Monday, October 24, 2011

Fideliosity - Week 4

Fraught with dramaturgical difficulties, the composition of Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, was characterized by fits and starts. There are three versions of the opera, each featuring musical and libretto changes. Joseph von Sonnleithner’s libretto for the first version of the opera, premiered in 1805 at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, was adapted from Jean Nicolas Bouilly’s libretto used for the 1798 French opera Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal, by Pierre Gaveaux. Beethoven, unsatisfied with the opera’s reception, revised and shortened the opera with the help of librettist Stephan von Breuning. This form of the opera, premiered in 1806, enjoyed greater success than the 1805 version, but its life was cut short when Beethoven and the management of the Theater an der Wien fell into a protracted dispute. Finally, in 1814, Beethoven revised the opera, overhauling the music and reinvigorating the plot with a libretto by Georg Friedrich Treitschke. This version, premiered at Vienna’s Kärntertortheater, was Beethoven’s great operatic success; it is the most commonly performed version and will open at Houston Grand Opera on October 28, 2011. 

Theater an der Wien

Bouilly’s story, set in 18th century Seville, struck quite an impression on Parisian audiences in 1798, having recently cast off the yolk of an oppressive French aristocracy. Not only that, but the story proves to be unorthodox in its gender reversal; the hero, Leonore, is a woman disguised as a young man; she calls herself Fidelio. She attempts to save her husband, Florestan, who is wasting away as a political prisoner of the extremely cruel Don Pizarro, a governor who neglects to abide by the changes being instituted by the progressive Minister of State Don Fernando, friend of jailed Florestan. Leonore, disguised as Fidelio, works for Rocco, the jail keeper of the prison in which Florestan is held. Also working for Rocco is Jaquino, who is in love with Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter. Thus Fidelio, an opera of two acts each with two scenes, becomes a dramatic work of two interlocking plots. Leonore, in her real and disguised roles, and Rocco, a father and jail keeper, participate in both. The domestic plot involves them in the emotional world of Jaquino and Marzelline; the heroic plot involves them in the deadly confrontation of Pizarro and Florestan.

Some of the dramaturgical difficulties with composing this opera might be due to the plot’s binary nature. It is evident at the beginning of Act II, that the domestic plot of Jaquino and Marzelline becomes an ancillary dramatic device; the crux of Fidelio is Leonore’s rescue of Florestan and Beethoven makes it quite clear, through musical convention, that the opera is about humanity’s struggle against tyranny and oppression and not about Jaquino’s unrequited love for Marzelline. The more notable musical excerpts from the opera include the Prisoner’s chorus near the end of Act I and Florestan’s recitative and aria in the opening of Act II. The confrontation between Pizarro and Florestan near the end of Scene 1, Act II, in which Leonore finally reveals her true identity, is musically thrilling and dramatically riveting; not much can be said of the “comedic” love duet of Marzelline and Jaquino at the opening of the opera.
letter from Beethoven to Treitschke

Moreover, with Fidelio being a Singspiel, a drama of humble origins featuring spoken dialogue interspersing musical compositions, there is evidence that Beethoven had difficultly reconciling his lofty, heroic themes with Singspiel’s rather parochial tendencies. Beethoven wrote a contemporary opera of great political significance, one that mirrored movements against oppression in early 19th century Europe. There is no doubt that the motto of the French revolution, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (liberty, equality, fraternity) had colored Beethoven’s operatic treatment of resigned political prisoner, Florestan. As such, singspiel could be considered as an outmoded vehicle of dramatic expression, especially when considering the musical development of Act II: the growing weight and presence of the chorus combined with the increasing emotional complexity of the principal characters’ arias. The opera becomes a musically complex, dramatically multi-tiered, and emotionally concentrated work of art centering on the themes of humanity and justice, moving away from singspiel convention.

Timeless Fidelio may be, it was not without significant personal sacrifice from Beethoven; it took the master composer over ten years to produce a satisfying final version. Beethoven says it best himself, in a letter to Treitschke: “I assure you… that this opera will win me a martyr’s crown.”

Mena Mark Hanna

Houston Grand Opera

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fideliosity - The Chorus in Fidelio

This is the fourth post in a series which we hope will help you to get to know Beethoven’s rarely-performed Fidelio before you come to see it at HGO. Please let us know what you think by commenting on our Facebook page or leaving a comment this post.

