Edmonton Opera Blog

Entries from November 2012

Opera under development — auditions on both sides of the continent

Thursday, November 29. 2012

I’m writing now from New York, where we’re making our pilgrimage to do auditions, along with Timothy Vernon, Patrick Corrigan and Ian Rye from Pacific Opera Victoria. Every November/December is always known in the opera community as “audition season” — maybe because there usually isn’t much opera this time of year, since that’s when ballet companies use the halls to do The Nutcracker. In any case, we’re here to hear three days of auditions with our friends from POV, and to find some exciting young talent that we can bring to our audiences in Edmonton.

We’re especially excited to hear a few members of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Met tomorrow morning.

This is the third set of auditions we've done recently, as we were in Toronto at the end of October and in Calgary in late November. I just wanted to take a moment to say how much Sandra and I enjoyed Calgary Opera’s production of Verdi’s Otello last week. Otello was Verdi’s next-to-last opera, and his final tragedy (his last opera was Falstaff) and it’s an utter masterpiece. It was great to see many artists who have performed with Edmonton Opera before: Gregory Dahl, Colin Ainsworth, and John Mac Master — as well as to hear the orchestra wonderfully led by Robert Tweten, whom our audiences recently heard conducting Fidelio.

While we were in Calgary, we also got a chance to hear auditions of the Emerging Artists at Calgary Opera. What a fantastic group of singers! Every one of them had something really special to offer, and a couple of them are in the finals of the COC Ensemble Studio competition, which is happening this weekend in Toronto.

Young artist programs, like Calgary’s Emerging Artist program, COC’s Ensemble Studio and the Met’s Lindemann Program, are such an important part of what opera companies do, and they’re an essential part of developing the art form of opera. Many talented singers graduating out of college usually aren’t quite ready to begin professional careers — what they need is practical experience. And so the young artist program serves as kind of a bridge between school and the professional world. Once they have all the vocal and theoretical training from the university, a young artist program sets them up with all of the practical stage experience that they will need to be successful — it makes them “stage-smart,” and shows them what it’s like to work in a professional company. They also serve as ambassadors for the art form and for the company in the community by singing concerts wherever they can. It’s a win-win: the artists build their experience, and the city gets more opera!

Groundhog Day of opera

Wednesday, November 28. 2012

Inspired by the 30-Day Opera Challenge done by Austin Lyric Opera, the staff at the Edmonton Opera have taken on their own 30-day challenge. Each week, we'll post answers from staff members about various aspects of opera, whether it's their favourite aria, an opera house they'd like to visit or their opinion on a genre. We welcome comments about your own take on the question, either on the blog or via social media. 

Which opera would you see countless times?

Clayton Rodney, technical director: Satyagraha, composed by Phillip Glass and libretto by Glass and Constance DeJong. I saw it in New York, and it's hours of my life that I could just watch again and again.

Sandra Gajic, CEO: The Ring Cycle. I've seen it numerous times, all over the world, I've travelled for it, and each concept is so different and uncovers new layers. I will try to make it to Seattle (in August 2013) for their production of The Ring Cycle.

Cameron MacRae, creative coordinator: Satyagraha, more for the music than anything else. I love Phillip Glass and could just listen to him all the time.

Jelena Bojic, director of community relations: (When it was her turn, and two other people had already answered Satyagraha, she quipped that she thought she was being original with her choice.) Each of the acts is about a major cultural person who affected the world, and the music is amazing. Before I saw it, I had four espresso to prepare — it's almost four hours long — but I sat there with my eyes wide open throughout the entire thing, amazed.

Kelly Sheard, grant writer: Puccini wrote an opera, La Fanciulla del West, that happened in the Wild West. I don't know about seeing it again and again and again, but I'd certainly like to see it, as something completely different. 

Mandy MacRae, education and community outreach coordinator: I saw Madama Butterfly at the English National Opera, and the set and costumes were absolutely beautiful. I could watch that one many times.

Ha Neul Kim, company and stage manager: I have too many I'd watch over and over again. Bluebeard's Castle is one. I love it. It's just so different than anything else, and it's amazing. 

Tim Yakimec, director of production: I would see The Tales of Hoffmann over and over again. I have seen a number of productions of it, and I would see it again because of the music, but also because of different director's concepts working on the piece. I have seen four different perspectives and all have been so interesting because of the director's choice for setting and character development. 

