Behind the Scenes
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.
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.
How did you come up with the idea of staging The Magic Flute with 1927?
Barrie Kosky (stage director; Intendent of the Komische Oper Berlin): The Magic Flute is the most frequently performed German-language opera, one of the top ten operas in the world. Everyone knows the story; everybody knows the music; everyone knows the characters. On top of that, it is an “ageless” opera, meaning that an eight-year-old can enjoy it as much as an octogenarian can. So you start out with some pressure when you undertake a staging of this opera. I think the challenge is to embrace the heterogeneous nature of this opera. Any attempt to interpret the piece in only one way is bound to fail. You almost have to celebrate the contradictions and inconsistencies of the plot and the characters, as well as the mix of fantasy, surrealism, magic and deeply touching human emotions.
Our 2014 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute marked the first time in opera that all physical scenery was entirely replaced by video projection. A marvel of Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky’s 1927 inspiration, this Flute took us back to the roaring twenties in cinematic style.
This upcoming February, The Magic Flute returns to wow more Los Angeles audiences.
Take a sneak peek behind-the-scenes below to see how some of the tech for the show works.
Where can you find Pamina?
Pamina, daughter stands on a tiny revolving door platform that pivots out of the wall that serves as a projection screen. She is harnessed and buckled into the wall. Monostatos (Sarastro’s slave) stands on the first level of the stage. All other scenic elements are video projections.
Sitting in an uncomfortable, red chair, I check LA Opera 90012 participants in for the evening’s performance – Norma. Two fellow Ambassadors and I hand out tickets, but I find myself distracted. I glance at my phone and hope this will make the time go by faster. I’m anxious to see the show.
As soon as we’re dismissed, I seize my black purse and rush to my assigned seat in the theater. I love opera (can you tell?). But this time is different, because I know three of the ensemble members. Two were my teachers and the third is a very dear friend of mine. I can barely suppress the butterflies of excitement in my stomach. I’m thrilled to watch them.
As soon as Norma starts, I’m mesmerized. It’s such a special show. I search for the members I know and manage to pinpoint two of them. It’s at this moment that I start daydreaming, fantasizing about all the rehearsals that go into creating this production. I have been in several smaller opera productions, particularly at Opera Camp, so I have some idea how the process should do. It’s long, grueling, and wickedly fast-paced from the moment a singer receives the score up until the final dress rehearsal. Yet, those rehearsal experiences have been some of the happiest moments of my life. Watching Norma, I think about my own experiences interacting with other campers – teenagers who harbor the same affection I have towards opera – and creating a whole production. We sing together, eat together, and create together.
I find myself missing those days terribly.
Word is spreading among Los Angeles teens that opera is not what they think it is. The productions are not dusty and dull, but instead are gloriously alive – full of passionate drama that’s sure to entertain even the most skeptical audience member. When LA Opera 90012 kicked off the new season with an orientation this past October, the room was buzzing with anticipation.
Don’t know about LA 90012? It’s one of the coolest contests in town. Students in grades 7 – 12 are invited to enter a competition for the chance to win a mini subscription, for themselves and a chaperone, to see four operas, absolutely free. It’s a great program made possible by a donation by Fred Rheinstein, who knew how opera is a great way for teens and parents to connect. While Rheinstein passed away two years ago, we are so grateful for his contribution and his legacy lives on.
As a Student Ambassador, I arrived early to help set up for the orientation. Once everything was ready, we split up to do our different jobs. Along with my fellow Ambassador Marita Bos, I stood outside at the backstage entrance to welcome participants.
Season’s Greetings! The holidays are a time to gather friends and family, to be thankful for what we have, and to be giving to those who are in need. Five years ago, our Education and Community Engagement Department began sending our teaching artists around LA County to sing holiday music a capella at more than a dozen care centers, including City of Hope, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, the Alzheimer’s Association, Huntington Hospital, Rancho Los Amigos, National Rehabilitation Center and the West LA and Long Beach VA Medical Centers. This month, our singers will perform beloved and familiar music in lobbies, recreation rooms and wards – even at bedside – at these and many other care centers.
Last year, after the artists finished singing to a group of disabled veterans, one elderly vet quickly left the room. A moment later, he reappeared with several pieces of paper in his hands. He gave them to the singers and shyly explained that he wrote poetry and he hoped they would accept a few of his poems as a gift of appreciation for what they had given him. The director of the Veterans Home of California followed up with her own expression of thanks:
“Holidays become more precious with age as memories are relived, sadly for some, without many of their family members. Therefore, I feel honored to thank their new friends from LA Opera for making this holiday season very special. Again, I send my most sincere appreciation and thank LA Opera for your part in improving the lives of our great men and women of the United States military.”
