Monday, February 1, 2016

Get to Know Lehár's The Merry Widow

By John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor

Franz Lehár
PREMIERE
December 30, 1905 at the Theater an der Wien
Contrary to an often-stated misconception, the original production was an immediate success (a success which has been triumphantly replicated worldwide ever since). It was Lehár’s first international hit (he was 35), and although he lived until 1948 and wrote many more operettas, The Merry Widow remains his undisputed masterpiece.

In the years leading up to 1905, the Theater an der Wien had suffered from a series of recent failures, and so to keep their investment to a minimum, the management decided to use recycled sets and costumes—and to avoid paying rights fees for Meilhac’s original play, the billing read “partly based on a foreign idea.” As rehearsals proceeded, the producers became increasingly pessimistic that Lehár’s innovative use of orchestral color (usually reserved for more serious compositions) would be favorably received. At one point Lehár was offered 5,000 crowns to shut down the production. Wisely, he refused (and thank God).

Court Ball at the Hofburg by Wilhelm Gause, 1900.
THE SOURCE
The Merry Widow’s source was an 1861 comedy by the prolific playwright, Henri Meilhac (now best remembered for his role as a co-librettist for many of Offenbach’s hits). The play, L’Attaché d'Ambassade, was not particularly successful in Paris, but a German adaptation enjoyed a profitable run in Vienna and was frequently revived. In early 1905 it caught the attention of veteran librettist Leo Stein, who brought it to his occasional collaborator Viktor Léon. Their updated version was taken on by the Theater an der Wien and the music assigned to the well-known Richard Heuberger, who had given the theater its greatest recent success with Der Opernball (1898). The theater intendant, Wilhelm Karczag, was so disappointed when he heard Heuberger’s resulting music that he took back the script  (perhaps to Heuberger’s relief?). Karczag wanted to scrap the project, but his secretary steered him to the up-and-coming Lehár, who had scored some modest success with two earlier attempts at operetta.

THE LIBRETTISTS
Leo Stein (1861-1921) was a playwright and librettist. He collaborated with composers Johann Strauss II, Emmerich Kálmán, and (of course) Lehár, in such works as Wiener Blut (1899), Der Graf von Luxemburg (1909), and Die Csárdásfürstin (1915). He frequently worked with Viktor Léon (1858-1940). After The Merry Widow, perhaps Léon’s best-known work, again with Lehár, is The Land of Smiles (1930). Léon’s property was confiscated after Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany in 1938. He died of starvation while in hiding in 1940 at the age of 82.

Lily Elsie as Hanna in London, 1907.
SUBSEQUENT PERFORMANCES
The Merry Widow’s popularity led to productions in Austria, Berlin, and Budapest and then around the world. Revisions, new songs, translations, changed character names, and plot-tweaking ensued. It is said that at one point in 1907, Buenos Aires had five productions running simultaneously. It opened in London in 1907 in its first English-language version. There were some diplomatically motivated changes. The original German libretto had angered the Balkan kingdom of Montenegro, where the royal family’s name was Njegus and the real crown prince was named Danilo. “Zeta” became “Popoff” and was played by the very popular comedian George Graves—much comic shtick was added. That production of The Merry Widow opened at Daly’s Theater and ran for 778 performances.

The American premiere took place at the sumptuous New Amsterdam Theater on October 21, 1907, using the same English version done in London. The producer, Henry Savage, sent touring companies to cities all across the United States. The success of The Merry Widow produced a outburst of merchandising frenzy perhaps not seen again until Disney: sheet music, piano rolls, chocolates, cigars, shoes, oversize hats, and so on. 1907 also saw Widow in Stockholm. Copenhagen, Milan, and Moscow productions performed the following year, and in 1909, it opened in Madrid and Paris, where it was initially met with suspicion (how would those Viennese foreigners treat their untouchable city?), but eventually declared a success.

In his biography of Lehár (Gold and Silver), Dr. Bernard Grün estimates that the piece may have been performed half a million times in its first 60 years. No other play or musical up to that time had enjoyed such international success.

