Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Welcome to performing arts, Rauli.

Hello, I'm Rauli Garcia, HGO's Chief Financial Officer. One of my standard responses when someone asks me what I do has been, “I make sure the people who have talent get paid.” But I have never been a performing artist, never built a set or participated in the production of a show—how was I to know what actually goes into making an opera?

What if I were to observe the rehearsal process, from start to finish, as a supernumerary? I wouldn’t have to sing a line, as supernumeraries—or “supers” as they are called around here—are silent actors. I pitched the idea to Molly Dill, our Productions Operations Director, who immediately got a mischievous look in her eye as she played out the possibilities in her head. She cracked a smile and said she had just the role for me: a “prisoner” in Dead Man Walking. Both General Director Anthony Freud, and our Chief Operating Officer Perryn Leech loved the idea. The CFO, in a production, who ever heard of such a thing—but why not?

What a fantastic opportunity for me to learn about the art, the company, and process—I would immerse myself in the production process, and along the way track HGO’s funds from budget to final product. A main stage production gets rolling way before opening night, and in mid-November the production department was already casting the “supers.” I got offered the role of a prison guard in Dead Man Walking. It did not quite seem real until last week, when they called me to the Costume Department for measurements!

Down to the basement I went. Amid the hustle and bustle of fabric and thread, fittings and forms, lights and tapes, they quickly took more than 50 measurements! Clothes that are made for my body? How refreshing. Quite the switch from buying jeans off a table and hoping they will fit. Norma and Esmeralda deftly took my measurements, while Myrna and Mercedes poked a little good-natured fun at me, to put me at ease. It worked—I had a great time!

In the coming weeks, I will blog about my experience, and share what I learn. Feel free to leave a comment—ask anything you ever wanted to know about what goes on backstage in a world-class opera production, and I’ll do my best to answer!

Dead Man Walking photo by David Bachman, courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera

Friday, November 5, 2010

Scoring the Moon

David Hanlon, music director of HGO's world premiere mariachi opera explains what it took to get the opera down on paper.

How do you play mariachi music on a piano?

As music director of To Cross the Face of the Moon, one of the trickiest problems I had to solve was how to play the piano in rehearsals. Typically I draw on centuries-old traditions of rendering opera scores on a piano. But a mariachi score? I would have to figure out how to make it work on my own.

Opera pianists usually have a lot of help in rendering orchestra scores. Most operas are published in a piano-vocal score which features piano arrangement of the orchestra score. We might add, omit, or rearrange what’s on the page, but many of the basic decisions will have already been made by the arranger. However, To Cross the Face of the Moon would have no piano-vocal score. I would arrange it myself while reading from the full score: three violins, three trumpets, harp, guitar and bass. That’s nine staves to read from instead of the usual two. Even aside from the difficulty of reading all these lines at once and rendering them on the piano, I had to figure out the basic problem of how to turn the pages! The fast and frequent page turns would be coming at me two to three times more often than in a typical piano-vocal score. In some pieces the act of freeing a hand to turn would have to be as choreographed and rhythmic as a scale or an octave leap.

The problems of page turns and playing from full score turned out to be more fun to conquer than anything. As for making a mariachi sound at a piano, I discovered that it wasn’t so different from playing opera after all. The job of a pianist in an opera company is one of a translator. The composer writes in one language that of an eighty-person orchestra and the pianist translates that to the language of a single instrument. Along the way, you make decisions about when to translate literally note-for-note and when the spirit of the original is best captured in a pianistic idiom. This was pretty similar. Instead of an orchestra, I was translating the sound of a mariachi band. Most of my principles of arranging orchestra scores worked equally well with Mariachi.

When my opera head drew a blank, I could fall back on my experience of having played a fair amount of Afro-Cuban music. The genre feels to mariachi music as Italian does to Spanish: not the same thing at all, but similar enough to give you a feel for the overlaps in vocabulary. Most helpful of all, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitl├ín made a study CD of all of tunes from the opera. It was invaluable. When I prepare a standard opera, I’ll listen to multiple recordings to get the sound of the orchestra in my ear and get a sense of the choices that conductor might make. Here I had a document of the very band that would be premiering the opera, led by the composer. I had a ball putting on my headphones and jamming with Vargas, trying to emulate their every nuance, whether it was the precise articulations of the violins, the rhythmic freedom of a trumpet solo, or the infectious rhythm from the vihuela.

The first day of our workshop on the opera, the cast and I ran through all of the songs. We got to the middle of one song where a huge glissando interrupts the music and propels it into a high-energy dance rhythm. The cast let loose with a few whoops and gritos. “OK,” I thought “this is working...”

Monday, May 24, 2010

Backstage Bravos

Every minute of a Houston Grand Opera performance reflects hours of careful preparation. The artists and technicians in the HGO Technical Department comprise five different teams: Costumes, Wigs and Makeup; Electrics and Sound; Stage Management; Properties (“Props”); and Carpentry. Artists and technicians work throughout the year on every detail of each HGO opera—from the special effects of a tumbling bridge to the hairs on every singer’s head.
This spring the Houston Grand Opera Technical Department celebrated the year’s achievements over a feast of Texas-style bar-b-que. HGO Technical Director Perryn Leech awarded one member from each department for their special contributions throughout the season.

