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On November 5th, Akhnaten opened and audiences got a taste of the complicated set that brings ancient Egypt to life in the opera. Envisioned by set designer Tom Pye (in conjunction with director Phelim McDermott), the Akhnaten set takes 2-Dimensional hieroglyphics and brings them into 3-Dimensional staging.
The reproduced hieroglyphic image above (also the first ever recorded image of juggling) serves as the inspiration for the juggling in this opening funeral scene of Akhnaten and for the three-tiered structure that makes up the set (see second image above).
In the week leading up to the opening of Akhnaten, director Phelim McDermott watches singers rehearse a scene from Act III. In the scene, Akhnaten (Anthony Roth Costanzo) and Nefertiti (J’Nai Bridges) dwell in an insular world of their own creation with their six daughters. The only thing that connects them is a lengthy blue fabric that they all handle throughout the scene as crowds gather restlessly outside the gates and letters arrive expressing increasing concern about Akhnaten’s self-imposed isolation. From his directorial perch, McDermott suddenly rises and holds up a white sheet of paper with a single handwritten word on it: SLOWER. In response, all the singers’ movements become hauntingly slower. The adjustment is mesmerizing and in tune with the atmosphere McDermott has created for Akhnaten
For Akhnaten, McDermott utilizes the movement qualities of renowned theater practitioner Michael Chekhov. The entire opera is staged in this way with all the cast members moving slowly, exploring the narrative moment to moment, and moving through visually stunning tableaus. The simplicity and flow is meant to entrance audience members, allowing them to get lost in this tale of a revolutionary pharaoh.
Akhnaten is McDermott’s third Philip Glass production (following Satyagraha and The Perfect American at English National Opera) and the director is a proponent of playing with rhythm and movement on stage.
“Doing things slowly is the most effective way of experiencing a Philip Glass opera, because the whole piece sits on a psychological level. Singers move to express what they feel in a single moment, not unlike what they do when they have an aria and sing about what it feels like to be in love for five minutes,” says McDermott.
Ted Hearne’s The Source is not your typical opera. The Source is about how we deal with the massive amounts of classified information leaked by Chelsea Manning and released by WikiLeaks in 2010. The piece allows audience members to experience this information not by watching the news or sitting in front of a computer where they may become distracted, but instead, through the all-encompassing magic of opera. The Source is not staged in the way you would expect and it is not a biography of Chelsea Manning’s life – choices that director Daniel Fish championed from the beginning.
Witches. Cauldrons. Prophesies. Runes. Our production of Macbeth is the stuff nightmares are made of – in the very best and haunting way. When it comes to props, director Darko Tresjnak wanted objects capable of truly terrifying and also intriguing an audience.
Here’s our list of 5 Macbeth props that will keep you up at night.
Bloody Head in a Burlap Sack
The nightmare-inducing props start at the very beginning of Macbeth, when messengers from King Duncan present Macbeth and Banquo with the head of the executed Thane of Cawdor in a bloody burlap sack. (Macbeth gets the dead man’s title, following the prophecy of the witches.)
(spoiler alert!), Macbeth and Lady Macbeth murder King Duncan in the first act so that Macbeth can seize the throne. During the second scene, Duncan’s body is brought out on a golden bier, very slowly, to emphasize the gore. While a white sheet is placed over the corpse, it is clear that Duncan’s throat has been slashed, and the Special FX blood ensures that his body appears freshly killed.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth present these skulls to the audience at the end of the opera – creepily representing their doomed fate. Flashes of light illuminate these two props and they are the last thing seen as the curtain falls – a haunting image not easily forgotten.
Many opera goers may not realize how much costume design is involved in telling a production’s story. Award-winning costume designer Kevin Pollard shared some interesting tidbits about how costume creation plays a role in informing the audience and moving the story forward in this season’s Akhnaten.
Most of what the world understands about the ancient Egyptian royals is theory, based on hieroglyphics and artifacts that captured the world’s attention in the 1920s, when Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered. Pollard sought to find an innovative way of interpreting ancient Egypt while maintaining the awe of viewing a new world, never before seen. He has, through costume design, intricately woven together a simultaneous sense of history and the transition of time, as well as the struggles of both the royal family and their subjects.
Pollard’s costume design is an amalgam of worlds colliding – from ancient Egypt, to colonialism, to the present day – layered together. He began by focusing on the chorus. He started with a 1920s style but appearing partially mummified, rotted, and caked in mud and dried earth, as though the characters had been entombed for a long time. Topped with animal headdresses, depicting the ancient polytheistic gods, Pollard captures a world caught between its buried past and emerging future. The production’s jugglers tie into the same earthy feel, as the desert itself, with their color palette and fabric design representing the dry, cracked landscape.
Hundreds of thousands classified military documents don’t exactly sound like ideal fodder for an opera libretto, but on October 19 LA Opera and Beth Morrison Projects will present the west coast premiere of Ted Hearne’s The Source, drawn from the U.S. Department of Defense cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010 and the story of the U.S. Army private who leaked them. It is the season’s first foray into staging operas tackling contemporary themes (followed by Kamala Sankaram’s Thumbprint in the spring).
