Behind the Scenes
This week we open the final main stage production of LA Opera’s 2016/17 season – Tosca. If you’ve been following along on social media, you’ve seen a host of rehearsals in progress. As the elements come together this week, we thought we’d break it down and show you how an opera comes to life.
GETTING TO KNOW TOSCA
Several weeks ago, we started with studio rehearsals. These are musical and staging rehearsals where the principal cast and the chorus go through the music, sometimes individually, sometimes together, to get a sense of the show’s flow, the acting involved and how the director expects it to all look. These rehearsals are conducted in rehearsal halls with a piano, not on the stage and without many of the main elements of the opera (the orchestra, the lighting, the costumes etc). Each scene is mapped out on the floors with tape so that the cast can rehearse their roles in their proper positions, relevant to each other and the chorus, as well as to the sets and props on stage.
For the past few weeks, our props, costumes, and wig/makeup teams – the same people who created a scarily realistic head of the John the Baptist for Salome – have been working on their latest bit of opera magic. They’re not just creating a head, but an entire body to look like one of the characters in Tosca.
That character? Cesare Angelotti.
Angelotti (played in our production by Nicholas Brownlee) is an escaped political prisoner given sanctuary by the opera’s hero, Mario Cavaradossi (Russell Thomas). While Angelotti evades capture for most the opera, he’s ultimately cornered by Scarpia’s thugs. In our production, Angelotti’s corpse is hung by the neck. When this happens, the singer is replaced by a “stunt double,” or in other words, a mannequin that’s dressed and styled to resemble the singer.
Making the body double is a multi-tiered process that starts with sourcing the dummy.
Properties Coordinator Lisa Coto sources the dummy. We started with an articulated dummy used for search and rescue and CPR training. Coto chose this dummy, because it’s well-made. It’s a heavy dummy (60lbs) and the limbs dangle like a real person; in other words, it’s very lifelike.
After Coto sources the dummy, she delivers it to Costume Design Manager Jeannique Prospere. Prospere and her team make sure that the dummy’s costumes match Angelotti’s costume – an off-white, striped prison uniform, with blue/grey pants and jacket. Since Angelotti has been in prison, it’s not enough for the team to replicate the costumes. They also must distress, age, and dye the costume to make it look like the dummy has suffered the same trauma as the live character of Angelotti.
Share Set in the 1920s aboard the Orient Express, The Abduction from the Seraglio features some interesting props to look out for when seeing the show. Here’s a list of our top three favorites – see if you spot them … Continue reading
Since its founding in 1986, LA Opera has become one of Los Angeles’s most influential arts organizations. In 2011 LA Opera’s communications team conducted extensive research in order to better identify the company’s brand and connect with its ever-expanding audience in a new era.
“In order for branding to be effective, it has to be organic,” says Diane Rhodes Bergman, vice president of marketing and communications, who oversaw the research efforts five years ago and continues to spearhead the company’s communications strategy. “It has to start with the people who are most involved with the brand: the board, our staff, and the public we serve. We conducted research with these three groups to identify what LA Opera is at its core, what role the company plays in the Los Angeles community, and what part it will play in the community’s future.”
Through this research and subsequent testing of various brand concepts, LA Opera’s branding began to take form. There were several things that all the groups surveyed connected to LA Opera: the company’s influential presence in the Los Angeles community, the inextricable link to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s decades-long history, innovative productions, and a certain method of storytelling reflective of the city’s edgy (but still beautiful) spirit.
L.A. Opera patrons who rely on supertitles to understand the text of what’s being sung can thank the woman wearing a headset and sitting in a space above the wall chandeliers on the right side of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion auditorium.
Linda Zoolalian has prepared and cued the supertitles—librettos projected in English on a screen above the proscenium and elsewhere—since 2003. Three years ago, she began cueing supertitles for the Los Angeles Master Chorale as well.
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.
Yes, it’s fall, but only in Los Angeles can you take advantage of the southern California weather, grab a blanket and a picnic and experience opera under the stars. This Thursday, you can do just that – experience the grandeur of LA Opera’s production of Macbeth as it is broadcast live to Santa Monica Pier and South Gate Park. That’s opera – live – for free – and surrounded by families and friends.
While the idea of showing opera in three locations might sound simple, it takes an enormous number of people to pull it all together and bring it to life.
Preparations for Opera at the Beach and Opera in the Park began nearly nine months ago when we secured the production team – Black & Tan – that will direct, live edit, and produce the broadcast.
In partnership with members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors (who have generously supported these events for the last three years) we identified the venues. We would have had a riot had we moved from the Santa Monica Pier, so that location was set in stone, thanks to support from Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. But we all agreed, more communities should experience this production. So this year, with the support from Supervisor Hilda Solis, we’ve expanded the program and we will also be broadcasting to South Gate Park – the heart of the South Gate community.