2009-10 Technicians of the Year
Mr. “Cadillac” Bob Baker, Carpentry Technician of the Year
Ms. Mercedez Ramirez, Technician of the Year for Costumes, Wigs and Make-up
Ms. Terri Batcheller, Electrics and Sound Technician of the Year
Mr. Christopher Staub, Stage Management Technician of the Year
Mr. John Gorey, Properties Technician of the Year
The coveted title of overall Technician of the Year went to a joyful Mercedes Ramirez.

Photo credit: Megan

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Music Rehearsals for The Queen of Spades

A little over a week ago we started music rehearsals for Queen of Spades, Houston Grand Opera’s exciting spring production, opening April 16. The last opera I did with HGO was CHORUS! -- a production created for our chorus and an amazing personal and artistic experience. It has been about a year since I have sat in the Big Circle on the 6th floor of The Wortham, working through giant operatic choral pieces with some of Houston’s finest singers -- with the music emerging under the outrageous musical and artistic skill of Maestro Richard Bado.

The yards of tongue twisting Russian finally begin to sink in - with strands of music running through my head … ah, sweet memorization!

I’ll be the official blogging chorister for HGO during The Queen of Spades production. Lots of pics and fun to follow. There’s puppets in this show, so watch out!


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

HGO Interviews Kim Witman of Wolf Trap Opera

Kim Witman of the Wolf Trap Opera Company is celebrating today’s announcement of the WTOC 2010 season by doing guest blog posts and interviews in a few places across the blogosphere.

Link back to Kim’s blog at www.wolftrapopera.blogspot.com for a complete list.

WTOC – like Houston Grand Opera – has a particular commitment to emerging artists. How does this influence your programming? (I note you choose your programming post- audition tour).

It influences our programming heavily, because all of the roles and assignments in all of our projects are performed by our emerging professional singers. (There are no other singers in the WTOC; emerging artists form our entire roster.) Because the typical 20-something singer isn’t trafficking in heavy roles in romantic opera, we almost never do any of those big grand opera or verismo pieces. (Things like Tosca, Aida, Pagliacci, etc.) And yes, we program our repertoire after the audition tour – it allows us to identify the best singers and then respond by choosing operas that contain roles that they could sing well at this point in their careers.

What purpose do Instant Opera and recital programs have in the training of emerging artists? How do they amplify or complement the mainstage experience? What do they offer audience?

Instant Opera is going into its sixth season, and it has become an even bigger asset to our program than we had hoped. Because its two basic building blocks are improvisation and recitative, the participating singers come out of that project with significantly enhanced theatrical and musical skills in those areas. Instant Opera gives us a way to connect with family audiences in the way that our mainstage identity typically doesn’t.

Our recital programming (both with Steven Blier, and more recently, as part of the Vocal Colors mini-recital partnership with the Phillips Collection in Washington DC) gives our singers a chance to develop the non-operatic part of their careers, and these projects offer an opportunity for a completely different kind of musical growth that complements the operatic experiences at Wolf Trap.

Doing new productions puts both audience and artists in an interesting, potentially quite advantageous position with respect to the piece – share your thinking on this aspect of your program?

There are both functional and philosophical sides to our commitment to doing new productions.

Functionally, our theatre is so unusual and specific in its technical requirements and size that we would limit ourselves severely if we were to only (or primarily) consider operas for which we could rent sets. It’s probably not that much more expensive for us to create our own than it would be to rent, ship, and modify someone else’s production.

And philosophically, it not only gives us a chance to participate in the careers of an entire generation of designers, it gives the singers a chance to be present for the life cycle of a new production and have costumes build specifically for them. There’s a creative energy that the director/designers team brings that spills over to the rest of the staff and cast.

Times Are Hard (aren’t they always?). What do you see ahead for the art form, and for those who make opera, and what if anything do you think companies and artists need to do (or do differently) to continue to be viable? What role do programs like WTOC and HGO Studio play?

I never see this expression without hearing Mrs. Lovett sing "Times is haaard, times is haard!"

If I really had the answer to this question, I’d probably be much more in demand than I am. None of us really know what’s ahead, but it’s incumbent on us not to take anything for granted. Most importantly, we need to constantly be on the lookout for what matters and be willing to let go of things that don’t. And as boring as it sounds, we just need to be fiscally conservative. The companies that are struggling and even going under aren’t necessarily the ones whose artistic standards weren’t up to snuff. They simply just couldn’t pay for what they bought. Those of us in the arts too often think we’re above such mundane discussions, and heaven knows that it’s painful to walk away from some of your dreams and fondest desires. To top it all off, some people do get away with it, and so we think we’ll always be lucky too.

What role do programs like WTOC play? We need to turn out singers and other aspiring opera professionals (coaches, administrators, directors, and technical staff) who are regularly practiced in reconciling their artistic selves with their realist, pragmatic selves. We should all practice this balancing act and instill a tolerance for it in our emerging artists, so that they not only can stay afloat as businessmen and women, but so that their muse can stay strong while they’re doing it.