Richard Bado, Chorus Master
The Fidelio chorus is on nearly every chorus master’s bucket list. Why?

There are, of course, endless operas with thrilling choral music, but as Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio is a unique part of the operatic repertoire. Both of the major choral moments in this piece are incredibly moving, but are so different in scope, they could easily be from two different works.

The chorus appears in the finales of each act of the opera (in addition to a brief appearance of 20 men as soldiers in Pizarro’s aria earlier in Act I). The choral writing for each act is hugely different, but extremely effective. The Act I finale begins with the famous prisoner’s chorus – this men-only ensemble in four-part harmony is a beautiful, expansive, and wistful musical exclamation of the prisoners’ first glimpse of the sun after years of being held captive within the dark prison. The awe and wonder they express, along with the hesitation to embrace any sense of hope, is ever present in their singing. The act ends with the prisoners being led back into their cells singing “Leb’ wohl, du warmes Sonnenlicht” (“Farewell, warm sunlight”).

The Act II finale is the only time we will see and hear the entire 82-member HGO Chorus. This writing, much like the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, praises this very day and moment of the release of the prisoners and their reuniting with loved ones. We hear loud, celebratory, and exuberant singing that is unlike anything else heard in the opera. There is little subtlety in this writing, but rather unbridled joy as the opera draws to a close.

We embrace the timelessness and universal quality of Fidelio. It is a story of our living, changing world that never loses its ability to unite and work together with a sense of community – much like the members of the HGO Chorus.

See you at the opera!

Richard Bado, Chorus Master
Craig Kier, Assistant Chorus Master

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fideliosity - Week 3

This is the third post in a series which we hope will help you to get to know Beethoven’s rarely-performed Fidelio before you come to see it at HGO. Please let us know what you think by commenting on our Facebook page or leaving a comment on this post.

Fidelio – Synopsis, Act II

Alone in his cell, Florestan sings of his trust in God; he has a vision of Leonore (Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! …In des Lebens Frühlingstagen"- "God! What darkness here...In the spring of life"). He collapses and falls asleep.
Listen to Jonas Kaufmann – or to a great Florestan of the past, Jon Vickers.

Rocco and Leonore come to dig his grave. Florestan awakens and learns at last that he is in Pizarro's prison, he asks that a message be sent to his wife, Leonore, but Rocco says it's impossible. Florestan begs for water to drink, and Rocco tells Fidelio to give him some. Florestan does not recognize the disguised Leonore but tells her she will be rewarded in Heaven ("Euch werde Lohn in bessern Welten" - "You shall be rewarded in better worlds"). Under Rocco's watchful eye, Leonore gives Florestan a crust of bread.

Rocco sounds the alarm for Pizarro, and tells Leonore to leave, but instead she hides. Pizarro reveals his identity to Florestan, who accuses him of murder ("Er sterbe! Doch er soll erst wissen" - "Let him die! But first he should know"). Pizarro brandishes a dagger, and Leonore, leaping between him and Florestan, threatens to shoot Pizarro. A trumpet heralds the arrival of the minister, and Jaquino enters to announce that the minister is waiting. Rocco tells the soldiers to escort Governor Pizarro upstairs. Pizarro declares he will have revenge, and Rocco expresses his fear of what is to come ("Es schlägt der Rache Stunde" - "Revenge's bell tolls"). Florestan and Leonore sing a love duet ("O namenlose Freude!" - "O unnamed joy!").

Out in the yard, the prisoners and townsfolk sing to the day and hour of justice ("Heil sei dem Tag!" - "Hail to the day!"). The minister, Don Fernando, announces that tyranny has ended. Rocco enters with Leonore and Florestan, and he asks Don Fernando to help them ("Wohlan, so helfet! Helft den Armen!" - "So help the poor ones!"). He explains how Leonore disguised herself as Fidelio to save her husband. Rocco describes Pizarro's murder plot, and Pizarro is led away to prison. Florestan is released from his chains by Leonore, and the crowd acclaims her ("Wer ein holdes Weib errungen'" - "Who has got a good wife").