Eight days with Shelter cast, crew and orchestra

Thursday, November 22. 2012

Sunday: Day 1 (Nov. 11)

Edmonton Opera production director Tim Yakimec arrives at my doorstep with a cargo van. Inside is the mini fridge I’d asked to have backstage, a printer and a kettle. The rest of the space is reserved to pick up the double bass at the airport. I’m along for the ride to the airport to become a driver, and bring back the Tapestry New Opera creative team. I don’t know any of them, so I made a sign to hold at the airport like in the movies. It says Edmonton Opera – Tapestry New Opera – SHELTER in big letters. Only one person noticed it. Sadly my life is not a Hollywood film.

Everyone from Tapestry has been working on this show for months; the writing and workshop process took years. As a local stage manager, I’m working just the shows and the week of tech to be backstage and be a local resource.

The van is rented, suitcases are found and we head back into town with the luggage, Ben, Beth and Aaron (video and lighting designers and their new baby!!), Sue (set designer) and Isolde (stage manager, my boss). I am a great tour guide (and a humble one as well) and take everyone to the grocery store to get set up for the week.

Isolde and I chat about what the week will look like over a tasty beverage. I’ve got a list of tasks for the morning!

Monday: Day 2 (Nov. 12)

A brisk walk to the hotel from my place, and I’m again the chauffeur, driving the gang to the theatre. At 8 a.m. It’s early.

Load-in has begun! The projection screen is being assembled and costumes are coming out of suitcases. Turns out that the suitcase is a prop too, not just a suitcase!

Then I’m driving back to the airport to find the orchestra, the cast, the director and maestro! We have two vans and Tim’s truck so luckily everyone and everything fits.

Isolde sent me a whole bunch of paperwork with my copy of the score the week before. Now we just need to make sure I know about the changes in blocking and the cuts to the score. That way I can make sure that all the props and quick-change pieces are in the right place at the right time backstage!

Onstage lights are being hung and focused. Sue is doing small repairs on costumes. Jesse (the bass player) comes to the theatre to make sure his bass arrived all in one piece. It has. It’s a great day.

Tuesday: Day 3 (Nov. 13)

Our props and costume areas are all set up. Lighting cues are being created. Connor, our supernumerary, and Michael, from Tapestry, are champions and are being the light-walkers. It’s not a glamorous job; it’s akin to being a stand-in in a movie. They stand onstage where the singers will be standing and the lights change in intensity around them until it looks perfect. This can take a while, and can be (for the light-walkers) pretty dull. But they hang in there! (And continue to do so for the next couple of days. Champs!)

I’m sitting by my score looking through it in the moments between needing to run to fetch something for someone, making tea and coffee, grabbing the prop/costume piece that’s needed onstage, relaying information from the carpentry shop to backstage and to the audience where the creative team is stationed. Today we are setting the prop house on fire. It takes a while to perfect the mechanism. The CSA fellow, Aidan (Tapestry production manager), and Jeff (EOA assistant technical director), are all working hard to make this piece of theatre magic work. Spoiler alert: The house burns at the end of the opera.

Then the cast arrives and it’s time to do the piano tech! How did that happen so quickly? I finally get to hear the music. All the pieces are coming together. I am trying to remember everyone’s name, what prop they need when and how all the scene changes we’ve worked on fit into the running time of the opera. Hectic, but fun!

Wednesday: Day 4 (Nov. 14)

The orchestra and the cast are all here, and it’s wonderful to hear what the opera will sound like with everyone. And it sounds great. There is one part of the show when I have a moment to groove out and dance backstage to the music. Yup, this is my real job!

We have a dress rehearsal tonight. There are a few invited guests, and they laugh at the jokes. It’s so good to have an audience. I am getting the feeling of the show too, but I’m still checking my notes all the time to make sure I don’t forget anything.

Thursday: Day 5 (Nov. 15)

It’s OPENING NIGHT!!!!

We have a short rehearsal in the afternoon to iron out the last couple of wrinkles. It’s the last time Keith, our director, and Wayne, the maestro, have to give notes before the big night.

Tonight the Edmonton Opera is treating us all to a small dinner at the theatre. What a wonderful surprise! I’m excited and nervous about the show. I haven’t written my opening night cards yet, so I hide backstage and write Toi Toi Toi to everyone!

But time ticks on, the patrons arrive and suddenly I’m giving the two minutes to show time call. And we’re off! And everything goes well. There are chuckles from the audience at all the right places, the singers are great, the music is soaring, the props are where they should be, the house burns just like it’s supposed to and then: applause! We did it!

