Thursday, June 30, 2005

Cinderella lives!

We've been anxiously awaiting this day, for it marks a turning point. The last 2 weeks have been full of the difficult work of changing our upcoming Cenerentola production into a concert staging. Ticket exchanges and refunds, donor notifications, disheartening calls to artists and staff. Today we began to rebuild. Director Garnett Bruce returned from Europe, and the effort turned in a positive direction. Cinderella in Concert.

Boheme in Concert last summer was a huge hit. We desperately missed the impact of a full scenic production, but surprisingly (at least to us), many of the audience members didn't. So, in the face of a programmatic change brought on by budget realities, we begin to build a new world for Cinderella. One in which the imaginations of the artists reach directly to the hearts and souls of the audience with the help of a few costumes and props. I'm tempted to go on and on, but this isn't the place or time. What's important is that the negative work is done, and now we can do what we do best.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

It's all about the clothes

Full disclosure would require that I admit I know almost nothing about costumes. It's one of those areas where I pray that I hire the best designers for the job, for it would be disastrous were I to meddle with their work. Timm Burrow did a fabulous job on Sweeney, and now Beth Clancy (new to us this season) has brought us stunning sketches for Giovanni. Clothes that help singers redefine themselves onstage - costumes that bring new depth to their characterizations and new resolve to their confidence - well, that's a miracle.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Palate cleansing

That's what they say about Mozart. And all of those seemingly extreme metaphors are right. A cleansing of the palate. A refreshing spring shower. As much as I love all various and wonderful kinds of music, when you've been away from Mozart for a while, you have to admit that the coming home is pretty sweet.

It's such a treat to have Giovanni back where he belongs at The Barns. (Too long to go into here, but our larger venue, the Filene Center, is typically host to any of our operas that fall into the "Top Ten".) And unspeakably satisfying to hear it done by these particular voices.

The first day of rehearsal is full of optimism, trepidation, enthusiasm, fear, relief and anxiety. Like the first day at a new job. Only for a professional singer, the first day at a new job happens about every 6 weeks. (As a stage manager friend of mine reminded me, though, that means that if you can't tolerate your coworkers at least you don't have to wait for one of them to retire or quit!) We chose, as many companies do, to sing through most of the full opera on the first day. Exhausting, but illuminating. It helps the artistic team get to know the singers, and it makes clear the work that needs to be done. Word is that our (partial) run-through was a great success, though. (I have to take it on faith, for I spent the day in an organizational strategic planning session. Necessary and valuable, but, dare I say, not nearly as fulfilling as the Mozart would've been!)

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Movin' on to Mozart

Final Sweeney. Great audience for my pre-show talk and for the show itself. Arrival of the rest of the summer’s company, chomping at the bit to start rehearsals tomorrow for Giovanni and the Murder & Mayhem NSO concert. Lots of transportation excitement; everyone finally arrived safely and delivered to local housing assignments. Lovely cast party. On to the next chapter in less than 12 hours.

Movin' on to Mozart

Final Sweeney. Great audience for my pre-show talk and for the show itself. Arrival of the rest of the summer’s company, chomping at the bit to start rehearsals tomorrow for Giovanni and the Murder & Mayhem NSO concert. Lots of transportation excitement; everyone finally arrived safely and delivered to local housing assignments. Lovely cast party. On to the next chapter in less than 12 hours.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

A grown-up concert

Steve called it a “grown-up” concert. Tonight’s Latest Word recital. (See posts from earlier in the week for details). Complete with singers whose musical maturity exceeded our expectations and surprised even themselves, and an audience that was willing to dig deep and concentrate fully. The program presented some logistical challenges, performed as it was on the Sweeney Todd set. (Our theatre is too small to strike the set – no place to put it! – and tonight was the only possible date for this concert.) And the material was a little more demanding than usual, both for the artists and the audience. All great ingredients in a recipe for administrative panic. But no matter; it was intimate, unassuming, and quietly rewarding.

Photo by Danielle Chappell

Friday, June 24, 2005

The world of audience feedback

Bernstein and Gershwin with the NSO in the morning (gotta love those West Side Story dances!), and more Sondheim at night.

