Edmonton Opera Blog

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)


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. 

Opening night draws near

Monday, October 15. 2012

When I was asked by Sandra at Edmonton Opera to write a blog about my experience in Aida, I feared that I might not have much to say. Well, it turns out that I’ve been writing and editing for quite some time, and I have much to say!

Currently living in Fort McMurray, not only do I consider Edmonton Opera as my “local” opera company, but I am also very familiar with the concept of travelling for work. The principal artists hail from around the world, and I am deeply honoured to be working with them! At every turn they are inspiring me (and making me laugh sometimes, of course). I am finding that I need less sleep, and that I cannot keep from smiling most of each day. I stay longer at rehearsals than I am required to, because this music is exquisite, the process is intense, and I want to soak it all in. Everyone involved is giving 100% of their energy, vision and focus to present Aida with artistic integrity.

Sitting in these rehearsals, I ask myself a series of questions. How can opera not be relevant? How do I communicate to the masses that the stories, although often exaggerated, are about the human condition, about relationships, and are accessible and understandable? How do I describe the sheer power of the human voice and its spectrum of colours that the audience will hear in Aida? How do I tell the story of hundreds of people working from their hearts and minds to bring to you this tragic story? How do I convey the strength of the chorus, the beauty of the dancers, the precision of the music and the incredible visual spectacle that the audience will see? I believe the answer is to invite you to come to the opera with an open mind, to experience the utter magic for which there are no words.

It goes without saying that I miss my husband Mike when I’m away, and there are some lonely times. I am grateful that, although not an opera fan at all, he is ridiculously supportive of my career choices. Thank God, because when I walked out onstage at the first rehearsal in the Jubilee Auditorium, all I could do was throw up my arms to the invisible audience and let out a laugh, especially knowing that in the audience, every night, will be friends and family from Sherwood Park, Edmonton, Fort McMurray and throughout Alberta! This will not be the last time I share opera with amazing colleagues and audiences. In fact, I will go as far as to say that I believe that not only is opera relevant, but that it will become stronger in this generation. I look forward to continuing this amazing journey.

Edited to add: It is production week! The collective energy between the entire team is palpable. If that is any indication at all of what will be created each night when the curtain rises on Oct. 19, 21, 23 and 25, the audience is in for a powerful, visceral experience.

Cara Brown sings the role of the high priestess in the Edmonton Opera's production of "Aida." Originally from Edmonton, she currently lives in Fort McMurray. 

Commentary: Opera North's "Die Walkure"

Thursday, July 26. 2012

When one mentions Wagner, Leeds, England, does not immediately come to mind. In fact, when one circumscribes the master’s works to The Ring Cycle, or one of its four operas, one thinks about the major opera houses of the world. Such is the magnitude of effort, financial commitment, singing and orchestral excellence required that only the largest houses can afford it and can attract the quality of performers who can take on this monstrosity of a work, or for that matter, any of his later works

My wife and I were travelling in England in June 2012 and had found that Opera North would be producing Die Walküre, the second of Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas, and for most people, the most popular. Not being a major house, could Opera North produce a credible performance?

Opera North came into existence in 1972 out of a recognition that there needed to be a significant opera company outside of London. Initially under the aegis of the English National Opera, Opera North found its independence a few years later, and currently produces nine operas per year with an annual budget of more than £11 million. This is more than twice as large as Edmonton Opera. It performs in Leeds, Birmingham, Gateshead and Salford Quays. This year, Opera North’s calendar calls for Don Giovanni, Faust, Otello, La Clemenza di Tito, La voix humaine and Dido and Aeneas, with more to follow in the summer program. Clearly, this is an adventurous company.

Its current general director is Richard Mantle, who in the early 1990s held the same position with Edmonton Opera. His reign was known for excellent productions, though not always appreciated by the locals. I remember a Julius Caesar by Handel done on a stage full of sand, and Caesar in a business suit and barefoot (because of the sand, you see). Another was Janáček's Jenufa, for which the tenor succumbed to some illness on opening day. At the last minute, Richard flew in a performer from Chicago who arrived five minutes before the performance was to start, sang the part and was put back on a plane to sing the same role the next night in Chicago. The latter company was furious when they heard what their tenor had done; he was supposed to be resting that day, but for us, it was a memorable performance.

Under-appreciated in the colonies, Richard moved back to his native country and has been producing great opera in Leeds and other centres in northern England ever since.

Richard said staging a full production of The Ring Cycle would bankrupt the company, but producing it in concert version, one opera per year, was achievable. We heard nearly 100 musicians perform Die Walküre, this year’s offering. Opera North has its own orchestra of 53 players, and supplemented this with freelance musicians from the region, making a total of 98, a respectable size for a Wagnerian performance. The violins may have sounded a bit thin at times, but the horns were spectacular, filling the hall with that typically bold, and occasionally overpowering, Wagnerian sound.

The principal singers were dressed in formal wear (their own, so the company saved even on costumes). They were excellent, with Brünnhilde especially standing out. Video and still projection behind the orchestra captured the mood of each scene, and occasionally told the backstory, for those not already familiar with this complex tale.

Other than the fact that the Town Hall is an old building with no air conditioning and it was insufferably hot, especially in the third act, it was a wonderful evening.

We were guests of Richard's at this performance (arranged by Sandra Gajic, the Edmonton Opera CEO) and enjoyed telling him about progress in Edmonton, about which both he and his wife seem to retain favourable memories. As well, we enjoyed the wine and subsequent dinner served during the second intermission. This was typically reserved for donors, but since it is the same people at all the operatic events in Leeds (we have the same situation in Edmonton), we were minor celebrities. People were amazed that we would have come such a distance to see an opera. We have travelled farther for opera and will likely continue to do so. Our dinner was in an elegant room with tuxedoed servers. Others, less privileged, were eating out of picnic baskets they had brought for the long intermission.

By the way, this habit of having one short intermission and one long is typically an English and German custom, and perhaps was dreamed up as an accommodation to the Wagnerian scale of operatic evenings. One cannot endure six hours without eating, so the second intermission is usually an hour or more, and people bring their dinner with them to the theatre, or make other more interesting arrangements. At Glyndebourne, they sit on the grass with their food baskets and bottle of wine, and enjoy the outdoors before going back in to see gods and nibelungs kill each other.

This concert format is something that Edmonton Opera should consider for a larger opera. We have never had the more ambitious works of Wagner here, and perhaps this concert version of the second Ring opera is possible.

Siegmund – Erik Nelson Werner
Sieglinde – Alwyn Mellor
Hunding – Clive Bayley
Wotan – Béla Perencz
Brünnhilde – Annalenna Persson
Fricka – Katarina Karnéus
Conductor – Richard Farnes

Gabe ShelleyGabe Shelley is a management consultant in Edmonton and an opera lover. He and his wife, Connie, travel the world for great opera. He has served on the Edmonton Opera board and continue to support its exciting future. Currently, he is a part of the artistic committee.