“Be guided by this, there are three roles in this opera and three roles only: Lady Macbeth, Macbeth and the chorus of the Witches.”—Giuseppe Verdi
In 1847, Giuseppe Verdi stood the world of Italian opera on its head when he wrote his tenth opera in seven years. (He would later refer to that grueling period as his “years in the galley.”) This was no routine work. In writing Macbeth, he made a major leap into the future—his future, Italian opera’s future, our future. It would take half a century for the logical consequence of Macbeth to be fully drawn, and even then it would take another 50 or 60 years before its significance was recognized.
With this opera, Verdi began the long process of dismantling the forms he inherited from Rossini and the bel canto period. In so doing, he irrevocably transformed Italian opera. Dramatic coherence became dominant. It is in Macbeth that he stipulates, with an insistence and virulence beyond what he had demonstrated in the past, what the singers must do to serve the drama. He no longer accepts the status quo, neither in the comportment of the singers, who must now act with their voices as well as their bodies, nor in the overall form of the music. Verdi chooses musical forms that fit the dramatic situation. The opera is not a series of formulaic scenes designed to showcase the vocal prowess of the performers, but a concentrated distillation of the dramatic essence. As he instructed baritone Felice Varesi, his first Macbeth: “I will not cease to recommend that you study the dramatic situations and the words: the music will follow on its own.”
Opera Camp is one of our favorite parts about summer at LA Opera. Watching more than 50 talented kids rehearse and perform opera in just two weeks never ceases to astound us. But, this year’s camp was extra special, because we premiered Eli Villanueva and Leslie Stevens’ Then I Stood Up, a youth opera honoring the contributions of young people to the Civil Rights Movement. From day one, kids not only engaged with opera, but also with civil rights history, in a way that connects past with the present, and brings people together through the power of opera.
While we loved everything about this year’s Opera Camp, here are some moments that really made this year’s program the best yet.
On the heels of another successful collaboration with anatomy theater, LA Opera and Beth Morrison Projects are hard at work on two operas, ripped straight from the headlines, making their west coast premieres next season. They are Ted Hearne’s The Source and Kamala Sankaram’s Thumbprint.
In October, LA Opera presents The Source, which follows the story of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, a U.S. Army soldier who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. It explores the many identities of the army private – adrift adolescent, emboldened whistleblower, and traitor to her country – amidst the media hysteria following the leak.
Hearne’s and director Daniel Fish’s work is a contemporary masterpiece, showcasing what opera in the digital age can truly be.
Last week, David Lang’s anatomy theater had its world premiere at REDCAT as part of LA Opera’s Off Grand series. The grisly and intense work has garnered a great deal of acclaim not only for the edginess of the production (with a staged public execution followed by a dissection), but also for the questions it raises about the nature of evil and where evil truly lives within each of us. If you’ve missed the anatomy theater love these past couple weeks, we’ve collected a bunch of articles and videos for you to get a sense of what makes the show so visceral.
Get To Know anatomy theater
Based on actual 18th-century texts, anatomy theater follows the story of Sarah Osborne, an English murderess, who is tried, executed, and publicly dissected before a paying audience of fascinated onlookers. Gritty, emotional, and inventive, the opera features several villainous characters, but none more vulnerable than Osborne, who is masterfully brought to life (and death) by mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell.
Bass-baritone Robert Osborne is a veteran performer of contemporary opera, known for tackling challenging roles from the title character in Harry Partch’s Oedipus to François Mignon in the Robert Wilson-directed Zinnias. Currently, he performs the role of Baron Peel, the anatomist, in the world premiere of David Lang’s anatomy theater. During rehearsals, we sat down with Osborne to discuss his work in anatomy theater and what makes Baron Peel tick.
The 15/16 season may have come to an end, but the halls of LA Opera are still abuzz with staff and artists working on the upcoming 16/17 season. Auditions are being held for supernumeraries in season opener Macbeth and the show’s set is also currently being built at Studio Sereno. Preparations for other productions and events for the fall are also underway. Can’t wait? Neither can we. See what all the excitement’s about below.
Plácido Domingo and James Conlon unite to kick off the season with Verdi’s Macbeth
The season opens with a new production of Verdi’s Macbeth (September 17 through October 16, 2016), starring Plácido Domingo in the title role and conducted by James Conlon. Ekaterina Semenchuk will perform the role of the treacherous Lady Macbeth. LA Opera’s first production of Macbeth since 1987 will be staged by Darko Tresnjak, director of the 2015 hit The Ghosts of Versailles.
On June 16, David Lang’s anatomy theater makes its world premiere at REDCAT as part of LA Opera’s Off Grand initiative. This gritty opera tells the story of an 18th-century English murderess and the anatomists, who painstakingly try to discover the root of evil by publically dissecting her body. Composed and co-written by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, anatomy theater is an inventive opera experience.
Here are five reasons why anatomy theater is not-to-be-missed.