In 1943, it was revived in New York City with Jan Kiepura and Marta Eggerth and choreography by George Balanchine. It ran for 322 performances—in the same year that Oklahoma! opened. The first performance at the Metropolitan Opera was not until 2000 and starred Frederica von Stade and Plácido Domingo.

Piano score for The Merry Widow, Vienna, 1906.
SUBSEQUENT VARIATIONS
Inevitably, sequels, spoofs, parodies, and burlesques followed. Ballet eventually seized upon the story and Lehár’s irresistibly danceable melodies. In 1953 Ruth Page’s version (titled Vilia) opened in England and subsequently toured, coming to Broadway (retitled as The Merry Widow) with Alicia Markova. Maurice Béjart did a version in 1963, and Robert Helpmann produced yet another in 1975 for the Australian Ballet…it came to London and NYC with Margot Fonteyn.

The year after The Merry Widow opened in Vienna, the original Hanna and Danilo, Mizzi Günther and Louis Treumann, recorded their arias and duets.

Film versions were also inevitable, two of the most famous being Stroheim’s (1925) and Lubitsch’s (1934).

For a utterly chilling use of the “waltz” theme, take a look at Hitchcock’s 1943 film, Shadow of a Doubt.

A BIT OF HISTORY
In 1905, the year of The Merry Widow’s premiere:
•    Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated for a second term
•    David Belasco produced his play, The Girl of the Golden West
•    George Bernard Shaw wrote Major Barbara
•    The first regular cinema opened in Pittsburgh
•    Debussy wrote La Mer
•    Richard Strauss’ Salome premiered in Dresden
•    Einstein formulated his “Special Theory of Relativity”
•    Freud wrote “Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex”
•    The first neon signs appeared
•    The Rotary Club was founded

The Merry Widow Recommendations

Recommendations for further study by John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor

The Merry Widow Reading

Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination
By Vesna Goldsworthy
Columbia University Press, 2012

Ruritania, Grustark, Marsovia, Pontevedro…all famous kingdoms of improbable love affairs and intrigue, grand dukes and grand balls, duels, midnight assignations, and all the adorable claptrap of the frothy world of escapist romance—and operetta. And yet these places are also fictional dreams, darkly reflecting (or attempting to cover up and repress) a historical Balkan world of instability, violence and historical chaos. After all, this was the site (Sarajevo) of the lighting of the fuse that blew up that pretty European world into a million bloody pieces. This fascinating book charts the fraught relationship of Central Europe to this area in its historical dimensions, psychological complexity, and its intricate and often unexpected literary and cultural manifestations.

The BLO production of The Merry Widow is set in 1913 on the New Year’s Eve of a year that would lead, in eight months, to the unimaginable violence and destruction of WWI…where the beautiful and the good of Europe blindly, heedlessly, recklessly waltzed their way into a Hell of their own making.

There are numerous books that chart this terrible but compelling journey. Here are two of the most vivid:

1913: The Year Before the Storm
By Florian Illies
Melville House, 2013

Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Lee Searle
A month-by-month account detailing the events, both big and small, of that crucial year. Rich, even idiosyncratic, in detail, vast in its historical sweep, and breathtaking in its illuminating evocation of a world about to commit suicide.

The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914
By Phillip Blom
Basic Books, 2008

A step further back…now a year-by-year account of a “world adrift…a pulsating era of creativity and contradiction, possibilities and nightmares. Prime ministers and peasants, anarchists and actresses, scientists and psychopaths intermingle on the stage of a new century in this portrait of an opulent and unstable age…”

Waltzing at the Cinema

The Merry Widow has been a popular subject for cinematic treatment practically from the beginning of its illustrious career. Two of the best are:

The Merry Widow (1925)
The silent version, with a partial Lehárian musical accompaniment, directed by Erich von Stroheim, starring John Gilbert and a unexpectedly winning Mae Murray.

The Merry Widow (1934)
The Ernst Lubitsch film, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald.