I eat a lot of mini-pastries at the opening night reception to celebrate.

Friday: Day 6 (Nov. 16)

I get to sleep in today! What bliss. Plus, my job is to go to work and make the magic at the opera happen tonight. It’s pretty much the best. There are only a couple “day after opening” mishaps. I get to spend time with Maestro in the car as we race back to the hotel to get his score, and arrive back at the theatre to learn that a frappuccino leapt off the table onto Christine’s costume. Michelle, our wardrobe angel, saves the day! Everything is ready for the show, thankfully, and on it goes!

Saturday: Day 7 (Nov. 17)

It’s a two-show day today. Or as cast member Keith Klassen said to me, “Groundhog Day.” You know, like the movie where Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again? And it’s true, part way through the second show I’m looking at my notes thinking “Didn’t I already do that?” and I had done it: during the matinée.

There seems to be a gremlin in one of the moving lights. We will set it during the crew call before the show, and then during the show it has a mind of its own. I’m sure we’re the only ones who notice. We will fix it again tomorrow!

Sunday: Day 8 (Nov. 18)

It’s the last show! Isolde is already handing out taxi chits for some folks to leave right after the show. My mom and dad are coming to see it this afternoon and I’m excited to hear their reactions over birthday dinner tonight. Oh yeah, it’s my birthday — everyone sings to me backstage before the audience comes in. Opera “Happy Birthday” is the best! Wow.

The show runs smoothly and then the work lights are on, the crew has arrived and the screens are coming down, the orchestra is packing up, and I am emptying the coffee maker and packing up all my stage management supplies.

The crew will be working until everything gets cleared and restored to how the theatre was when we arrived. I’m not on that crew however, so once all the dressing rooms have been cleaned out, and my supplies are all packed up, Isolde, Tim and I pack the truck and I’m done.

I drive Isolde back to the hotel to say goodbye. I really can’t believe it’s only been a week. I’ve been so lucky to work with her — what an amazing stage manager and mentor. It’s been wonderful working with the whole company too! We say “until next time, whenever that is.”

And that’s it! The week of Shelter in Edmonton! Whew!

Anna Davidson was the assistant stage manager for the ATB Canadian Series production of "Shelter," at La Cité Francophone Nov. 15-18. She has previously worked with the Edmonton Opera on "The Mikado," "The Barber of Barrhead" and "Carmen." She has also worked as a stage manager for the Citadel Theatre, Northern Light Theatre, Shadow Theatre, Workshop West, Theatre Network, Concrete Theatre and L'Uni Theatre. She is a graduate of the theatre production program at MacEwan and the theatre performance program at Red Deer College. 

Wishlist of opera houses to visit

Tuesday, November 20. 2012

Inspired by the 30-Day Opera Challenge done by Austin Lyric Opera, the staff at the Edmonton Opera have taken on their own 30-day challenge. Each week, we'll post answers from staff members about various aspects of opera, whether it's their favourite aria, an opera house they'd like to visit or their opinion on a genre. We welcome comments about your own take on the question, either on the blog or via social media. 

Which opera house would you like to visit some day, and why?

Michael Spassov, artistic administrator & chorus master: The Mariinsky Theatre. I've always wanted to go to St. Petersburg, and Canadian architect Jack Diamond (Diamond Schmitt Architects) is the architect — the same architectural firm who designed the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.

Tim Yakimec, director of production: The State Opera House in Prague. It has all the original stage mechanisms, and they all still work — they haven't modernized it. Plus the city is gorgeous. It's incredible that they're still using the original stage mechanisms and yet we're about always looking ahead to the next big thing.

Clayton Rodney, technical director: There's two — an old one, the Paris Opera House because it's in Paris, and the one in Oslo (Tim Yakimec has been there). An old one and a new one.

Tara-Lee LaRose, box office manager: I did lots in Vienna and I walked by the opera house, but I didn't go in, so I'd like to go to that one.

Analee Roman, CFO: Oslo, same as Clayton. Only because I think it would be cool to see opera performed on water. 

Amanda MacRae, education and community outreach coordinator: I would love to visit the Sydney Opera House. I really enjoy travelling and visiting different UNESCO heritage sites, and it would be amazing to take a tour through it and watch a performance. It's supposed to be a really stunning building.

Ha Neul Kim, company and stage manager: Shanghai Opera, because the original architecture is still on the outside, but they gutted the inside and built a whole new theatre inside.

