2012-13 season

Edmonton Opera Blog

Onegin Opera 101: love, duelling & translation

Monday, April 15. 2013

By the time a production finally opens, Edmonton Opera staff can usually recite the storyline forwards, backwards and sideways. But what about all the context talking about the time period the opera was written in, the nuances of the language used and insight into how Edmonton Opera will put the work on stage?

That’s what Opera 101 is for.

Moderated by Stephan Bonfield, musicologist, the panel on Wednesday, April 10, featured panelists including Edmonton Opera artistic administrator and chorusmaster Michael Spassov, Edmonton Opera CEO Sandra Gajic, and two Russian language and literature professors at the University of Alberta, Dr. Jelena Pogosjan and Dr. Peter Rolland. 

Is love an illusion?

It was the first question Bonfield posed to the panel, and Spassov countered that the whole opera is about this set of characters and their relationship to love. Plus, maybe it’s not necessarily an illusion, but fate at work — an idea that Tchaikovsky was obsessed with. Sometimes the right person comes along at the wrong time in your life, Spassov continued. He asked, what if it’s maybe the wrong people who are together? Would things have worked out differently if Lenski’s fiancée was Tatiana, and Onegin fell in love with Olga?

As a neuroscience researcher, Bonfield explained that neurons in the brain can be programmed to do two completely different tasks. “You can fall in love with two different people, stay with one person, be in love with that one person, but the memory of decades ago will come back,” he said. This explains why Tatiana feels that when she re-encounters Onegin at Gremin’s ball, “it’s as fresh as yesterday,” because she still remembers being in love with him, which we saw in the first act.

The duelling tradition

Every opera has a love story, and Bonfield compared the storyline to that of Verdi, with an added twist — duelling. It just ups the ante that much more. At this time in Russian history, duelling was an important and common practice, and not always deadly. Pushkin was involved in 29 (known) duels before he was killed in one himself, but the intent of duels was to defend honour, to wound or to miss, not to kill. Before he died, Pushkin had never killed anyone in the duels he fought.

A crash course in the Russian language

There are 42 different English translations of Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse that is roughly 150 pages long. Pogosjan’s favourite version, however, is four volumes in English, as each piece of vocabulary is defined with all the possible variations and meanings. Still, she, as a native Russian speaker, described English versions as flat and two-dimensional, adding that “I don’t have enough language (in English)” to talk about the poetry of the original text. The general feeling of the panelists was that despite the number of translations of Eugene Onegin available, there is invariably something lost in translation. There has been a lot of talk (understandably) lately about learning the Russian language — though the majority of the principal singers are native Russian speakers, there are still some cast members and the entire chorus who have had to learn the language for this opera. And there are just some sounds that aren’t made in the English language that are common in Russian.

But if you don’t have time to learn Russian in the next week, don’t worry. We always display English supertitles above the stage, so that everyone knows what’s going on. For what it’s worth though, reading every slide isn’t essential — the cast is that good that if you’ve read the synopsis beforehand, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. And as Sandra Gajic paraphrased director Tom Diamond: “All of these singers have Onegin in their DNA.”

Mapping the characters of Eugene Onegin

Monday, February 25. 2013

Unlike The Tales of Hoffmann, the characters in Eugene Onegin are much easier to keep track of. In this map, we have tracked the interactions that they have with each other, and how those unfold over the course of the opera.

Mapping the characters of Hoffmann's tales

Monday, February 4. 2013

As Hoffmann tells the stories of the three women he has loved, he gets progressively more drunk. That, combined with the fact that there are just some crazy characters he associates with, means that it's sometimes hard to keep track of who's who in the circus that is his life. So, we've mapped out the characters of the Tales of Hoffmann, as well as their relation to each other. As you can see, lots of artists appear in different incarnations in different acts.

There is discussion about whether the three women Hoffmann has loved are really facets of one woman, Stella, or if he's really just that unlucky with four different women. We have four artists in the four different roles, though occasionally one artist sings all four roles.

Despite the bizarre turns that Hoffmann's stories can take, there is still a certain pattern to his tales: he loves a woman, who is kept from him by a villain (all four villains are sung by Daniel Okulitch), and a valet who adds a bit of comic relief to the high drama.

The kind of love that Hoffmann experiences progresses through the acts however, as Ileana Montalbetti explained in this interview with Vue Weekly: "You see Hoffmann progress through love in each of the three stories. It's new, kind of fascinating love with Teiya's character (Olympia, the mechanical doll), and then ours (Hoffmann and Antonia) is very pure, very innocent and real, and then because I die, his heart is broken and he kind of moves into this sexual love with Giulietta."

Behind the curtain — Hoffmann rehearsals

Thursday, January 17. 2013

In a few short weeks, the constant activity upstairs in the Jubilee rehearsal hall transforms into Offenbach’s dark fairytale, Les Contes d’Hoffmann.

By the time it gets on stage, all the moving parts — stage managing, costume and makeup, direction of the concept — will be neatly hidden behind the scenes, but for now, it’s all on display as the opera comes together.Concept designs and set designs displayed on one wall at the rehearsal hall

And it’s fascinating.

For those who are at the rehearsal hall day and night — literally, because some of the most interesting social media content from rehearsal comes across the Internet at ridiculous hours of the night — the process may seem a little more gradual.

But for those of us who commute from the admin offices at the Winspear Centre to the rehearsal hall on a semi-regular basis, every other night or a few days a week for a couple of hours, the changes are inspiring and exciting.

At the beginning of January, Edmonton Opera staff met the cast and creative team at the airport as they arrived on a handful of flights. It was nice for both parties — staff got a chance to talk to the artists when they weren’t busy with rehearsal, and artists could ask questions about the city they’d be living in for the next four weeks. Even things as simple as grocery stores, good radio stations and arts spaces can be important.

Though rehearsals for both principals and chorus started by sitting in chairs and singing the following Monday, those chairs weren’t for long. Two-thirds of the rehearsal hall is now a duplicate of the Jubilee stage, complete with props; the principals and chorus are learning staging, where to move, when to move and how to move.

As he’s explaining things, director Joel Ivany will shadow the principals, demonstrating where in the scene he wants more emphasis or an added gesture. He also asks questions of the cast, about the feeling of a certain line or moment; they reply and ask questions of their own.

For casual onlookers, the process is really smart — since Antonia, the ailing singer, doesn’t wear a watch, soprano Ileana Montalbetti removes the timepiece on her left wrist. Alternatively, tenor Steven Cole arrives at rehearsal wearing regular shoes, but sometime between then and stepping on the “stage” for his scene, he’s replaced them with overly large, red clown shoes. It’s all part of the character Frantz, who slumps with bad posture because, as Cole says here, “My posture (for Frantz) kind of says, ‘He’s seen better days.’”

The same methodical approach applies to the chorus too: at one point, chorus members have time to list, on paper, the backstory of their character(s); before staging the epilogue Ivany talks through the principals’ parts for the chorus, alternating the French libretto with English translation.

Only so much can happen in the rehearsal hall, however, so some of the effects that Ivany is imagining for the final scene — and explains to the chorus — won’t happen until they move on to the Jube stage.

What is the final, memorable scene? You’ll have to go to the circus to find out. 

Photos courtesy Joel Ivany, Twitter (@joelivany)