Both deviate quite a bit from the original, as each expresses the idiosyncratic and unmistakable sensibility of its director…obsessive (even a bit kinky) in the case of Stroheim and elegantly sophisticated and visually witty with Lubitsch. Although Chevalier and MacDonald are not my favorite performers (their smug satisfaction with their too evident charms do not wear particularly well), who could miss any tempting examples of the “Lubitsch touch”? Incidentally, the English lyrics in the Lubitsch film are by another master of sophistication, Lorenz Hart. And the characterization of Hanna as an American showgirl in Lillian Groag’s new adaptation for the upcoming BLO production is inspired by the Stroheim film (“Sally” in the 1925 movie).

The 1952 lushly campy version (in quasi-lurid Technicolor ) with Lana Turner (also as an American widow) and Fernando Lamas is also perhaps worth a quick look, but is pretty feeble compared to the above (which are both available in excellent DVD versions).


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Monday, January 25, 2016

Get to Know Massenet’s Werther

Background information on the opera by John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor


Poster for the first French production of Werther.
By Grasset.
PREMIERE
 Somewhat oddly for this very French opera, the premiere (in German) was at the Vienna Hofoper in 1892. The score had been finished in 1887 but was turned down by Léon Carvalho, director the Opéra-Comique, as “too gloomy” for his audience. Massenet put it aside and continued work on Esclarmonde. After the great success of Manon in Vienna, the opera management there asked for a new Massenet work, and so Werther’s premiere was set in Vienna. The first French production, finally given at the Opéra-Comique in Paris a year later with limited success (still “too gloomy”?), was withdrawn from the repertory, although the following year saw performances in New York (Metropolitan Opera), Chicago, New Orleans, Milan, throughout the French provinces, and a single performance at Covent Garden. In 1903, Albert Carré revived the piece at the Opéra-Comique with great success—it has been performed in Paris alone over 1,300 times and, after Manon, is Massenet’s most popular work worldwide.

LIBRETTO
Written by Édouard Blau, Paul Millet, and Georges Hartmann (Massenet’s publisher), based on Goethe’s 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Blau also provided libretti for Esclarmonde and Le Cid for Massenet.

SOURCE
Massenet, in his “ever unreliable” memoir, recalls how on a visit to Bayreuth in 1886 for Parsifal, his publisher, Hartmann, gave him a copy of Goethe’s novel when they stopped on their return journey at Wetzlar (the small, German town where the encounter between Goethe and the “real” Charlotte took place). The composer describes starting to read it in a noisy, smoke-filled beer hall and the immediate appeal of its passionate love story. Goethe’s novel is epistolary in form (a series of letters, as is another great 18th-century novel of romantic obsession and destruction, Les Liaisons dangereuses, written eight years after Werther) and tells of a infatuation that ends in suicide. Goethe admitted he “shot his hero to save himself,” a reference to Goethe’s own near-suicidal obsession with a young woman and the therapeutic value of writing out and thus transforming his real agony in a fictional form.

The outfit described by Goethe for Werther became
a fashion sensation among young men during "Werther Fever."
Written when he was twenty-four years old, Goethe initially published the novel anonymously and distanced himself from it in his later years, although it was his first major success and turned him into a celebrated author overnight. Napoleon considered it one of the greatest works of European literature and carried a copy on his campaigns. One anecdote has Napoleon and Goethe himself discussing a passage from the novel (a conversation at which one would certainly like to have been present). The novel started the phenomenon known as “Werther Fever,” which caused young men to dress in the clothing style described by Goethe (yellow pants, buff waistcoat, and blue jacket…the outfit Werther was wearing when he shot himself ), and reputedly led to the first known examples of copycat suicide.