Coming Next: Preparing the chorus, by Richard Bado and Craig Kier.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Fideliosity - Week 2

This is the second post in a series which we hope will help you to get to know Beethoven's rarely-performed Fidelio before you come to see it at HGO. Please let us know what you think by commenting on our Facebook page or leaving a comment on this post. Unless otherwise noted, links in the synopsis below lead to selections on YouTube that are taken from the Metropolitan Opera production by Jürgen Flimm, which opens at Houston Grand Opera on October 28, 2011.

Beethoven's Fidelio is in two acts, set in a prison, and in this production everything takes place in the 20th century. The prison is run by a warden named Rocco, whose daughter Marzelline lives with him.

As the opera commences, Jaquino and Marzelline are discussing marriage. Unbeknownst to Jaquino, Marzelline has fallen in love with Fidelio, who is Leonore - the wife of the prisoner Florestan - in disguise. Jaquino leaves, and Marzelline expresses her desire to become Fidelio's wife in her aria, "wär ich schon mit dir vereint" - "If only I were already united with thee" (here sung by Sena Jurinac). Rocco and Jaquino enter, looking for Fidelio, who comes in with a heavy load of newly repaired chains. Rocco compliments Fidelio, and misinterprets his modest reply as hidden attraction to his daughter. Marzelline, Leonore, Rocco, and Jaquino sing "Mir ist so wunderbar" - "A wondrous feeling fills me".

Rocco tells Fidelio that as soon as the governor has left for Seville, he and Marzelline can be married. He also tells them, "Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben" - "If you don't have money set aside, you will not be happy". Fidelio asks why Rocco will not permit him to help him in the dungeons when he always comes back out of breath. Rocco says that there is a prison where he can never take Fidelio, and Marzelline begs her father to keep him away from it - but Fidelio prevails, and Rocco gives in, saying "Gut, Söhnchen, gut" - "All right, son, all right".

Pizarro enters with guards. Rocco warns Pizarro that the minister plans a surprise visit the next day. Pizarro exclaims that he cannot let the minister discover the imprisoned Florestan, who has been thought dead. Pizarro decides that Florestan must die "Ha, welch ein Augenblick!" - "Hah! What a moment!". He offers Rocco money to kill Florestan, but Rocco refuses: "Jetzt, Alter, jetzt hat es Eile - "Now, old man, we must hurry!", so Pizarro orders him to dig a grave in the well in the dungeon, and to signal him when it is ready.

Fidelio has seen Pizarro plotting, but has not overheard what he said. She is agitated, but thoughts of Florestan calm and focus her attention: "Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? ... Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern" - "Scum! Where are you going? ... Come, hope, let the last star"). Hoping to find Florestan, Fidelio begs Rocco to give the prisoners a few moments, respite in the garden. Rocco agrees to distract Pizarro while the prisoners are allowed out. Overwhelmed at their freedom, the prisoners sing, "O welche Lust" - "O what a joy", but, remembering that they could be caught, are soon quiet.

Rocco reenters and tells Fidelio of his success with Pizarro: "Nun sprecht, wie ging's?" - "Speak, how did it go?". (Note: this link refers to a Glyndebourne Festival production by Peter Hall, starring Elisabeth Söderström as Fidelio and Curt Appelgren as Rocco.) They prepare to go to the cell of a prisoner who, according to Rocco, must be killed and buried within the hour. As they prepare to leave, Jaquino and Marzelline rush in and tell Rocco to run: Pizarro has learned that the prisoners are free, and he is furious "Ach, Vater, Vater, eilt!" - "O, father, father, hurry!" here sung by Christa Ludwig).

Pizarro enters and demands an explanation. Rocco pretends that they are celebrating the King's naming day, and suggests quietly that Pizarro save his anger for the prisoner in the dungeons below. Pizarro tells him to hurry and dig the grave, then announces that the prisoners will be shut in again. Rocco, Leonore, Jacquino, and Marzelline reluctantly usher the prisoners back to their cells as they sing "Leb wohl, du warmes Sonnenlicht" -  "Adieu, warm sunshine".

Later this week: Act II.  

Monday, October 3, 2011


It's a rare moment in an opera company's life when the fates conspire to allow for performances of Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio. It doesn’t matter where you are: so many things are repeated before Fidelio comes up even once. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against experiencing anything by Verdi or Puccini any time! But I am rather wildly excited to watch Fidelio take the stage here at HGO.