The range of patron responses to our little crossover experiment at The Barns is falling into four categories. 1) Love Sweeney and enjoyed the show; 2) Love Sweeney and hate what we’ve done with it; 3) Not fond of Sweeney but nevertheless captivated by our artists’ performances; and 4) No use for either the piece or our production.
None of this is surprising, but what is interesting is exactly who falls into which categories. There are musical theatre mavens who feel that we’ve done an injustice, but then there are those who think this “unplugged” Sweeney is one of the most powerful they’ve seen. There are longstanding and knowledgeable opera connoisseurs who surprise themselves by being drawn in by the power of this piece and the strength of these performances; conversely there are opera fans who feel betrayed by the presence of such a “fringe” work on our season calendar. It’s tempting to think that you can please everyone, but it’s not an option in the opera world, populated as it is by people with larger-than-life opinions.

Photo by Carol Pratt

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Opera-free zone

No opera today. Large doses of symphonic pops (Marvin Hamlisch and the NSO – rehearsal in the morning and show in the evening) and a dress rehearsal / work-through of the Latest Word concert. Great stuff on the latter. I’m a sucker for poetry (even though I’m not exactly knowledgeable), and getting to revisit Coleridge, Auden, Agee, Cummings and Keats through the musical lenses of some great living composers is a real treat.

One of our young artists made a brief guest appearance on the symphonic pops program (in Sondheim’s “Getting Married Today”… it seems to be all about Sondheim in a very strange way these days…). She was a real pro in that most difficult of professional situations – sitting around for hours and hours and having approximately 16 measures of music in which to acquit yourself.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

High risk, high reward

Lots of work being done this week to prepare for Saturday evening’s Latest Word concert. Steven Blier’s been here since Sunday, and four of our singers have been digging into 2 hours worth of the best of the song literature from the last couple of decades. Rorem, Bolcom, Corigliano, Guettel, Musto, Gordon, Moravec and more. Tough but rewarding. Two things that are scarily often directly proportional.

Interesting Sweeney audience tonight. This is the “added” performance. We had originally scheduled four, but added a fifth after those quickly sold out. As a result, most of tonight’s audience was new to us – folks who had heard we were doing Sweeney but who don’t usually come to The Barns. In the best of all possible worlds, a good opportunity for audience-building. They certainly seemed to eat it up, but will they ever come back for something more mainstream

Photo by Carol Pratt

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Reviews came out today. We don’t pay a whole lot of attention to them. And for sure, we try to counsel our young artists not to read them during the run of the production. Good or bad, they rarely have a beneficial effect on a young singer’s current performance or general development. The Post sent their theatre critic (rather than a music critic) to cover us, and I wasn’t sure we’d escape a bloodletting… But a general skimming of all of the press shows that we did OK. Now to keep copies of the reviews out of the dressing room corridor all week. Well-meaning staff, cast, and crew often post them, especially when they’re positive.

Also interesting to gauge how colleagues react to press. Good notices are usually cause for far too much rejoicing. (From a marketing standpoint, that's probably not true, for good reviews sell tickets. But from an artistic viewpoint, we can't get too invested in what the press thinks.) Response to bad reviews is even more entertaining, for folks start whispering and tiptoeing around like someone died...

Of course, we wouldn’t stay in business long if every review declared us worthless. It’s important to have public validation that can be used to generate interest and support for the company. But it’s hard to explain that getting good press doesn’t make us proud; our pride comes from our own assessment of the our work and its value. And we’re always our own worst critics.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Cinderella in Concert

There will undoubtedly be more on this later, but finally, a brief explanation on my gloom-and-doom postings from the last few days. I’ll post a slightly more detailed and satisfying account in a short while, but for now, here’s the official notice:

Due to unforeseen circumstances, the Thursday, August 18 performance of Rossini’s Cinderella has been cancelled.
On Saturday, August 20, the Wolf Trap Opera Company will present a concert staging of Cinderella with costumes, props, and onstage orchestra.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Matinee audiences

Second Sweeney performance. Matinee. Sunday afternoons are prone to what I call “buffet coma” – all those folks who chow down at the brunch buffet and then come to the theatre to sleep. The cast was understandably optimistic after Friday’s opening, so I tried to damp audience response expectations for this afternoon. I needn’t have done so, for this crowd was rapt and responsive. Great feedback. And if I say so myself (and I don’t do so very often, being a perfectionist), it was a compelling show. Singers really growing into their roles. Just finished an instant message conversation with our production stage manager – she says the cast was really “stoked” after today’s show. I say great, just as long as “stoked” doesn’t turn into “cocky” :)