Throughout his career, baritone Morgan Smith has portrayed everything from traditional roles (Escamillo in Carmen at Vancouver Opera) to exciting new contemporary work (Lassiter in Craig Bohmler’s upcoming Riders of the Purple Sage at Arizona Opera). In 2010, Smith originated the role of Starbuck in Heggie’s wildly popular Moby-Dick at Dallas Opera. He has subsequently portrayed Starbuck at San Diego Opera, San Francisco Opera, and is currently taking on the role here in Los Angeles.
Starbuck is an interesting beast to tackle. According to Smith, throughout the opera, Starbuck seems to be the only character within Captain Ahab’s close circle with “a deep, gut feeling that something’s amiss.” This does not prevent the character from sinking into some of the madness that grips Ahab. This makes it even more interesting for Smith to portray Starbuck, because he can really get into the character’s levels. At first, Starbuck is this strong, family man, whose morality is heavily tested to the point where he considers murdering Ahab to spare his men from a whale of a fate. “We see Starbuck pulled away from the person he wants to be, pulled away from his identity,” says Smith.
This role hits close to home for Smith. Starbuck often sings about his wife Mary and his son waiting for him at home. It’s their memory (and the notion of providing for them) that keeps Starbuck going. When Smith originated the role, Starbuck’s connection to family was already personal. All these years later, it’s even more personal as Smith is now a married father of six. He truly relishes his role as a husband and father, something he brings to the role of Starbuck.
One of the most celebrated artists of her generation, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton has burst into the international spotlight after a string of successes. She makes her LA Opera debut as Adalgisa, a role she has previously performed at the Metropolitan Opera (opposite the Norma of Angela Meade) and at San Francisco Opera (with Russell Thomas as Pollione). Here’s our Jamie Barton edition of questions.
You have won some huge awards and were named the 2013 Cardiff Singer of the World. Is it possible to say what that experience did for your career?
The Cardiff has completely changed my life! I talked to the BBC about it in June.
“By faith I shall learn this music and by faith I shall execute it.”
– Musa Ngqungwana
This past Saturday, bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana made his LA Opera debut as Queequeg in Moby-Dick. With his sincere portrayal of this pivotal character, the South African born Ngqungwana adds another role to his list of operatic achievements that include being a Grand Finals Winner in the 2013 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, as well as playing Colline in La Boheme (Washington National Opera) and Zuniga in Carmen (Norwegian National Opera).
Musa Ngqungwana’s life has always been filled with music. Growing up in Port Elizabeth and later Cape Town, Ngqungwana’s culture was infused with music. There were songs sung at births, weddings, celebrations, songs sung at death, and even gender specific songs sung perhaps to a sweetheart. With the advent of Christian culture and dogma introduced by the British missionaries in early 20th Century South Africa, a huge choral movement swept through the nation and a slew of community choirs and plays opened up. By the time Ngqungwana was born, it had become customary to have community choirs and neighborhood plays. It was at middle school that a young Ngqungwana joined the choir to be close to a girl he loved at the time. While Ngqungwana says he “failed miserably” to win the girl’s affections, the choir stole his heart and he kept singing in the years to come.
Musa Ngqungwana singing Riez, allez, riez du pauvre ideologue from Massenet’s Don Quichotte at WQXR presents The Metropolitan Opera National Council Award Winners
Soprano Angela Meade, who made her LA Opera debut in 2012 as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, returns as Bellini’s Norma, a role that catapulted her to prominence when she first performed it in concert at the Caramoor International Music Festival in 2010. She has subsequently performed in productions of Norma at the Metropolitan Opera and Washington National Opera. Shortly after rehearsals began in October, we sat down with her to get her take on this famously challenging role.
Let’s talk about Norma. It’s a big, giant, iconic work.
Indeed. Let’s call it Mount Everest.
Many opera lovers associate Norma with Maria Callas and a whole host of other great singers.
I’ve listened to all of them and, of course, I find great inspiration in many of them. But I try to make it just Angela’s interpretation, rather than anybody else’s.
Between performances, auditions and competitions, how many times do you think you’ve sung the entrance aria, “Casta diva”?
A bajillion. I really don’t know! I did a total of about 60 competitions, and I probably sang it for all of them, and I’ve also sung it in concerts, private functions and other things, not to mention within the role itself and, of course, rehearsals for performing the role. I’m sure it’s well over 250 times, probably more than that. I should have kept a tally of it.
Many different types of singers have sung Norma.
It has ranged from lyric coloraturas to mezzos. It’s different for everybody, as it should be.
Angela Meade singing “Casta Diva” for the Giordani Foundation Gala in 2009
It seems like you weren’t intimidated by the role.
I guess I never gave it much thought. When I first started singing “Casta diva,” I didn’t realize the sort of implications that went along with singing the role. I think plenty of people around me did, but I thought it was a beautiful aria. Clearly, I was only seeing the tip of the iceberg.