Fidelio opens here at HGO on October 28; we just started rehearsals today. For the next several weeks, we will use this space to take a closer look at the production, the music, and the cast of Fidelio, and you’ll meet some of the people involved in making it happen at HGO. Check back on Mondays throughout October for new postings.

In its 57 seasons, HGO has performed Fidelio only twice: in the 1970-71 season, in the teeth of the Vietnam conflict (and the American League Baseball strike), and in the 1983-84 season, a time of simmering unrest in Iran, Iraq, Cameroon and elsewhere, less than a decade before the fall the Berlin wall. We offer it now, as part of our 57th season, with five performances starting October 28, 2011. Who knows what resonances this 206-year-old opera might offer up in the wake of the Arab Spring?

Why such a rarity? HGO Artistic Director Patrick Summers shares some of his thoughts here.

Fidelio is famously difficult to sing, demanding a cast that is born, not made. In the 1970s, HGO's Leonore was the late, great Leonie Rysanek; in 1983 it was the extraordinary and powerful Hildegard Behrens. Our 21st-century Leonore is the great Finnish soprano, Karita Mattila, heard and seen here in a selection from acclaimed Metropolitan Opera performances in the same role. That clip, by the way, is the production we’re doing here at HGO, magnificently conceived by the great director Jürgen Flimm. Our Florestan – a whopping great role that requires a singer of substantial power and finesse as well as charisma – is the brilliant Simon O’Neill. Check out his recording of “Gott! Welch dunkel hier” from Act 2.

To get ready for Fidelio, subscribers are invited to join us for "From Mozart to Romanticism: Fidelio in Context" – a free event (reservations required - RSVP to on October 10 at 6:00 p.m. Associate director Gina Lapinski and HGOco Director Sandra Bernhard will discuss the shift from Mozart and the Enlightenment to Beethoven and the Romantic Era, examining a society in transition from Revolution to freedom through the lens of its creative and artistic output.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Final Performances in Paris

Our final 3 performances were spectacular...every performance had a standing ovation. The cast rose to the enormous challenge of 6 shows in 5 days and are rightly proud of themselves, the piece and the overwhelming crowd reaction to their performances. The final performance in Paris was as electric as the first night and the rhythmic clapping was like another number added to the show. Jean Luc Choplin who is the General Director at the Châtelet was onstage at the end hugging and kissing everyone and saying how he had no idea that Parisians would or indeed could react in such a way.

I have had inquiries from quite literally all over the world and we are hopeful that some of these will lead to future opportunities to show that relevant new work is not only needed but can engage new audiences and broaden the appeal of what we all do

To everyone who helps make HGO the stellar company it is - supporters, subscribers, Guild, performers, technical staff and administrative staff: thanks from all of us for this very proud day.

Signing off from France with very best wishes,

Managing Director
Houston Grand Opera 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Adieu a Paris

Adieu a Paris...we're all on our way home, after six successful evenings
at the Châtelet.

The dress rehearsal was as perfect as you could ask for - which set us up for an electric first night. The singers, cast and production staff worked so hard and the developing of relationships with the HGO crew and people at the
Châtelet has been wonderful to watch. The crew of the Châtelet have been so supportive and they now have Mariachi music in their souls! I am very proud of how everyone here has represented HGO and the quality that they bring to their work.

From the very first night, the singers absolutely brought their A game and delivered a wonderfully strong and moving performance. They had the audience with them from start to finish and were absolute superstars on a stage full of stars.

What can you say about Vargas that hasn't already been said? Boy, are they showmen! - they feed off the passion and energy of a full house and seemed about a foot taller than the previous day. They were certainly louder! The curtain call each night was extraordinary ...if we had not brought the house lights up we might still be there now! Each performance was just as good, if not better, than the one before.

This is the next step in the evolution of the show - I think it will continue to grow and develop. Lenny Foglia is a master story teller and draws performances and paints pictures like few others. It is truly incredible how many sombreros he has worn on this show - he is its

We send love and thanks from a little corner of Paris that has been the Hispanic Quarter for the past few days.

Mucho gusto


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Greetings from Paris

Greetings from Paris, where we are a little more than 24 hours away from opening night at the Châtelet. The cast and the team behind Cruzar la cara de la luna are excited and ready to bring down the house with our made-in-Texas Mariachi opera!

