Monday, December 21, 2009

Lore of the Diva Tosca

Tosca has so much lore about it, from strange supertitles to the famous staging nightmares of the final scene, and it all began at Tosca’s opening night. The original conductor, the renowned but nervous Leopold Mugnone, was told before entering the pit that there might be a bomb threat, and if anything untoward happened he should immediately begin conducting the National Anthem!

There have been many tales of bumbled final scenes: misfirings of the firing squad (they supposedly once shot Tosca instead of Cavaradossi)—or the members of the firing squad, under-rehearsed, who were told that if they got confused to “just follow Tosca.” They apparently did, one by one, over the parapet, falling to their supposed death.

Tosca was an unfortunate victim of at least one early supertitle incident, the title character’s admonition to the painter Cavaradossi to paint the eyes of the Madonna black, "Ma falle gli occhi neri....!", in order to make the painting look less like Miss Attavanti and more like Tosca. In one early set of supertitles, though, the line, which literally means “but make her eyes black,” was translated as “give her two black eyes,” resulting in unwanted hilarity.

Though none quite as hilarious as what purportedly happened to a supposedly well-upholstered and unloved soprano who, upon her jump, realized that the stage crew had replaced the usual buffers of her fall with a trampoline, causing the fall to death scene to happen again and again with her rebounds.

Some of the actual lore is moving indeed: in San Francisco, Tosca was the opera which opened the War Memorial Opera House, conducted by the company's founder, conductor Gaetano Merola. More than 25 years after the devastating earthquake of 1906, San Francisco finally got its opera house. The audience, packed with Italians, reacted unexpectedly to the opera's opening word, "finalmente!"(finally!), sung by Angelotti, expressing his relief at having reached the church safely. The audience broke into applause that they "finally!" had their opera house.
Photo by Christian Steiner

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Houston Loves Lohengrin

Wagner's mystical Lohengrin opened Friday Oct. 30. Here's what our patrons are saying about Wagner's mythic intrigue!

"As I try to describe what I felt during and after HGO's amazing production of Lohengrin, I keep coming back to this: WOW! This production is one of the the best opera performances I have seen--I should say 'experienced'--in Houston. Patrick Summers and Richard Bado are brilliant at bringing such beautiful, large, other-worldly sounds out of the orchestra and chorus. Every single cast member is spot-on perfect. I'm going back!"--Beth Cunningham

"Christine Goerke (Ortrud) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Elsa) were just amazing. The orchestra and chorus blew me away." (anonymous)

"It's not very often that we get to hear Wagner. I've seen many productions at the Bayreuth Festival but I've never seen Lohengrin before tonight. The singing is excellent." --Ed Lieberman

"It's a great show!"--A.P.

"The music is really beautiful. I never thought a man singing almost without orchestra, standing over a simple library table could make me weep."--M.L.

photos by Felix Sanchez

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Super Job!

A supernumerary is an additional member of an organization. There are supernumerary actors, knights, ladies, professors, police, ministers, judges, military personnel, and writers. In this blog I refer only to the “actor” part of that definition. Many times they are called supers for short. At Houston Grand Opera, supers are folks on the stage who do EVERYTHING but sing.

The top ten 10 ½ worst things that can happen to a supernumerary during an opera:

10.5 Having to wear tights/dance belt

10 Having to wear tights/dance belt that are TOO tight

9. Getting spit on by opera singers (They spit a lot when they sing. I mean GALLONS.)

8. An opera singer does something completing unrehearsed on stage (It’s okay, they‘re only acting.)

7. Singing along with forty other men in the chorus and having the conductor stop rehearsal because you sound so bad that he can hear you (never ever sing if you’re a super)

6. Making a blind entrance through a door and standing directly in front of the soprano while she is singing her aria. (This one could end your career as a super)

5. Choking on a piece of candy on stage during a 12 minute aria (Never eat on stage…EVER.)

4. Forgetting, dropping or breaking your prop (You’re a guard for goodness sake! Where is your sword?!)

3. Having your prop gun NOT shoot on cue (Don’t just yell “BANG.” They will only laugh.)

2. Having a twenty-second quick change (Quick changes almost always involve some degree of public nudity.)

1. Having to lift/carry/catch/throw an opera singer (They are not always the lightest people in the world—those high notes take a lot of muscle!—and supers ALWAYS have to lift/carry/catch/throw them.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Blowing in the Wind

Set and Costume designer Bunny Christie has created quite an ingenious set for the world premiere of Andre Previn's second opera Brief Encounter. Because the story takes place mostly in the memory of the leading lady in several locations (both indoor and out), the design had to move seamlessly from living room, to snack bar, to train station, to lake and other places outdoors (just to name a few). There exists one primary set, that of the weathered grey brick train station, but sections of it disappear and change to give the feeling of a whole new location. One of the most unique is the placement of 5 trees in the interior of the train station. It works perfectly...

