhaps intended, however I'll make up for that in February!) But we sit around a table for hours at a time working on ONE PAGE of dialogue - and I've found it exhilarating!

As a singer I never get to make choices about beats and inflection - the composer has made all the choices for me, as he has chosen the dynamics, the stress, the articulation, etc. This is a new world for me having this kind of freedom! But it's a bit unnerving at first to feel so COMPLETELY insecure in how to utter a line without the net of music underneath me. It's alarming how naked that feels! Thankfully, we have a real pro among us, the wonderful Charles Krohn, who is putting us all to shame with his ease of delivery and expertise.Hopefully we'll catch up a bit by the opening night! But it's funny how you can be so sure about one thing, and in a matter of moments, be proven completely wrong. Happily, I can say I was terribly wrong and am enjoying this Shakespeare/Berlioz cocktail of sun, smiles and sass!

Photos courtesy of Joyce DiDonato

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Paper Chase...continued

The search for the 1937 London Times for Previn's world premiere of Brief Encounter in the Spring has been successful!

With the actual paper found the fun part begins. Scans for this project proved to be a very difficult task because the paper is such a large format and much larger than those printed today (46 cm wide and 60 cm high). This problem was solved by the good Pieter Collier of scanning smaller parts of the paper at the original location, emailing them to me here in Houston where I piece them together and then print them on a large format printer fitted with actual newsprint paper. What you will see on the stage will look and act like a real newspaper because, well, it was created much like an actual newspaper is made. It will fold and move like an newspaper because of the weight and qualities of the newsprint. Although I doubt that anyone in the audience will realize that they are looking at an actual reproduction of a 1937 London Times paper with its date, headlines, photos and advertisements…but the fun is in the details…just a part of what makes grand opera "grand".

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Paper Trail

Fun times have begun in the HGO prop department as we gear up for the new season. Andre Previn’s world premiere of Brief Encounter calls for a 1937 edition of The London Times. Paper props are one of my specialties, and the need for newspapers turns up frequently in opera productions. It's actually very easy to edit almost any newspaper just by changing the paper's banner, but it's ultimately more fun to search out the actual item. Newspapers have gone through so many changes, from printing, paper quality, size, images and eventually color. It's a great reference to have access to the actual item, but not when it’s being sold for 890 pounds.

So the quest beings… I used several search engines and had very little luck in finding my prize. You'd think major newspapers reprints would be easier to find. I did, however, get a reply from Pieter Collier with, and thus far he has proven to be very helpful. I'm looking to get a reproduction of what their website lists as The London Times October 8, 1937 which includes one of the earliest reviews of Tolkien's book the Hobbit written by Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia.

Working, hopefully, from scans of the actual paper, I can make any necessary changes and print as many copies as we need. I also try to make the props something the singers will enjoy. I've done several books, newspapers, menus and invitations that had to have parts of the libretto printed inside. Sometimes, I just like to have fun, like when I translated Britney Spears into Russian for a book in HGO production of Musgorsky’s opera Boris Godunov.

Stay tuned for more on how all this turned out…


Monday, September 8, 2008

Question: What links Minnesota, Portland, Wales, England, Sweden, Germany, Australia and Houston together?

Answer: One element of Houston Grand Opera’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream set!

As Technical Director of HGO, I often get to do things that seem …shall we say out of the ordinary. But the back wall and side panels for A Midsummer Night's Dream really take the biscuit (or strudel, biskit, welsh cake, or cookie depending on which of those countries you are in). The pieces look straightforward but, as ever with Dale Ferguson (the designer), there is difficulty, head scratching and fun to be had in even measure.

I have worked with Dale Ferguson twice before and he loves to throw his gauntlet in challenge to Production Managers. HGO’s production of The Marriage of Figaro had scenery and drapes made mainly of paper (yes! paper) and, this set had to tour and, of course, be flameproof. The production of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos included a massive “star drop” creating a halo around the embracing lovers with the “stars” all hitting the stage in perfect places.

So at the model showing of HGOs new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream we came prepared and the challenge was this – how do you make lightboxes as big as a basketball court with no visible means of support, paint them completely smooth in colour and then add a completely abstract and freeform design on top……hmmmm. The construction workshop in Portland is happy to paint these huge cloths but Dale feels that he is not going to get the flatness of colour (that he wants) if painters have to roll or spray on such a large area.

There are many wonderful materials that are possible to use and you will have seen some of them on the enormous billboards that advertise along the side of the freeways urging us to retune to Miller Time or to Think Arby’s. The problem with these is that they all require printing in sections and then being joined together and you can always see the seams. However there is a wonderful product called Rear Projection Plastic that can be welded together after it has been printed on in any colour or design (if you know the right people to talk to in Minnesota, although their head office is in Stockholm and the printing presses are mainly in Germany). Easy –let’s print the cloth green and then weld it together after we put a light behind it and then paint it. Or not……..

The green that we want is (of course) a very heavy saturate and when I get the first samples from Sweden they are not right at all (I am now in Wales as I am on vacation by the time all this has moved on to sampling, but I have begged favour from my old employers to use them as a delivery address). Dale and I and our wonderful new colleagues and friends at Big Image have a bizarre conference call to discuss how to fix this–Sweden, Wales, Australia and Germany all agree that this is a big problem. Sometimes with a big problem the only answer is to throw the instruction manual away and go with gut feeling. So they did and more samples are sent to London to another ex-employers stage door (I am on the move – it is vacation after all) and they are better but still not perfect.

A long week later passes and the good people at Big Image have completely changed the rules of how to print on their machines (half the normal speed and with twice the curing time if you are interested) and a very relieved Swede sends the e-mail titled “Breakthrough!” He is right – it is fantastic! The new method has got twice as much ink onto the plastic and the pictures in the email look fabulous. New samples are dispatched to the US (I am back from vacation – very nice thanks for asking) and Australia and we are Go! Go! Go!

Last part of the process is the painting of the trees and forest design and where is the best place to do that?

Near the cloth printers I hear you say. Too obvious.

Near the theatre where the show will be performed? Too easy.

Where the rest of the show is being built? You know we are headed somewhere totally ridiculous don’t you?

How about Australia? –Yes that is about as far away as we can be - so is obviously perfect.

To be fair the costs are still the most reasonable when you factor all elements in. Dale needs to keep a constant eye on the project as it goes along and the paint studio in Melbourne is near him, very large, and very reasonable in price. As there are few other costs this makes perfect sense to take the cloths to him (as freight) rather than bring him to the cloths (as human cargo). Of course that isn’t quite the end as Dale is now working in Sydney as all this sampling has taken a while, but let’s not let that spoil a good story.

The end result is that you will see cloths on stage in Houston that have more Air Miles than a Continental Hospitality and Client Host (or whatever strange name they are given nowadays), have had more research and development time than a new Ford and have been printed using the biggest leap forward since the inkjet printer was first available.

The long and the short of it is – you readers alone will know that they are not just very big green cloths but extremely clever and innovative green cloths that you are seeing onstage (via 3 continents and 5 countries) and you will feel honoured to know this and can boast the inside track to your non-blog reading friends.

Photos are set model conceptions, courtesy of Houston Grand Opera