I’m pleased to share with you
this editorial from this morning’s HOUSTON CHRONICLE, which talks about our activities here in Paris and in Houston that bring acclaim and vitality to the city we call home.

HGO is becoming more relevant and important to our growing metropolis. These programs are two examples of how we embrace and serve our community. This is only possible through your continued patronage and support. Many, many thanks!

Perryn Leech

Managing Director
Houston Grand Opera

Monday, January 31, 2011

What a rush!

houstRauli Garcia, HGO’s Chief Financial Officer, on his stage debut as a supernumerary actor in Dead Man Walking.

On opening night, I found myself onstage in front of more than 2000 people. By this time I was confident that I knew what I would have to do, and when to do it. I was pretty calm, except for the fact that I was also very excited!

I could not really see the audience most of the time. From the stage, all I can really see is the edge of the orchestra pit, and then a reddish darkness that begins right on the other side of the orchestra. In the midst of the darkness, the windows of the sound booth at the back of the theater reflect the stage, and every now and then I see faint silhouettes of people in the audience.

Rauli Garcia (far Right) intercepting John Packard as
 Frederica von Stade (far left) sings her testimony.
It was quite a rush when I got to run across the stage to tackle John Packard, who plays the victim's father, before he reaches Frederica von Stade during her testimony as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher. When I got to John, I practically crashed into him! That must have been the adrenaline through my veins ... When we escorted him to his side of the stage, my heart was thumping pretty hard. As we guarded him throughout the last part of the scene, I tried hard not to breathe audibly.
The next time I was on stage was with Ms. Von Stade (affectionately known as “Flicka”) and Joyce DiDonato. What an honor!!

Early on in the rehearsal process, Anthony Freud and I discussed my participation in that scene. He exclaimed, “Rauli, do you know that you alone are on stage with Frederica Van Stade, one of greatest and most famous mezzo-sopranos in the world, and Joyce DiDonato, one of the top mezzo-sopranos in world and at the pinnacle of the industry?”

During the scene Flicka and Joyce have just said goodbye to the title character Joseph De Rocher for the last time. In my role, I am a guard that prevents them from chasing after him—I literally block them by standing in front of Flicka. Here is where it got really interesting. Opening night was completely different from rehearsal. When Flicka came up to me chasing after Joe, she was blasting emotional energy, with Joyce right behind her. It is really strange for me to say something like this: I was not sure I was going to hold up in front of that emotion. It was tremendous! At that moment, Flicka really was a woman preparing to lose her son by execution. It was extraordinarily powerful.

The last scene is the actual execution. I am the guard who leads Joseph to the table, along with the other guards who strap him down. This is the marching scene about which I have already written so much (see especially my previous post titled “Never let them see you sweat”). This is another scene packed with emotion, stress, and symbolism. If it happens to look easy, then I suppose I’ve done my job—it took a great deal of work to get it together!

When the lights finally come up in the auditorium at the end of the show, I could see the audience. It was still very difficult to spot anyone in particular. It was exhilarating to hear the audience welcome and thank the singers. The audience was very generous.

When Flicka came back on stage for a special bow (this opera is her official “farewell” to the operatic stage), the entire audience jumped out of their seats at the same time, and went wild! A surge of energy and emotion swept the stage as the audience thanked the singers, and all of us in the cast. It was very cool to see how much appreciation the audience has for the talent, emotion and pure hard work that went into making this production happen.

Time to Dress Up!

Houston Grand Opera Chief Financial Officer on his experience as a cast member in HGO's Dead Man Walking. 

The HGO logo is "tattooed" on
HGO Chorus member Brad Blunt's neck.
A “full dress rehearsal” means that every one of us artists wears all of the costumes, wigs and makeup that we will wear in the show. Some of my colleagues put on faux tattoos, as well. Making sure the tattoos stick looks like it will be an interesting experience involving some kind of goo and powder. Glad it's not me. The tattoos are for the prisoners in the show. Most of the prisoners are choristers—during the show, see if you can spot the HGO logo that is “tattooed” on one “prisoner’s” neck!

Principal singers have special dressing rooms, used by one or sometimes two singers. Each has its own lighted vanity mirror, comfortable chair, private bathroom, and a piano that they use when warming up their voices. If I close my eyes and walk through the principal singers’ hallway before a rehearsal, I almost feel as though I am in a rainforest, surrounded by exotic operatic birds.