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.
“Macbeth is a comedy if you’re a witch and a tragedy if you’re anyone else.”
The dancing witches in Macbeth are not your pointy hat, black-wearing, broom-flying witches. As the agents that drive the story, they are onstage virtually the entire time, lurking during every sinister choice that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth make in the opera. They move props. They haunt all of the characters and bring them to the darkest moments of their lives. We spoke with the nine women who play the witches about how they bring their hellish characters to life.
It all started at the audition.
While most dance auditions involve an incredible amount of specific movement and counting, the auditions for Macbeth were all about becoming witches.
As an addendum to my essay “Why Verdi’s Macbeth Is Important,” I want to add a very personal note about why this opera, which has been with me for my entire professional life, has been so important to me.
For no particular reason, it has turned out that I have done more productions of Macbeth (this will be the eighth) than any other opera. Whereas it is hardly a rarity, it is also not a work that is so popular that it comes up every other season.
Ever wonder how an artist steps off stage, then minutes later magically returns in a whole new get-up? While they’re in the wings, they’re in the hands of a dresser, that’s how. You’ll find dressers backstage at most large-scale live performances.
We spent a few minutes with Shelley Graves-Jimenez, one of LA Opera’s dressers, who told us what it’s like to be a dresser in the wings during an LA Opera performance.
Dressers make sure that the performer they’re assigned to can focus on their performance and not whether their costume is right. From head to toe, Graves-Jimenez and her colleagues ensure every piece of an artist’s costume is on, secure, and comfortable before they hit the stage. “Nothing they’re wearing should distract them,” she says.
Costumes are one of the best ways to express character – be it on screen or on stage. In Macbeth, costumes tell a tale of humble beginnings to unbridled horror, but it’s not just fabric and jewels that bring a character to life. It is how all the costume elements come together to showcase each character’s evolution. With its complex characters and designed by Suttirat Larlarb, LA Opera’s upcoming production of Verdi’s Macbeth perfectly illustrates how costumes and character meet.
Let’s take Lady Macbeth’s costumes as an example.
When Lady Macbeth first comes on stage, her costume is fairly simple (a t-shape common during the medieval period) and does not reflect affluence. She’s wearing earth tones; it’s the costume of a soldier’s wife, but also suggestive of the social climbing to come (a hint of green silk).
LA Opera believes in sharing the transformative power of opera with the Los Angeles community. As a result, the company places education and community engagement at the core of its mission. In the past sixteen years, LA Opera has more than tripled its outreach programs. The programs have expanded beyond their original target, K-12 students, to serve many more members of the Los Angeles community, including teachers, veterans, families and seniors. Whether at LA Opera’s home in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or in neighborhoods across Los Angeles County, LA Opera remains committed to maintaining and growing the programs that reach hundreds of thousands in the community. How does a non-profit build and maintain such programs? Well, one reason is partnerships.
While the generous support of many donors and foundations has helped make these programs possible, to further extend its programming and to better serve the community, LA Opera adopted partnerships as a vital strategy.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What does LA Opera have that is so beautiful and unique and what are the many ways somebody needs it?’ Opera is a collaborative art form. Partnerships reflect our art form, so it is only natural that this model would help further LA Opera’s mission of sharing opera with the Los Angeles community,” says Stacy Brightman, Vice President of Education and Community Engagement.
Our production of Puccini’s La Bohème boasts one of the quickest, major set changes ever seen on our stage. From Act I to Act II, La Bohème’s setting changes from a rooftop and garret (loft) to a Parisian street.
The main set piece – the garret – is rotated to reveal its opposite side – a two-story building with a ground level cafe. This may not seem like a big deal. It’s just rotating a set piece. How difficult can that be? Difficult – very difficult. It isn’t just a light-weight structure or a façade that can be easily maneuvered. This garret is a giant 1500-square-foot, 30,000-pound structure – the equivalent of a three-story house. Moving it requires planning, precision and a great deal of practice. That’s because the structure needs to be moved manually (yes, manually, by a team of 20 production crew members) and hit very specific, pre-determined marks on the stage.
For more than 20 years, members of the prestigious Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (LACC) have starred in productions at LA Opera. From playing precocious characters in the world premiere of Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (1998) to singing alongside the pros in Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, LACC children have shared their enthusiasm and vocal gifts with artists, staff and audiences. The latest collaboration between LA Opera and LACC is Puccini’s La Bohème.
In this opera, 14 singers make up the children’s chorus. Some of these children have been in other productions and others are new to the world of opera. What they all share is an excitement about singing and opera that is infectious and wonderful to see.