Trees equal leaves...and that creates challenge. Because real leaves, after being walked on all night, would create quite the mess, be unusable night after night, and would cause an unwanted sound on the stage, the hunt for reusable artificial leaves began in the HGO prop department. But that is not the whole challenge... the set calls for "British fall leaves" which are not like the orange, red and yellow fall leaves of the US, they need to be fireproof and they must behave like real natural leaves blowing in the wind.

The perfect solution was found in a completely unique company in East Sussex, England - Shirley Leaf and Petal Company. The company, which has been around for over 100 years, makes flameproof parchment leaves that will act on stage the same as a leaf in nature. Fabric leaves would fall to fast to appear real but parchment leaves should flutter and fall like real ones. AND they can make them in any color necessary- including "British Fall"! Two-thousand "greeny-brown" individual oak-leaves in various sizes were ordered.

Shirley Leaf and Petal has created leaves and flowers for fashion designers (John Galliano once made a dress covered with Shirley leather leaves), leaves for Disney's Pocahontas, rose petals for Steven Spielberg and giant dahlias for Glyndebourne. Be sure to check them out online and if you ever find yourself in England...visit their museum!

Such small details make opera so grand!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Why Shouldn't We Talk Shop?

We’re currently in rehearsals for AndrĂ© Previn’s Brief Encounter which HGO will introduce to the world for the first time on May 1st. Besides having a blast (and no life outside rehearsal room 2), the experience of rehearsing a completely new work on this scale is proving to be one of the most demanding, exciting, and consequently rewarding musical journeys ever for me.

I am constantly grateful to be surrounded by unbelievable talent at Houston Grand Opera. This opera could not have asked for better cast members or leadership.

On the lighter side, working on this piece so far has taught me a deeper appreciation for the following things:

1. Masterpiece Theatre.
2. Tea, and the endless varieties thereof.
3. The importance of not sounding like a complete waffle-mouth while trying to replicate an authentic British accent.

On the not-so-lighter side, this experience so far has taught me the value of:

1. Taking a chance to love music that only a handful of people in this world have heard.
2. The mental and professional rewards of excruciatingly meticulous score study.

And on a much more personal level, living with this piece (which deals with the testing of relationships) has either taught or reminded me of the following things:

1. Relationships are and will always be the bedrock of our happiness and character. All the high-speed internet, yoga, HDTV, fashion, and fancy cars in the world cannot change this.
2. We are not nearly as good at nurturing those relationships as we think we are.
3. There is always something to be learned from how other cultures view relationships – even if that culture happens to speak the same language.

I’m not sure if everyone who listens to this piece for the first time will take away the same things as I have already – often times the experience of the person working or performing on the show and the person listening to it are completely different.

No matter. All the care, laughs, love, and discovery it takes to put on a new show – it’s what we like the most, isn’t it?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Creative Idea Becomes Reality

Set load-in and construction has begun on the Brown Stage of the Wortham Center for the world-premiere of Andre Previn's second opera - Brief Encounter. Seven months ago the staff of Houston Grand Opera sat anxiously in a rehearsal room at the Wortham waiting for the visual presentation of what Brief Encounter would look like. Costume and set designer Bunny Christie unveiled a beautiful scale model (pictures below) of her idea and the wheels were set in motion.

The actual sets were then constructed in Chicago and shipped to Houston. Opera sets have to be created in such a way that they can be broken down into smaller pieces to make shipping easier when other companies rent the production and for ease of storage. The set "pieces" took two days to assemble. (Construction photos are below)

Huge fantastic sets are just one of the things that make grand opera...grand!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Diary of an actor dog...