My dressing room is down in the basement among the other chorus and supernumerary dressing rooms. I find their resemblance to athletic team locker rooms to be comforting, though I have never been in a sports locker room that boasts lighted vanity mirrors. There are rows of full-length lockers lined up next to each other, with each person's name at the top. Our costumes hang in them when not in use. Several people have more than one costume and have to change clothes during the show once or twice.

This is my row of lockers, with five of the other supers: Gerald Guidry, Leraldo Anazaldua, Philip Brent, Tedman Brown and Derrick J. Brent II—they appear as guards, prisoners, protestors, deputies and SWAT team members during the show.

My fellow actors in our locker room.

Luckily, HGO employs a whole wardrobe team to help make sure that everyone in the show, and the stage crew, are outfitted and ready to go. They take care of making sure the clothes you need to change into make it upstairs if it is a quick change. Yes, in this show, even the stage crew wears costumes: during the show, some of the “guards” in the towers onstage are actually members of the stage crew, ensuring the safety of everyone below.

The stage crew is an intricate part of the show from the moment its scenery arrives at the Houston Grand Opera loading dock. They "load in" the scenery, taking it off the beds of eighteen-wheeler trucks and bringing it into the auditorium, assemble the sets, and operate all of the moving parts of the set from every part of the stage. The stage crew for Dead Man Walking includes twelve carpenters, nine electricians, two sound engineers, four house crew, and four "stage property" crew members, who manage all of the items that the singing actors use on stage-chairs, tables, court gavels, firearms, etc . Stage Manger Jessica Mullins coordinates the elaborate dance behind the curtain as crew members bob and weave their way around and through everything around  and above the stage, bringing the set to life.

Friday, January 21, 2011

I've heard of "high tech," but what is "piano tech"?

Chief Financial Officer Rauli Garcia goes behind the scenes of this winter’s Dead Man Walking as a supernumerary actor.

Rauli Garcia at right, with Philip Cutlip (center) and HGO Archivist Brian Mitchell at left
We just finished two nights of piano tech, and I'm a little tired. At least I know what piano tech is now. I used to think, what the heck is that?! That is what they call the first nights that we rehearsed on stage in the Brown Theater. It's called a “piano tech,” because there is only a piano instead of an orchestra, accompanying a “technical rehearsal.”

No, this is not "piano tech." But HGO does have its own mobile app.

These rehearsals were really complicated. There are more than a hundred people working on this opera. In addition to the principal singers there are thirty-four people from the mens’ and women’s chorus, twenty-four from the children’s chorus, eighteen supernumerary actors, and three other actors. All were present for these rehearsals. Oh, and I forgot to mention the umpteen people out in the auditorium! Get the picture?! Four stage managers coordinate this entire process—I’m glad I didn’t volunteer to do their job.

On stage, almost thirty IATSE crew members made sure everything on, around, and above the stage did what it was supposed to do (this is why they call it a “technical rehearsal”). There are a lot of moving parts. These were two more nights of stopping, adjusting, and restarting. Watching all the people involved go through this process so smoothly reminded me that I was surrounded by professionals at the top of their field.

So back to not-so-cream of the crop, remember my marching scene that I was nervous about? I'm all set now! Kim let me take home the video of the show from San Francisco. I watched that scene until I got it... about fifteen times. I finally got a feel for the music. Also, HGO Studio Alum Beau Gibson, who plays Father Grenville, now helps tremendously by giving me a quick wink when it's my time to step. Whew! Please don't think that I lack rhythm. I can Salsa, Merengue, or Two-Step with anyone!! This, however, was a bit different. I once read about a man who considered high intelligence as having the ability to differentiate in granular detail. When I started this complex march segment, I was asked to listen to the rhythm, step with my left foot, on the third beat, and on the “give” part of the word “forgive.” Huh? Can somebody “give” me a break?

Those instructions, while easy for anyone with musical talent, were beyond my musical intelligence. At this stage in my musical career, asking me that was like asking a kindergartener how many “o’s” are in hor d'oeuvres. They can hear something like an “o” in there somewhere, but figuring it out is guesswork. Fifteen rehearsals worth of exposure to the music later, and I finally have the ability to hear my mark.