Lauren Tenney, marketing coordinator: I have three. New York, because the Met is just something you should go to, and it's probably the easiest one that I could travel to. Sydney, because of the building, but I don't know if I'll ever get there. And Vienna, because it's old.

Cameron MacRae, creative coordinator: The same one that Clayton wants to go to, in Oslo. It's become such a destination for tourists, so it's cool that people might go just for the architecture but end up seeing an opera too. And I want to go to La Scala to see opera in a place where it's so much a part of the culture and history.

Jeff McAlpine, assistant technical director: The Royal Opera House, because I really like England, and that's what I think of when I think of England.

Sandra Gajic, CEO: Savonlinna, in Finland. It's an old ancient castle with a summer festival, and I haven't been there yet. 

Kelly Sheard, grant writer: The opera house I want to visit is a little less grand and a lot closer than some. I have yet to see the Canmore Opera House, located at Heritage Park in Calgary. I would like to sit with the resident ghost, Sam, in one of the rows. 

Jelena Bojic, director of community relations: Mine would be Vienna Opera House, as one of the most famous opera houses that has a different opera performance every day! The quality of productions sounds truly amazing and I'd love to see anything there. 

Catherine Szabo, communications coordinator: I would want to visit the Amargosa Opera House, in Death Valley, Calif., because it is literally in the middle of nowhere. Also, the Savonlinna Opera Festival sounds gorgeous.

Chicago weekend full of highlights

Monday, November 12. 2012

Leaving Edmonton in November during one of the first snowstorms felt rather good in spite of a very early flight. After a direct flight and a smooth ride to our boutique hotel — within easy walking distance to the Lyric Opera, Chicago Symphony, Art Institute and Millenium Park — we all had a lovely dinner together at Trattoria No. 10 (Italian food and wine was a must before Verdi!).

The first performance we saw at the Lyric was Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. The music and drama of Simon Boccanegra are magnificent from the first bar to finish. No wonder it took Verdi 24 years to revise it after the initial debacle; it took the talent of Arrigo Boito to revise the original libretto that Piave did for the first performance in 1857. The version as we know it today was performed for the first time in 1881. In its revised form it became a masterpiece of late Verdi period, tightly structured — no more ceremonial moments distracting us form the drama at hand.  In 1881, the “showy” moments did not appeal to Verdi any longer. In this opera, Verdi composed some glorious music with profound lyricism while remaining such a musical psychologist. A great example of the latter is the duet of Amelia and Boccanegra, which brings forth such moving humanity to this great work.

The production was co-produced with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden back in 1995, set designed by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Peter Hall and directed by Elijah Moshinsky. Sir Andrew Davis conducted the wonderful Lyric Opera orchestra. The cast was stellar — internationally acclaimed American baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role, legendary Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco, Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey as the power-hungry villain Paolo, Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova in her American debut as Amelia and the American tenor Frank Lopardo portrayed Gabriele and his path from hating Boccanegra to calling him father.  It truly was a great night of perfectly done Verdi that we all loved, in spite of being exhausted.

Saturday was an early start so that the group could join the half-day architectural tour of Chicago organized by the Architectural Foundation of Chicago. It was worth every minute as we walked and were also driven on a bus with a great volunteer docent. Such a great reminder of the beginnings of building skyscrapers — we saw examples of Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright (we visited the Robie House in Hyde Park), from the neo-gothic style of the UofChicago’s campus to the very modern campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) designed in the ’40s and ’50s by Mies van der Rohe (first American university campus designed by a single architect since 1819 at the University of Virginia). I always loved these giants of architecture, though I have to agree with Mies van der Rohe that less is more! I occasionally wish that we implemented more of that restraint when designing opera productions!

Saturday night was dedicated to symphonic music at its best — Chicago Symphony under the baton of Charles Dutoit (he was for 25 years the artistic director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and is currently both the artistic director and principal conductor of the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra). On the program we had Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34, Walkton’s Violin Concerto performed beautifully by Gil Shaham and after the intermission Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major.  Dutoit conducted Beethoven’s 7 from memory in one breath, one take — no pauses, no rest, with all colours, dynamics, sounds, rhythm — everything coming at us in the audience as such powerful, phenomenal interpretation of the work of a genius! I can hardly remember when was the last time a symphony got such applause for its great performance! I was in tears! Our whole group was so energized that late night drinks and long conversation were in order! No one wanted to go to sleep after experiencing such a sublime performance.