A SLICE OF CULTURAL HISTORY
Around the time of Werther’s premiere (February 1892):
-    Mrs. Warren’s Profession (Shaw) was written (1893)
-    Lady Windermere’s Fan (Wilde) premiered (February 1892)
-    Pelléas and Mélisande (Maeterlink) premiered (1893; the opera by Debussy premiered in 1902)
-    The Master Builder (Ibsen) was published (December 1892)
-    I Pagliacci (Leoncavallo) premiered (May 1892)
-    The Nutcracker (Tchaikovsky) premiered (December 1892)
-    Pearl S. Buck, writer, and Marshal Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslav revolutionary and statesman, were born (1892)
-    Poets Walt Whitman and Lord Alfred Tennyson died (1892)

Werther Recommendations

Recommendations for further reading, watching, and exploring from John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor

An illustration from The Sorrows of Young Werther.
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Translated with an introduction and notes by David Constantine
Oxford University Press, 2012 (paperback)
A fine translation that “captures the novel’s lyric clarity” and the passionate introspection and desperate intensity of feeling that made it such a powerful exemplar of Romantic passion in its time, served as a inspiration for Massenet’s outpouring of devastating emotion, and still offers a powerful emotional punch today.

Massenet is know primarily for two of his operas, Manon and Werther. But he was a prolific composer, and between 1867 and his death in 1912, he provided the French operatic world with a series of works of great variety and invention. He was a highly trained professional and very successful musician working always with a greatly developed sense of craft (ironically, perhaps, a fact that has contributed to his somewhat ambiguous position critically, in the end). His work is drawn from a strikingly varied stock of authors (Flaubert, Corneille, Anatole France, Perrault, Cervantes, Rabelais) and his responses to them are often charged with an innate theatricality. Many are today forgotten, but others have been revived and recorded and appreciated anew. Check out a few of my favorites...

Le Roi de Lahore (The first new work to be stage at the Palais Garnier)
Seductive exoticism…at the same time often ravishing and inevitably slightly cheesy.

Le Cid
A true French grand opera spectacle with ballets, processions, lavish settings, and some powerfully dramatic scenes.

Esclarmonde (Massenet's favorite opera, written for the beautiful American soprano Sybil Sanderson)
A “magic” opera (the first operatic production that used projections to suggest rapid scene changes), with rich orchestrations and lush harmonies to accompany a Byzantine plot. (For real…the opera is actually set in Byzantium!)

La Navarraise
Massenet tries “verismo”…the piece is set in the thick of a Spanish civil war in 1874. Like Tosca, somewhat of a “shabby little shocker” and, also like Tosca, bold, obvious, and very effective.

Cendrillon
Massenet’s tale of Cinderella. Wit, elegance, charm, a bit of parody, a bit of pseudo-baroque and some exquisite love music.

Don Quichotte
His last operatic success, written for Chaliapin, the famous Russian bass. A very skillful mingling of sentiment and comedy, pastiche and contemporary style. The death scene of the Don is famously moving.




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Friday, December 18, 2015

Why do Singers Wish Each Other Toi, Toi, Toi?

Elaine Alvarez in BLO's 2015 production of Kátya Kabanová.
Photo by Eric Antoniou.
Opera lovers may be familiar with the phrase, toi, toi, toi, uttered among singers before the house lights fade and the conductor lifts the baton. Pronounced TOY (rather than TO-WAH like the French word for you), the mystique of this tradition of well-wishing is woven tightly into the superstitious history of the performing arts and the multicultural mélange of opera. So, what does toi, toi, toi mean, and where did it come from?

Working in the theater is one of the most superstitious professions, said to be second only to horse racing. This is undoubtedly in part because there is a long history of backstage crews being made up of sailors on leave, navy or otherwise. Sailors brought with them their own traditions and superstitions that, when brought into the theater, stuck. For example, to whistle on deck of a ship is considered bad luck, and so it is also bad luck to whistle onstage or backstage in a theater. Among the many things it is unlucky to do in a theater, one of the worst is to wish a performer good luck.

Toi, toi, toi is an onomatopoetic imitation of the sound of spitting, done to ward of a hex or evil spirits. It is always uttered three times, and sometimes accompanied by pantomimed spitting over someone’s shoulder while in an embrace. It comes from Yiddish, Hebrew, and Old German traditions where saliva was believed to have demon-banishing powers. Some even say it is a shortened version of the German word teufel, meaning “devil,” thus uttering his name to ward him off. It is a common good luck sentiment to wish someone in Germany regardless of the context. How this became specifically associated with opera remains a mystery, but in the superstitious theater, warding off evil spirits can only be helpful!