Our next rehearsal is a full run through in costume on the main stage! And I have a costume change …

Image credit:

Monday, January 17, 2011

Never let them see you sweat

Houston Grand Opera Chief Financial Officer Rauli Garcia gets a taste of stage life as an actor in Dead Man Walking
I arrived a little early to a new kind of chaos. Some new cast members had arrived …  I asked a super who they were: “the superstars, man,” he said. The principal singers were joining us. It was really cool to see that they looked like anyone else while off the stage. I’m not sure if I expected anything different, they were just hanging out. I also learned that the other supers who I thought were actors were just normal people like me. They work full-time jobs, and then come to Houston Grand Opera in the evening. They do it because they love opera or the stage life, and this is a good way to be involved. 

Artists arrive for the biggest rehearsal yet.

I went to the far side of the room to watch as people began to file in. The men’s chorus, children’s chorus, supers, musicians, singers, stage mangers, and the production team arrived in droves. I had never seen so many people in that space before.
We began to go through the first act. It was amazing to hear it so closely. It was loud, in a good way. The voices of the principal singers were magnificent.  I have heard Joyce DiDonato on stage, but hearing her up-close was much more intense. This is an emotional opera to begin with, and the singers look like they are really feeling the emotions as they rehearse. 

Later, we went through the scene that we had practiced with the entire group. The one with the synchronized steps (“Left, right, left, right …”). It became even more complicated when we added the chorus and singers. The music was so loud that I couldn’t hear the cue to begin my march. I was late, which made the other supers late, which made me nervous. We continued through much of the act. 

At the next rehearsal, the supers were called with just the principal singers and the men’s chorus.  We went through several scenes, and in my mind, I focused on the scene I have been concerned about: the marching scene. We went through it several times. Each time, someone was off. I felt like usually it was me, and I was missing the cue. I was starting to sweat! This time there were more singers, and more people marching, and yes, more complexity. I offered to step out of that scene, so far, I’m still there.
Isn’t there a way for me to put this into a spreadsheet?!?  That would solve everything.

A note about the patience I see in the rehearsal room.  Maestro Patrick Summers, HGO Music Director and the conductor of Dead Man Walking and Leonard Foglia, the show’s director, show boundless patience while putting the opera together. The process is very detailed. There are many pauses in the rehearsal process. Stage Management yells, “Hold Please!” and everyone stops. Then Patrick or Lenny ask for small changes to be made, we back up a few moments, and start over again. It happens over and over as they tweak and adjust the production into alignment with their vision. 
I, for my part, will keep my head down and continue do what I’m told.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Marching to the beat of the prison

On the night of our third rehearsal, a snowstorm raged in the Northeast. A principal singer was stuck in an airport thousands of miles away from Houston, and rehearsal was canceled. This was yet another first for me. What could have been just another normal evening at home turned into a private tutoring session with Dead Man Walking Assistant Director Kim Prescott. When it comes to movement, I need all the help I can get, and in this case I had missed two early rehearsals. How was I to catch up with my colleagues?

Kim walked me through my toughest scene, in which the guards escort the opera’s title character, prisoner Joseph De Rocher, to the execution table. All of us must march in lockstep with the beat of the music, in a very specific series of steps. Thank goodness for Kim—walking through it with her, I did just fine. What would happen, though, when I was on my own again?

That night I went back down to the basement for yet another fitting in the HGO Costume Shop. Again, Norma Morales and Myrna Vallejo  made me feel at home, and the session flew by. They snapped photos of my two “new looks”:
Prison Guard Look, complete with official badge and real keys.

Deputy Look, with an even more official badge. Rauli smiles sincerely at his bona-fide new identity, and gets character cred with his "deputy stance."
The night before my first rehearsal with the other “super” guards, I practiced my moves. Three new guards joined us as we rehearsed, and actors walked the principal singers’ roles, so we could get a sense for the whole scene. We marched through the steps slowly at first, and then moved in time with the piano. 

We all rehearse in a huge, three-story room in the Wortham Theater, without the actual set, since it is being put together onstage while we learn our parts. Instead, we work in a labyrinth of colored tape—what seems like miles of it—laid out across the floor. Each configuration of tape represents a different part of the set, or a scene or an act, and is labeled with some kind of secret code. It does take me several minutes to figure out that the rectangle with the lines going through it represent steps we will be walking up on stage.  Good to Know!!  How am I going to visualize the through these layers, upon layers of tape??