Sunday – a treat of having brunch before the opera and then the matinee performance of Massenet’s Werther, based on the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther by great German Romantic poet Goethe. It puzzles me how a man like Massenet, who lived a life where passion or drama were not present, could get so deeply into a story as powerful as Werther and make such a masterpiece out of it. The suffering soul of us humans — what can be better for an opera! This production was co-produced with San Francisco Opera – set and costumes designed by Louis Desire and directed by Francisco Negrin. In the pit, Sir Andrew Davis conducted the Lyric Opera orchestra. American tenor Matthew Polenzani made the role debut as Werther and was more than beautifully matched by the French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch, who made her North American debut in the role of Charlotte. After the performance we organized for our tour an early dinner at an exclusive restaurant within the Lyric Opera building, open only to high-end donors. Our own patrons and members of this tour loved the privilege to be there and it gave us a chance to continue talking about the production right there. We didn’t have to walk back to our hotel in the rain until much later when, after great food and wine, we didn’t mind a little walk in the rain at all! It all was just perfect.

As all good things must end, so does our tour to Chicago too, but not until we visited the Art Institute of Chicago on Monday and had a nice lunch at the restaurant there, and all in good time to be picked up to go back to the airport. We parted saying, until we travel together again.

Sneak peek of "Shelter"

Friday, November 2. 2012

We opera-lovers sometimes lose sight of the fact that most of the “old masters” we revere (Verdi, Mozart, etc.) were writing opera for audiences who didn’t particularly care about “old masterworks,” the way many opera-goers do today. In fact, opera in Verdi’s time was more like movies are today: sure, there were some connoisseurs who would occasionally revive older operas, but 99 per cent of people wanted to see the latest hot new opera that had just come out.

So, last Wednesday, I found myself in Toronto at the offices of Tapestry New Opera Works — a Toronto opera company with whom we’ve co-produced the world premiere of one of the latest hot new Canadian operas, Julie Salverson and Juliet Palmer’s Shelter. I was there to get a sneak peek — a look at a “room run-through.” This is the point in the rehearsal process where we’re still in the rehearsal space, the singers are still in street clothes, we’re still using rehearsal props, but we’re finally beginning to run the show.

Shelter tells the story of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima from a distinctively Canadian point of view — the uranium used in that bomb came from Canadian mines, where the radioactivity killed many of the miners. It’s a show about the destructive power of science and war that begins in a Canadian uranium mining community and ends high above Japan.

Shelter engages these huge themes through an intimate story centred on a family torn apart by the forces of history: a Canadian couple named Thomas and Claire, and their daughter, Hope. There are two other characters: the Scientist, representing the promise of science to improve peoples’ lives, and the Pilot (who will drop the bomb) representing science’s more sinister aspects.

The show begins with simplicity itself: two people falling in love. In the scene where Thomas and Claire first meet at a garden party, Christine Duncan and Peter McGillivray communicated hilariously the dorky miscommunication of a first meeting. Later, as their daughter Hope (Maghan McPhee) falls in love with the Pilot (Keith Klassen), the music that accompanied it was really touching and romantic.

There’s also a powerful scene where the Scientist (Andrea Ludwig) confronts the Pilot as he is seducing Hope: the Scientist had always idealistically wished that science would be used to benefit humanity, and in the bomb he’s about to drop, she sees her work perverted into an instrument that will kill vast numbers of people.

We at Edmonton Opera are so excited about our new ATB Canadian Series, because through it we can reach out and create partnerships with companies like Tapestry who are creating new Canadian work. We can bring those works to our audiences in Edmonton — hot off the press, in English, in our own country, and speaking to our own themes.

Tapestry New Opera Works is a wonderful company: it’s the brainchild of music director Wayne Strongman, and what Wayne has created in Tapestry New Opera Works is something really special: an opera company devoted exclusively to new Canadian operas. And they don’t just present operas that have already been written — they nurture the creative process from the very beginning.

Their process begins with what’s called a LibLab (short for “composer-librettist laboratory”), where they invite a group of composers and librettists to Toronto, pair them off, and ask them to write short opera scenes, which are then performed by a group of singers and a pianist. This is a wonderful chance for librettist-composer collaborations to be born, as well as for composers and librettists to hone their craft.

Out of the LibLabs, Tapestry will identify a few artists who will receive commissions for a few works. Once the pieces are written, they’re performed in a “workshop” — a simple reading, with singers and a pianist, which gives the creators a chance to see the work on its feet in front of an audience, and iron out any kinks before the work hits the stage, but also to generate interest in producing the work — so that the work is the best it can be.