Alternatively, you may have heard opera singers wish each other in bocca al lupo, Italian for “in the mouth of the wolf.” The traditional reply is crepi il lupo, or simply crepi, meaning “may the wolf die.” It is an Italian idiomatic expression that refers to any challenging scenario, likening it to being caught between the jaws of a wild beast. Perhaps this is similar to the circus trick of putting one’s head in the mouth of a lion or even a biblical reference to Daniel in the lion’s den. Although it is also unclear how this saying became associated with opera, it is clear that Italian theater and music traditions have had a tremendous influence on the art form.

The most common and well-known (at least in America!) expression of good luck in the theater is “break a leg.” There are many anecdotes and theories as to how this tradition began, yet the sentiment remains the same. Similarly, at the ballet, and later extended to all dance forms, dancers wish each other merde in French. Again, there are many theories about how this tradition began, but this one is my favorite: Since wealthy patrons used to arrive by horse-drawn carriage, the more horse droppings out in front of the theater, the more paying spectators were inside!

So next time you are in the Theatre District and happen to run into a performer before a show begins, tell opera singers, “Toi, toi, toi!” or “In bocca al lupo.” Exclaim “Merde!” to a dancer, and when in doubt, “Break a leg!” will always work. Above all, honor the long-standing and often strange tradition in theater by avoiding the words “good luck” before the curtain opens; if not you may risk unintentionally wishing the opposite!

Want to read more? Check out these online articles!

- Rebecca Ann S. Kirk, Manager of Education Programs

Monday, November 23, 2015

Looking Back on In the Penal Colony: Feedback and Reviews

As we approach the holiday season, let's take a moment to look back on our seventh Opera Annex production, In the Penal Colony by Philip Glass. Staged in the historic Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts, this unique, dark, and unsettling production left an indelible mark on critics, students, and audience members alike.


“The stage pictures and imagery of every moment [were] astounding and heart-clenching.”
– A. Alexander, MIT student

“Excellent performances … this newest production will be counted as another in [BLO’s] column of successes.”
Boston Globe

“I was struck by the powerful string instruments and by the poignant theme. I am a new convert now against the death penalty. It's hard to explain, but this opera has broadened my views on that subject.  Thanks for giving the opportunity to expand my mind. I hope I can do the same for my students.”
– Boston Public Schools educator

“As part of its imaginative Opera Annex program, Boston Lyric Opera upended convention even further by putting the piece on in the Boston Cyclorama ... [T]his cavernous space, cleverly treated with absorptive materials as part of the set design, proved ideally resonant for voices and instruments, luring the audience into the opera’s ghoulish spell.”
Wall Street Journal

“I really enjoyed the opera and it really was unforgettable. I wasn't expecting it to be an opera so I was really surprised when the actors started singing. The lyrics on the screen was a great way to keep the audience focused. It also worked well when the Officer was struggling with his emotions inside him and the machine breaking down. I first thought the screen itself was not functioning well but soon realized that it was part of the theater. It was amazing.”
– M. Saito, Boston College student

“Captivating … very well presented, very well sung.”
– WGBH

“Unforgettable … a true triumph in the company’s history.”
South Shore Critic



All photos by T. Charles Erickson for Boston Lyric Opera.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

In the Penal Colony: A Sneak Peek!

Check out this special SNEAK PEEK from Monday evening's Dress Rehearsal for In the Penal Colony! This Season's Opera Annex production, staged in the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts, is pitch-black fable about crime … and a very unusual punishment.