Steve Blier arrived this evening, and rehearsals are underway for next Saturday’s recital “The Latest Word.” Great material. The best stuff from opera, theatre, and song composers from the last couple of decades. Sondheim is in there, as is Guettel (The Light in the Piazza), Bolcom (The Wedding, View from the Bridge) and many others. Four of our singers (two doing double duty from Sweeney; two others who will go into Giovanni rehearsals next week) perform the songs, Steve presides at the piano and gives us a glimpse into the music with his comments between the songs. A more engaging, brilliant, and discerning colleague you won’t find.

Photo by Carol Pratt

Saturday, June 18, 2005

More bad news

Stayed up most of last night drafting some correspondence. A difficult situation about to emerge. Still can’t write about it here. But sadly, will be able to soon.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Opening night

Opening night. But first I had to get through my pre-show talk. For several years now, I’ve been doing free pre-show “Inside Opera” talks for any ticket-holders who want to show up an hour early. In a perverse way, I love doing it. Maybe it’s because I was never an “insider” myself, having come to this business only in my late 20’s. (It seems that everyone I meet in the opera world started listening to the Met broadcasts when they were four…). Anyway, I enjoy telling audiences about what went into the show they’re about to see. Unfortunately, this week has been so difficult on many levels that I was sorely under-prepared. But thanks to my total immersion in this production, and to the amount of chutzpah I’ve learned to summon up in these instances, it went very well.

As did the show. When we travel across the country and hear these young (average mid-20’s) singers, it’s tempting to fantasize about perfect casts. But real life gets in the way, and although all of the singers we bring here are terrific, the casting puzzle doesn’t always fit together just perfectly. But somehow this time I think we lucked out. You could disagree, but it’s a fact that these folks exceeded expectation. It wasn’t an easy rehearsal period, and on top of that, there was the elephant in the room – the fact that we are operating here on the fringe of our repertoire, and anytime you do that, you take more risks than usual. But the first show was touching, witting, and terrifying, and a quantum leap from the rehearsals earlier in the week. The full house brought the remaining acoustical bugaboos into focus, and the resultant totally “unplugged” performance had a powerful visceral impact.

Photo by Carol Pratt

Thursday, June 16, 2005

A turning point

Company day off. Also payday. I spent the day in the office, ostensibly to hand out paychecks and work with our press photographer to select rehearsal photos to send to the media, but also to crunch some numbers. A very depressing day, very likely leading up to a difficult decision. If it magically works itself out, you’ll never know what I’m talking about. If not, it’ll unfortunately be blog material by next week.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Invited dress rehearsal

Nice to have an audience. Friends of the musicians, staff & crew, Foundation donors, volunteers & employees, and the Sweeney Todd cast from the local high school! Nerves on the stage; some things surprisingly hard, other things paying off nicely. The stage/pit balance coming into focus more and more each day – also improved by having bodies in the house to soak up the sound that tends to bounce off of all that wood. (That’s what you get for performing in a barn…)

We’ve been running and tweaking the show straight for 7 days now, and the crew has been working both day and night. Fatigue is showing, and tomorrow’s day off is critical. One accident onstage leading to an emergency room visit after the rehearsal (broken finger). Otherwise, not much the worse for wear.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Orchestra Tech

A return to the staging. With the added complication of the orchestra in the pit. No more pretending that you can turn upstage and still be heard. A rude re-awakening. But adjustments are made, and we get one step closer. Although we have one more rehearsal tomorrow night, it’s a dress rehearsal with an invited audience, and there’s a feeling of urgency to get the remaining details ironed out.