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rhythm and Effect

Chief Financial Officer Rauli Garcia recounts his second night as a supernumerary actor in Dead Man Walking.

During my first rehearsal as a stage artist, I happily played the role of a basketball player in Angola, the opera’s prison setting. Due to a last-minute decision from my doctor, I had to withdraw from this coveted role, not knowing whether I would be allowed to stay in the show at all.

Thankfully, director Leonard Foglia was concerned for my health and gave me a new role as a prison guard. Removed from the basketball game, I was able to watch my former colleagues “play,” this time with chorus members added to the mix.

I also noticed, for the first time, the number of non-performers in the room. There were several staff members from HGO’s stage management and music departments, each one with their own responsibilities for people, or movements, timings, or other mysteries into which I have not yet been initiated. I understood that rehearsals involve a level of expertise and complexity that I never before knew existed.
Every time something changed in the rehearsal process, it was as though a wave had washed through the room. A movement from the director or the conductor would flow through the music staff or stage management and into the performers until everyone was agitated like white water. Then, all at once, all would resume their places so the rehearsal could continue. This rhythm seems to be quite effective, even for such a large cast.

Cape Town Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve ocean wave

This rehearsal was the first chance I’ve had to hear the chorus sing this music—it was obvious that they had been rehearsing for multiple days by the time I heard them. They already sounded very good. I was shocked when Chorus Master Richard Bado stopped the whole chorus in the middle of their piece, pointed to one singer, and said he was three notes away from where he should be, demonstrating it on a piano. Out of twenty five voices, he knew just which one to fix. Wow.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Pick Me First!

Houston Grand Opera’s Chief Financial Officer Rauli Garcia is a supernumerary artist in Dead Man Walking this winter. Read on about his first night on the “other side of the curtain.”

It was the night of our first rehearsal and I was nervous going in. Walking into the rehearsal room area, I was surrounded lots of people wearing colored papers with their names in large print. Many of the faces I have seen numerous times on the stage in the chorus. It looked a little disorganized, until groups started to gravitate to their appropriate rehearsal rooms. I followed Brian Mitchell, HGO Archivist and often a Supernumerary, and about fifteen other guys into a room for the supers where we all lined up in a semi-circle. Director Leonard Foglia walked in and, with his team, began to sort us into groups with whom we would act throughout the production. Was I to be a prison guard? A basketball player? A court deputy? An inmate? A protester? I felt a little like a kid in gym class, waiting to be picked for a team. Where would I go? I did not want to be picked last!

The story ends happily—I was picked along with five others as a player in the prison basketball scene. Certainly an unexpected assignment. I did not expect to play basketball for my HGO debut!

Brian Byrnes, the Fight Director and movement coordinator, quickly organized us into two teams and began to choreograph the game. I wondered how this was going to work. How can a basketball game be planned in advance?


We stood in two lines across from each other, passing the ball back and forth. Then Byrnes threw in a second ball, so we were passing two balls back and forth at once. My colleagues were actors first, not athletes. In the beginning, balls were flying in several directions. Once Brian was comfortable that we could pass the balls without dropping them, we split into two teams. Separately, he asked each team to create two plays in which the ball started on one side of the stage, and ended up being scored on the other end of the stage. After several minutes of running back and forth, jostling and crashing into other supers, Brian was satisfied that each team had two plays they could run reasonably well. We were relieved. Getting to that point was a lot of work for a bunch of actors and this CFO.

After a short break, Byrnes put both teams on the floor and asked that they take turns running their plays against each other. While one team ran its play, Brian advised the other team on how to “play defense” without actually getting in the way. All of a sudden, in a remarkably short amount of time, we had a very real-looking fake basketball game. Next we had to check the scene against the timing of the opera score. It was close, a few more tweaks and the scene was set. Break time.

My doctor called during the break to tell me that I should not be running around and playing basketball as he was concerned that I might strain my back. Rats! Now I had to tell Brian and Lenny that I could not participate in the scene they had just spent two hours working out. What would they say? I had no idea. I only hoped that they would not banish me!!