Peabody Southwell. She’s the stunning mezzo-soprano who plays Sarah Osborne, the English murderess. The fantastic thing about her performance is she has to play dead for 50 minutes – while she’s dissected – and she sings while “deceased.” Check out Southwell discussing this feat below.
Share There are three chances left to see La Bohème at LA Opera. This Belle Époque set production has wowed audiences with its doomed love story beautifully sung by Nino Machaidze and Olga Busuioc and Mario Chang and rivetingly conducted … Continue reading
LA Opera has many programs to make sure that everyone has access to opera for little or no cost. Opera Tales is one of these programs. In partnership with the County of Los Angeles Public Library and with generous support provided by Los Angeles County Supervisors Don Knabe and Hilda Solis, LA Opera brings professional opera singers (or “opera pals”) to libraries around Los Angeles to perform musical moments from the most celebrated operas for families. Next month’s Figaro Opera Tales has the singers recounting tales from the entire Figaro Trilogy (Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles), as told by Pierre Beaumarchais.
Have you ever wished you could bring your pet to the opera? Now you can! LA Opera, as part of its mission to expand its audience and to address the population of pet owners in the Downtown Los Angeles area, is offering a one-day only Poochini Package for a special matinee of Puccini’s operatic classic, La Bohème on Sunday, May 22 at 2:00pm.
Madame Butterfly takes flight one last time on April 3, wowing audiences with amazing voices and interesting staging. In case you’ve missed the Madame Butterfly love these past few weeks, we’ve collected a bunch of articles and a video for you to check out and see why Madame Butterfly is a Puccini masterpiece.
Get To Know Madame Butterfly
“The Humming Chorus” is a rare moment of peace in the tragic love story that is Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. In the scene, Butterfly does not sing or move for three minutes. She holds a silent vigil, waiting for Pinkerton (her American husband) to return, while an off-stage chorus sings wordlessly. “The Humming Chorus” carries an enormous amount of emotional weight, highlighted in LA Opera’s current production by director Lee Blakeley’s novel take on which character the scene belongs to.
Between “Nessun dorma” (Turandot) and “O soave fanciulla” (La Boheme), Puccini’s compositions are arguably the most widely used operatic music in cinema. Yet, it is not only his music that has been used, but also his dramatic storylines. Take Madame Butterfly. The story follows the trials of Cio-Cio San, a Japanese geisha, who marries American naval officer Pinkerton. She loves him, but he abandons her and returns to the United States. Pinkerton returns three years later – a new American wife in tow – and demands that Cio-Cio give up their son. Puccini’s tragic east meets west tale has been adapted into many films (including a 1975 filmed opera starring Mirella Freni and Plácido Domingo and a 1995 filmed opera conducted by James Conlon).
Madame Butterfly (1915)
This film is what happens when one of the greatest silent movie actresses – Mary Pickford – tackles Madame Butterfly.
Madame Butterfly (1932)
Marion Gering’s film is not a musical, but it does utilize a significant amount of Puccini’s music and stars a dashingly youthful Cary Grant as Pinkerton.
- Butterfly (1993)
David Cronenberg (who made his LA Opera debut directing The Fly in 2008) updated Puccini’s tale to 1960s China, just before the Cultural Revolution. In the film, a French diplomat (Jeremy Irons) falls in love with a Chinese opera diva, unaware that she is actually a man (played by John Lone).
The Magic Flute has started enchanting audiences with its silent film inspired magic. In case you’ve missed the Flute love these past few weeks (or want to learn more before seeing the show), we’ve collected a bunch of articles and videos for you to check out and see why The Magic Flute is a must-see this opera season.
Get To Know The Magic Flute
There is usually a pretty standard way of rehearsing opera. The director has a concept for the production – a vision that has been in play with designers and production staff years ahead of the first rehearsal. When singers do arrive, they spend time with the director, reaching a compromise on character choices, and perfecting their knowledge of the music. Sometimes bits of music are cut out; other times bits of music are added. This whole process starts in rehearsal rooms then moves onto stage within a matter of weeks. The rehearsal process for The Magic Flute is entirely different. Learn more.
Barrie Kosky, Susanne Andrade, and Paul Barritt’s production of The Magic Flute is heavily inspired by the silent film era and the spirit of the roaring twenties. In Kosky’s words, “Papageno is suggestive of Buster Keaton, while Monostatos is a bit Nosferatu, and Pamina perhaps a bit reminiscent of Louise Brooks.” There are a plethora of silent films to check out before seeing The Magic Flute, as the silent film era was a rich time for the industry. Filmmakers explored the artistry of the cinematic medium, creating new stories and adapting classic – even operatic – works for a new audience (King Vidor’s excellent 1926 La Boheme film is definitely worth a movie night). Before you step into the world of The Magic Flute, here are a few silent films to watch to get you in the 1920s spirit.
The Magic Flute is a roaring-twenties set vision. It has the beauty of a classic Louise Brooks film (like Pandora’s Box) , but live. Here, the production team – Suzanne Andrade, Barrie Kosky, and Paul Barritt – talk about the concept behind their vision for Mozart’s fantasy opera.