Hi ya’ll and welcome to my blog! The folks at HGO asked me to share my diary with you and give an insider’s perspective into the life and times of HGO’s favorite show dog….me! Buddy’s the name and barking’s the game (sometimes a little too much, but that’s another story). A Midsummer Night's Dream is a crazy story about a bunch of mixed up humans ... "Oh what fools these mortals be."

Dec. 21st
Well, it’s my first day on the job and boy and I am excited! Everyone seems so nice, but I don’t understand why everyone is screaming at the top of their lungs for hours on end. I don’t think they’re mad, but they’re all so noisy! I think they call that singing…but I am more partial to howling. This Benjamin Britten fella sure has some great sound though.

Already there have been some changes since I arrived. Neil the director added a moment where Adam Cioffari (Who plays Snug the Joiner and later a lion) gives me a bit of his sandwich….I wholeheartedly approve! Wonder if I can specify the kind of sandwich?

Dec. 30th
My second rehearsal and things are going great. Kathy, my chauffer and personal assistant, gave James Kee (who people seem to call JJ) a new type of treat to try, and man do they taste great! Lots of trouble trying to get me to bark on cue though…I can’t quite figure out when they want me to bark, and when they want me to stop. They seem to laugh if I just bark all to time, so maybe I’ll stick with that. We’ll see.

Working with the Mechanicals is fun, they’re all so eager to pet me and play with me. As long as they remember who the top dog is, everything is going to work out just fine.

Dec. 31st
We had a run through today and I finally got to meet the general director of the opera- Anthony Freud. I made sure to come over and say “hi” as much as possible (I know where my dog biscuits are buttered!). There were so many new people in the room, I was so excited it was tough to focus on all the commands JJ was trying to give. I did a great job though, and everyone was so complimentary. The kids in the show really go crazy when I’m around. They smother me with affection…not that I mind it! I love the rubs and they seem to like my wettest of kisses. The run was great, but I was eager to get out and start partying, tonight is the one night I really go overboard with the catnip.

Jan. 1st
HOOOOOOOOOOWLL!!!!! Happy New Year!!! Another 7 years gone by, I tell you, it just seems to go faster and faster. I’m enjoying my time off, but I really miss everyone at HGO.
Since I’m such a well trained pooch, I don’t have many New Year’s resolutions, but here they are:
Chase fewer cats.
Drink out of the toilet less.
Spend more time with the pups.
Work on my tonal opera singing.
And as always….Make sure to steal the Show!

Jan. 12th
Our first time in the theatre and boy is there a lot going on. When I’m on stage in this show I feel like I’m outdoors, it’s so open and green. I barked perfectly today during our second scene.
Matthew Rose… the singer who plays bottom… looks so scary as a donkey! When we took breaks and he was still wearing the costume, I was cowering in fear. It was hard to remember that this is the same friendly guy who I have rehearsed with so much. Everyone took time to calm me down, but I was not a happy puppy being around that monster.

Jan. 13th
I knew I was a star! Neil the director added a scene starring just me (well, and JJ, but who cares?). JJ comes on looking for me because he seems to have lost me; after a little searching, I arrive and bound across the stage. At first it was a little tricky trying to get the timing right. I was a little confused about what I was supposed to do, so I kept on hiding in the wings when I was supposed to come on. This is big time theater… we aren’t in Kansas anymore Toto. Finally the third time I figured it out! I’m amazing in it, and have yet to break character on stage.

Jan. 18th
Our first run with Orchestra. Everything was great, I barked just in the right places, scarffed down half a sandwich, was much less scared of the Matthew-Monster in act two, and had a ton of treats along the way. This job isn’t so bad at all! Now I understand why Lassie was always so happy…

Jan. 23rd
Opening night! I decided I really would pull out all the stops tonight and really steal the show. The first two acts I played it safe and laid low, did as I was told and barked right on cue. Then I made my move in the Play that the Mechanicals perform during act three. Matthew asked me to bark while JJ was singing and boy did I! I never really stopped. I barked through the lion’s scene and some of Pyramus’s death Matthew even tried to shush me during his scene, but I just kept right on barking. The audience went crazy, they were laughing all because of me!

Jan 26th
My good friend Lassie forwarded this to me on Dogbook. That looks like one crazy dare-devil-dog! Good to see Collies out there in the limelight.