IN THE PENAL COLONY
November 11–15 | 2015
The Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts
BLO.ORG

Boston Lyric Opera’s new “Opera Annex” production of Philip Glass’s dystopian In the Penal Colony, based on the Franz Kafka short story, has transformed the historic Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts into a terrifying torture machine at the heart of the drama. Pictured (l.r.) are David McFerrin as The Officer and Neal Ferreira as The Visitor. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

Neal Ferreira as The Visitor faces the terrifying presence of The Officer. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

David McFerrin as The Officer threatens Yury Yanowsky as the Man.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

Yury Yanowsky as the Man, Neal Ferreira as The Visitor, and David McFerrin as The Officer.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The “Real” Devil's Island

By John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor

In his short story "In the Penal Colony," it is often accepted that Kafka was referencing (in his usual slightly oblique and ambiguous manner) the actual French penal settlements (usually referred to in the singular as Devil's Island) in French Guiana. In the story, a reference is made to the "tropics," and the Officer and the Traveler (or "Visitor" or "Explorer," as he is described in various translations) speak in French. But the landscape is described by Kafka as barren, rocky, and desert, rather than the actual (ironically) lush rainforest environment of Guiana—and it is also mentioned that the other characters in the story (the Soldier and the Prisoner) do not understand French (odd, considering they are both part of the military establishment). So like other locations in Kafka's disturbingly unhinged world, the penal colony is both terrifyingly real and suggestively mythic—just as the "real" Devil's Island was an actual place which has assumed mythic proportions in our cultural imagination.

The penal colony of Cayenne was opened in 1852 and used for the exile of French political prisoners, mixed with the most hardened thieves and murderers, until the system was closed down in 1953. It was notorious for its desperate isolation, both physical and mental, the unceasing brutality of the punishments, the scourge of tropical disease, and the overwhelming sense of a cruel finality. The actual prison extended over several locations, but the most isolated was the Île du Diable, and its most famous prisoner was Captain Alfred Dreyfus. A vast majority of the more than 80,000 prisoners sent there never made it back to France. Few prisoners escaped. In 1854 France passed a new law of forced residency that required convicts to stay in French Guiana after completion of their sentences for a time equal to that of their forced labor. A limited number of convicted women were sent with the intent that they would marry freed convicts and aid in the development of the colony. This policy was discontinued in 1907.

The settlements, now in seemingly picturesque ruin and overgrown with the relentless force of the jungle, have become a tourist destination—the actual Devil's Island can be seen only from off-shore. Read more here.




This documentary is replete with every verbal cliché about Devil's Island but contains much interesting historical footage:


Devil's Island has, not surprisingly, become the locale of many (mostly lurid) Hollywood films (Hell on Devil's Island, I Escaped from Devil's Island, Women of Devil's Island, etc.). The most well-known (and serious in its intent) was Papillon (1973), starring the somewhat unexpected juxtaposition of two very different actors—Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. It was based on the now largely discredited  autobiographical account of the escape of Henri Charrière. It was filmed in Spain and Jamaica, but the famous cliff-jumping scene was done in Hawaii. (McQueen insisted that he, not a stunt double, do the actual jump.)







In 1899, five years after the beginning of the Dreyfus Affair, the French pioneer filmmaker Méliès made a silent film on the subject. It is of more historical interest than dramatic or visual—and it has the dubious distinction of being the first movie censored for political reasons. France indeed was very sensitive to the notorious image that Devil's Island conjured up and, over the time of its existence, tried to censor all references. But the image lives on in our collective unconscious—nowhere stronger than  the horrific and disturbing Kafka short story and the powerfully dramatic Glass opera derived from it.




Thursday, October 29, 2015

Math, Magic, and Music: An Interview with Carl Rosenberg, Acoustician

We sat down recently with Carl Rosenberg, an acoustician with Acentech, Inc. who consults with BLO on Opera Annex productions, including the upcoming In the Penal Colony at the Cyclorama at Boston Center for the Arts. A fascinating mix of math, music, and magic, read on for his insights about what makes a site-specific work sound glorious!


BLO: How did you get into this field?
Carl Rosenberg: Well, I studied to be an architect but found that I didn’t have a design flair. But I really resonated with the course I took in architecture school on architectural acoustics, which combine my interest in buildings with some facility in music and a more engineering bent on how buildings are put together.