Monday, June 13, 2005


“Sitzprobe” – German for “sitting rehearsal.” After these last two days scurrying around the set, sorting out things with piano accompaniment, it’s time to welcome the orchestra. The singers sit (or sometimes stand) on the stage, and the focus is on incorporating the orchestra into the process. It’s not one of my favorite rehearsals, for it’s always fraught with logistical difficulties. The Barns pit is terribly small (9 feet X 27 feet), and it’s inevitably difficult for all of the musicians to carve out the number of square inches they need to do their job well. Most of them are used to it (no surprise, for they’ve played here before), but it doesn’t make it any more comfortable. So I hold my breath and hope that everyone is feeling calm and flexible. Maybe someday we’ll enjoy a nice fat donation that will help us expand the pit area. (Any Donizetti & Bellini fans out there? A bigger pit would open up all kinds of new repertoire for us…)

The Sweeney orchestra isn’t terribly large (11 strings, 5 woodwinds, 6 brass, 2 percussion, 1 harp & 1 keyboard), but it uses more percussion instruments than the typical opera orchestra. But amazingly, by 7:00 everyone had carved out a niche, and rehearsal began.

My heart in my throat tonight for another reason, too. When we began rehearsals a few weeks ago, there was a flurry of talk about microphones. I had never considered amplification (ours is a small, acoustically friendly space), but I owed it to our artistic staff to take their concerns seriously. After a week of discussions, we decided to abandon the idea of “sound enhancement” (as they call it in the opera business). But I was left with a lingering sense of doubt. I didn’t want to be “right”, I just wanted to have done the right thing.

Well, I’m breathing a bit easier, for the sound is magnificent. We have our share of specific balance problems (mostly in the underscoring and in Mrs. Lovett’s songs, which were written for an amplified “belt” voice), but with some careful rehearsal and some dynamic adjustments, it will all work out. Conductor Jim Lowe is brilliant, and I have no doubt that in a few days it’ll be stunning.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

It's only opera

More technical rehearsal – tonight is Act II. Little by little getting the mechanics in hand. Having a talented and dedicated scenic and costume shop staff makes a huge difference. They work all evening with us in the theatre, then they come back at 8 the next morning to fix everything that didn’t work before that evening’s rehearsal.

Not surprisingly, it gets tense. As I’m fond of saying “It’s only opera!” (as in; it’s not rocket science or cancer research…), but in an environment with so many intense, focused people, it’s often hard for cooler heads to prevail. But they generally do. Something we’re very proud of in this company. It’s important for our singers to keep their perspective, to realize what a rare and valuable thing a good colleague is, and to understand that their own professional lives will actually be more rewarding if they treat everyone in their work environment with respect.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

First technical rehearsal

First technical rehearsal. All about figuring out how the doors open and close, how the rake* complicates the blocking, how those damn chairs get on and off the stage, how all of Mrs. Lovett’s props stay on the pie shop table, how much noise the barber shop door makes, and how the trick razors and chair are behaving.

*I try to avoid using shop talk (just a very little pun there…) with explaining the terms: A stage rake means that there is a gradual rise/incline on the stage floor so that the area the farthest away from the audience (literally, upstage) is higher than the area closest to the audience. In a theatre like ours where the audience floor is flat instead of inclined, it’s pretty much essential in order to see the actors all of the time. (Not to mention the actors being able to see the conductor.)

Friday, June 10, 2005

Designer run-through

Designer run-through tonight. We go from beginning to end in as unbroken a stream as possible, so that our scenic designer, costume designer, lighting designer, and wigs & makeup designers can see the show and best determine how to use the next 5 days of rehearsal in the theatre.

What a marvelous thing to be able to have the entire cast, staff and crew in one comfortable working space. Our rehearsal space (the multi-purpose Education Hall) is a constant joy. Plenty of space, a pleasant and calm environment, and natural light too! (The first dozen years of my career were spent in windowless rehearsal studios, never seeing the light of day.) Anyway, it’s always a shot of adrenaline to take in the whole piece. A little scary, knowing what has to be done to adapt to the stage. But reassuring, seeing and hearing how these particular singers have taken to these roles as if they’d been born to sing them.

While we were waiting to begin, I got word that the touring cast of H.M.S. Pinafore (due to arrive at the Filene Center at 4 for a sound check and a show this evening) was still somewhere en route at 6:30. It all worked out just fine, of course, but we had a good time trying to remember the words to “Never Mind the Why and Wherefore” in case we had to pinch-hit. (Just kidding!)

Photo by Danielle Chappell

Thursday, June 09, 2005

More orchestra

Second orchestra rehearsal. Not quite as smooth as the first. There’s a stretch in Sweeney’s second act that’s a bit thorny from the “road-mapping” perspective. (That is, the notes and the music themselves are not hard, but figuring out exactly what comes next is.) Some old “cuts” from previous productions got in the way.