Today, the kids are gathered in the lobby, chatting excitedly, because they will soon be on stage rehearsing with the pros. When asked what their favorite parts of rehearsals and being in the opera are, several hands shoot up. “I love hearing the power of their voices and knowing that all these people are watching us,” says Soren Ryssdal (12). His fellow choir members nod their heads in agreement. Of staging, Sydney Brakeley (10) says, “I like being able to know where I am going just by hearing the music.” With a big grin on her face, Anika Erickson (13) age adds, “We also have fake siblings.” All the kids laugh.
La Bohème is one of the world’s most beloved operas; it also returns this season in one of LA Opera’s iconic productions. In 1993, director Herbert Ross envisioned a production set in the romantic era of Belle Époque Paris, fashioned brilliantly by costume designer Peter J. Hall. Since Hall’s passing in 2010, the costume shop has made some updates to his design, while keeping his original vision for La Bohème alive.
“He was a real artist,” says Jeannique Prospere reverently. Prospere is a Senior Costume Production Supervisor at LA Opera. Since joining the company in 2007, she has overseen many shows, including La Bohème (which has 160 total costumes). “As a supervisor, what I usually do is try and get into the designer’s head and see what they want to be on stage and keep that vision alive,” she says. This entails reviewing the costumes each time a production is revived, making sure that they retain the same feel and that the original idea is kept. Costumes might also need to be tweaked for a singer, not only in size and shape, but also in aesthetic, in order to reflect a singer’s individual essence.
LA Opera uses some of the most intriguing vehicles in its productions. From trucks and cars to modes of transportation only imaginable in the arts world, prop vehicles help tell grand opera stories. They are even sometimes rare and built entirely from scratch or refurbished by our technical crew to serve the needs of a production. Take a look at the vehicles we “drive” in our operas in the roundup below.
REPRODUCING A ONE OF A KIND PEUGEOT FOR LA BOHÈME
When the technical department was tasked with sourcing an 1890 Peugeot Type 2 (one of the earliest French motorized vehicles) for La Bohème, they realized how difficult this would be. There were none of these Peugeots anywhere in America, not even in museums. Working from only an 11”x17” photocopied image, a team at Studio Sereno built a fully battery-powered replica of the original model. This vehicle will be seen live when La Bohème opens May 14.
A 1929 ROLLS ROYCE ROARS ONTO STAGE
Our Roaring Twenties-set production of Verdi’s La Traviata features a 1929 Rolls Royce sourced from a private owner. Director Marta Domingo saw a photograph of the elegant car in 2006 and loved it so much, she made it a starring prop in her production. (What better way for glamorous party girl Violetta to arrive than in this stylish vehicle?)
In May 2012, Peter Kazaras sat in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, surrounded by his UCLA students, observing a dress rehearsal of Puccini’s La Bohème at LA Opera. During a break, Kazaras asked his students, “When is this production set?” The students hesitated. He continued, “Where is the production set?” They responded, “Paris!” Yet, they still couldn’t determine the time period. Kazaras smiled, pointing out the half-formed Eiffel Tower structure in the background of Act I. He watched the lightbulbs go off, as his students suddenly realized that it must be set in the 1880s, when the Eiffel Tower was under construction. It was in this moment that all Kazaras’s teachings about the importance of design came full circle for his students. Kazaras beamed with pride.
Four years later, Kazaras once again comes face to face with this production – this time in the director’s chair.
Kazaras, who has recently directed La Bohème at both Washington National Opera and Dallas Opera, knows the piece well. However, LA Opera’s production, originally conceived by film director Herbert Ross in 1993, presents its own set of challenges. “It’s like being given a legal brief that you have to study thoroughly so that you can really understand the facts,” says Kazaras, alluding to his earlier profession as a lawyer. This is because Kazaras has inherited some key elements of the production (ie. set, props and costumes) Ross. Kazaras’s challenge is working with Ross’s gigantic and impressive set, while still adding his own directorial stamp on the show.
“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. “The Humming Chorus” is a scene that 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.
For Blakeley, whether he is directing theater or opera, it is all about storytelling. When he signed on to direct this production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, he went back to basics. His primary job in the early stages of directing was to answer the question, “What do you strip away to find the essential truth of the piece?” He knew the first thing he had to do was rid himself of any preconceived notions of what the opera could be, which can be difficult with such a familiar work as Butterfly. With a blank sheet of paper and the libretto, he listened to Puccini’s music, while working through the text.
Blakeley came to understand that the essential truth – or theme – of Madame Butterfly is “loyalty in the face of adversity.” That singular theme informed all of Blakeley’s directorial choices for this production, whether it was the decisions he preplanned (for example, updating the setting to 1904, the year the opera premiered) or choices he “discovered along the way,” while working with singers.