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!