Finished putting Pirelli into his scenes and did some staging touch-ups with the chorus in the evening. Heading toward the final day in the rehearsal room.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

We’ve achieved Pirelli

Spent my day away from opera, in a day-long session working on the Wolf Trap Foundation’s next strategic plan. Fascinating. (No, really.) But, at the end of the day (literally), I can only think of a few things I’m more grateful for than the opportunity to spend my working life making music.

At 5:00 the business day ended and the rehearsal day began. Pirelli is here!! After a delayed and difficult flight, he arrived to begin rehearsal this evening. I got to sit at the piano for a couple of hours, and that’s always fun. Didn’t call one of our staff pianists in for the rehearsal because today is the company day off for this week, and we do our absolute best not to violate the little free time our company members have.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Orchestra arrives

The days passing in a blur. Already at the first orchestra reading. More of an adventure today than is typical. Most operas have what is called a partitura – a conductor’s score. The conductor works from a master score that literally contains every individual note played by every musician. That way, if something doesn’t go well (human error or mechanical mistake in the printed music), it’s not too daunting to figure out exactly what happened and then fix it. Operettas and musicals usually don’t have a partitura (the conductor works from a slightly glorified version of a piano accompaniment score); therefore, if something doesn’t sound right in an orchestra rehearsal, it can take many valuable (read: expensive!) minutes to search and destroy.
Fortunately, Sweeney has benefited in recent years by opera company productions in which mistakes were corrected and then passed back to the publisher. Since the Lyric Opera of Chicago production, Sweeney’s publisher (Music Theatre International) printed a new and improved set of parts. The result is that we had very little time wasted on basic repairs and could focus more on the music-making.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Giovanni creep

We’re having Giovanni creep. For two weeks, we had the luxury of focusing on one thing. But other projects are looming. The Giovanni schedule is being discussed, rehearsals for the July 9 concert with the National Symphony are beginning, and music is being finalized for Steve Blier’s upcoming recital with 4 of our singers.

And, on an unrelated note, the non-operatic part of our operation is ramping up, too. The first National Symphony Orchestra concert is in 3 weeks. And tomorrow we get to find out who our pianist will be for next year’s Debut Artist concert at The Barns – s/he will be the Silver Medalist Winner of the Van Cliburn Competition which ends tomorrow evening. We’ve been following the competition on their website – have been reading the blogs there too, and I’ve determined that I’m not nearly catty enough. We’ll have to remedy that.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

An old friend and a new dilemma

A wonderful blast from the past today. Alan Held, of Wolf Trap young artist vintage 1987 & 1988, is in town singing in the Washington National Opera’s Samson & Dalila. He’s coming back to Wolf Trap next winter to sing a recital at The Barns. (Part of our chamber music series.) He came by to talk repertoire for February’s concert and just to visit. We’re fortunate that many of our “alumni” have gone on to international careers – this year alone, Alan’s career took him to Vienna and Paris as well as Chicago and New York – and are still supportive of Wolf Trap. We sat in on a few minutes of Sweeney rehearsal; Alan has spent much of his career in grand opera (Wagner, Strauss), but he was openly jealous about the chance that this year’s young artists have to refine their chops on a true chamber opera in their own native tongue!

I think the Sweeney Todd “sound enhancement” discussion has finally drawn to a close. When we programmed and cast this piece, it never crossed my mind that enhancement (read: amplification) would be necessary or in any way advisable in The Barns. Yes, indeed, other opera companies have amplified this piece, but in theatres many times the size of ours. And yes, small theatres have used microphones for Sweeney, but with voices that aren’t tooled to travel to the back of the house. Anyway, it’s a thorny subject, and because our team was concerned about certain moments having the potential to be covered by the orchestration, we dove into discussion of the possibility. Many many hours and conversations later, we emerged poised to stick with an entirely acoustic production. (That is, if you don’t count the speakers for the factory whistle.) There are some bits of orchestration that will need micro-management in order to bring the whole thing into focus and balance, but we’re ready to tackle it. The result will be well worth it. The potential power of the forced intimacy of this piece in The Barns will be strengthened by the personal, immediate, and intensely physical nature of unamplified voices.