Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Something New

First, this is me acknowledging how long it's been since my last post: "Wow, five years."

OK, enough histrionics…

I've also changed the default design here simply because my eyes cross anymore when I look at white characters on a black background for anything longer than 10 seconds. Tip for bloggers: don't make it hard for people to read your blog.

So I've been around, doing stuff, even getting paid for it, although nothing like what I had going on 10-15 years ago. I'm sure it's because I've deliberately not applied myself like I used to, but it's also because I've entered a different casting classification with age. Perhaps because of that, I recently entered a brand new world in the performing arts.

Imagine a world where there are multiple Broadways all over the globe -- not just NYC and London's West End -- and they all pay Equity Principal or better for nearly every role. The only catch is they only do Rogers & Hammerstein musicals, and only left-handed actors are allowed to be cast.

Such is the world of opera to me, at first impression. (Yes, that's right, I've been cast in an opera. Go figure.) Substitute "left-handed actors" for those rare few who were born with the pipes, breathing, and acting chops to execute operatic roles, and replace "Rogers & Hammerstein musicals" with the comparatively limited catalog of operatic works worth performing, and you've got opera in a nutshell.

As a public service to any actors who may some day find themselves crossing the line between "The Theatre" -- for which they trained and about whose vagaries they are already familiar -- and the World of Opera, here are some tips:

  • The cast is well stratified. Not that Broadway isn't (one always knows the difference between cast and chorus), but opera bumps that up a notch. The principals occupy one space in rehearsals, the understudies another, supernumeraries are separate from dancers, and there's both a stage band and an orchestra.
  • Because of this, there are multiple professionals whose sole responsibilities are to manage rehearsal logistics -- it's not just a Stage Manager and their overworked assistant.
  • The maestro and director co-conduct rehearsals. This sounds like it could be a "direction by committee" train wreck (and for all I know sometimes it is), but in my experience it works somehow.
  • The cast is not from around these here parts. It may seem obvious that some cast members would not be American, but it's entirely possible for Americans to be in a minority even in an American production. I'm not offering this observation in order to express a sense of nationalism so much as to say it explains the extremely cosmopolitan nature of rehearsals and support services. The first day of rehearsals, for instance, it was announced that "this is a 9-1-1 area" (most of Europe uses 9-9-9 for an emergency number) and we were treated to what I think of as a particularly British habit of detailing in advance the escape route and assembly point in case of a fire.
  • Because of this, there will be rehearsal on your American holiday. Memorial Day, July 4, Labor Day, Thanksgiving -- call the folks and tell 'em you won't be home… you've got rehearsal.
  • Most of the cast speak multiple languages because the works they perform are written in different languages. If you don't know one or more of Italian, German or French, you will miss a lot of what's being said as even native English speakers will pepper their speech with turns of phrase from other languages that more accurately express what they're trying to say. Remember, this isn't rude, any more than your piano teacher was being rude by asking you to practice your arpeggios.
  • Performances may not be miked. The modern age has brought us the modern phenomenon of amplification, and in many American venues it helps because many spaces used for touring musical productions were built for something other than ordinary people doing their best to project their voice to the back. Most traditional opera venues, however, were built with acoustics in mind, so there's simply no need to artificially amplify anything.
  • Everyone knows the script better than you. This is not just because casting happened over a year ago (something amazing to me; I even received a copy of the libretto 10 months ago). It's probably because, again, there are a comparatively limited number of roles in the opera universe and, because they're so demanding, it's not unusual to hire someone who has done the role before. One would think there would be more of this within the world of Shakespeare, but there's a… um… specificity that comes with opera roles that does not lend itself to interpretation. So while we look forward to seeing a particular actor's take on Hamlet or Ophelia, for instance, opera divas are admired for hitting their glissandos and high notes while also bringing as much character as they can to Brunhild.

I think it would be fair to say that I felt out of my element the first day of rehearsals, but past a certain point one just realizes it's a Bizarro World version of the top-notch theatre one has always hoped to do -- just with a performance standard and basic talent pool that is through the roof.