Behind the Scenes
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.
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.
Being part of LA Opera 90012 means finding the musician within each of us and experiencing opera. As participants in LA Opera 90012, we all learn to love opera – and that means we know about The Magic Flute. (How can we not?) This Mozart masterpiece is quintessential opera that has it all: beautiful music and a creative, fantasy plot. As audience members, we follow Tamino and Papageno on their quest to find Pamina. We’re left to wonder what Mozart was thinking when he composed such a fantastic opera.
One of the most elaborate productions LA Opera has staged in recent years was John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, directed by Tony Award winning director Darko Tresnjak (who returns to stage a new production of Macbeth in September). The story follows the ghost of Marie Antoinette (Patricia Racette), who while trapped in the spirit world, bitterly reflects on her final suffering. Her favorite playwright tries to entertain the melancholy queen with the continuing adventures of his beloved characters from The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. But sneaky Figaro refuses to play by the script, breaking free from the opera-within-the-opera in a surprise bid for a better life. The opera turns history on its head as love attempts to alter the course of destiny.
With many different worlds to incorporated into Tresnjak and costume designer Linda Cho’s overall vision, The Ghosts of Versailles was a complex, multi-layered, and rewarding show to style.
Darren K. Jinks and Brandi Strona – masters of their wig and makeup crafts – took on styling Ghosts of Versailles and succeeded to dramatic effect (both are nominated for tomorrow’s Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Awards).
Most operas require hair and makeup styling from one era or “world.” Take La Boheme, for example. Our production sets the action completely in 1880s Paris and so the singers’ hair and makeup reflects that time period. The Ghosts of Versailles is another beast entirely. It’s a show comprised of four distinct worlds: The Ghost World, The Figaro World, The Turkish World, and The French Revolution World. Thus, With the help of an expanded team (10 principal hair/makeup artists and 13 additional hair/makeup artists for chorus members) Jinks and Strona created (and managed during show dates) 47 principal wigs, 55 chorus and supernumerary wigs, 41 sets of facial hair, and several different makeup looks for the show’s 82 cast members (including principal artists, dancers, and supernumeraries). Productions normally have half the number of wigs and makeup looks needed for Ghosts.
Like any other art form, hair/makeup styling starts as a concept and there’s a great deal of planning involved. Since it’s such a feat to stage an opera, the production staff normally plans for new productions at least one or two years in advance. Such was the case with The Ghosts of Versailles. Styling ideas for Ghosts began 12 to 18 months before the show opened, with additional dramaturgical work occurring during the three to four months before the show. The extensive dramaturgy (ie. historical research) included watching films set during the time period for ideas (Tresnjak and Cho were inspired by film such as Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and Stephen Frear’s Dangerous Liaisons) as well as researching the French Revolution era to come up with hair/makeup styling that not only theatrical, but also matched period norms.
These norms differed based on the worlds. Here’s a breakdown of some of each world’s hair and makeup style.
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.
Our production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute is inspired by the silent film (and early “talkie”) era and is comprised entirely of projected film. Singers stand on stage or on platforms that are 9ft high off the ground, 18” in diameter, and attached to a giant wall. Animated video (in the style of Max Fleischer cartoons or the classic Disney “Skeleton Dance”) is projected onto the wall behind the singers. The singers cannot see what’s behind them, despite the fact that they interact with the animation projected (at one point an animated bird lands on Pamina’s hand).
In a regular opera, there’s some forgiveness, the orchestra, the staging, pretty much everything can adjust in real time. For this opera – there’s none of that.
The required precision means that all character decisions for the singer have already been made by the director (and there are no bits of music being added or taken out). As the film designs and animations are already set, there’s no room for compromise.
Singers also have an added job in rehearsal. They must learn highly choreographed movement that cannot be altered during a performance. If, for example, Monostatos is going to be pulling a dog’s leash at this point in the projection and at this point in the music, his hand has to be in that exact spot for it to look like he’s interacting with the animation. To hit their marks, singers practice with the set and projections as soon as possible, as opposed to only when they arrive on stage for tech rehearsals. They also must rehearse in the dark for the projections to be seen.
It’s not only the singers that are learning the show earlier in the process. The staging staff and crew are learning and planning for highly choreographed work. This show has one stage manager and three assistant stage managers (“ASMs”). The stage manager calls the majority of the 666 cues in the show from a secluded area front of house. That’s 2-3 times as many as there are in most other shows. And, unlike other shows, 25% of the cues are visual instead of the usual 5%. The stage manager must be able to see the projections and know the show well enough to call a cue on time or ahead of time to prepare cast and crew.
The Magic Flute will take the stage in less than a month, sharing its roaring twenties inspired magic with Los Angeles once more. It’s exciting to see the whole production come together; it’s an elaborate one, but not in the way that you might think. Instead of giant, fantastical sets, this Magic Flute showcases a slew of projected animations, designed by filmmaker Paul Barritt, and inspired by the silent-film era.
There are 677 digital animation cues in the whole opera (yes, opera!). But that’s not all! To evoke the era of Charlie Chaplin, Louise Brooks, and Buster Keaton, you have to have the right costumes. We have 102 original costumes made for the production, including 14 wolf masks worn by our men’s chorus. Yet, no production of Mozart’s famous comedic opera would be complete without a characteristic Monostatos (Brenton Ryan), the evil henchman, who wishes to possess Pamina (Marita Sølberg). Our Monostatos looks like he stepped out of a classic horror film (think Nosferatu with a little more mobility), helped by the 6 prosthetics required for his makeup.