Now I’m primarily a consultant. I work for colleges and universities, for classrooms, for atriums and public spaces, lots of small auditoriums at schools, office acoustics, a variety of things. 

BLO: Are you a musician yourself?
CR: I studied music the way kids do—taking piano lessons! But I like learning more about how spaces sound and what one does in the design of spaces to influence that acoustical quality, which in turn affects how we hear, how you can understand speech, the excitement of a dramatic production if you can understand the words, and so on.

BLO: How did you begin working with BLO?
CR: I think I was referred to Esther [Nelson, the General & Artistic Director of BLO] by a mutual friend, who suggested that if there were concerns or questions about the acoustics for these more challenging or non-traditional spaces, I might be able to help. And indeed the consultant work I do as my career deals with a wide variety of acoustical problems in spaces. So it started with learning more about the Annex productions, and my association with BLO developed through that.

BLO: What are some of the hallmarks of good acoustics? What do you listen for in a space?
CR: Good acoustics obviously depends dramatically on what the goal is of the space—it would be different for an office, for a restaurant, for a classroom, for musical productions, different for different types of musical productions. Where there would be amplified sound, you would want a certain type of acoustical quality, but for live music (especially the voice) you want a different type of acoustical quality. It also depends on the space and what the relationship is between the audience and the performers.

With opera, you want to allow the voice to resonate, to be heard, and you also want make sure there’s a degree of articulation and clarity. And those are the challenges that we’re faced with in any operatic venue.

BLO: When you walk into a space that we’re considering for Opera Annex, what are the things that you’re listening for or evaluating in that space?
CR: The relationship between the audience and the performers, because that’s the most important way to gauge the audience for the performance. [I also evaluate] the degree to which the space will support the propagation of the voice and the music that goes with it without sounding too muddy, or without overpowering the voice with extraneous sounds. One of the variables that helps us evaluate that balance is reverberation, which is the multiple echoes that you hear in a space. So you would rather the environment be more supportive of the voice than, for instance, singing into a closet.

BLO: What contributes to that? Is it the hardness of the materials that comprise the space?
CR: Exactly. The reverberation, which is one measure of the quality of the sound, is directly proportional to the volume and inversely proportional to the amount of absorptive materials in a space. So with those two variables, we can control that reverberation, which is measured in seconds. The audience is always a major component of the absorption in a hall—in so many spaces, the reverberation changes dramatically from an empty space to a full one. But if we make allowances for that and look at the other materials as well as the volume of the space, we have some sense of what that reverberation will be like.

Set model for In the Penal Colony. Design by Julia Noulin-Mérat.
BLO: So in the Cyclorama, we had to add a lot of absorptive materials to the set. Can you talk a little bit about how you came that conclusion?
CR: Anyone who goes into the Cyclorama, especially when it’s empty, will be overwhelmed and impressed in a positive manner by the huge volume, and the fact that all the surfaces that are on the finished materials now—floor, ceiling, oculus—are hard, sound-reflecting materials. There’s nothing soft or porous or fuzzy about any of them. Again, that will change with the addition of an audience, because all of us introduce absorptive materials, but with some rough calculations my colleagues and I figured that this space would be too echoy [for the opera]. So we worked with the design team to incorporate additional absorptive materials. The problem with the Cyclorama is exacerbated by the fact that its circular shape will focus sound in certain ways, just like a lens…or anything that has a concave surface. In the Cyclorama, both the ceiling above, which is a concave dome, as well as the circular floor plan [contribute to this]. So the location of the treatments is our attempt to control that focusing that will occur.

BLO: Are sounds generally more reverberant when they are in a space that is circular?
CR: [In a circular space,] the sound isn’t reflected or bounced around in an even manner…the extreme case of this focusing is evident at the Mapparium at the Christian Science Center, where there’s an entire sphere and if you go inside you can be overwhelmed by the echoes and the reverberation, the focusing, that occurs. The problem is not that severe at the Cyclorama, of course, but [the Cyclorama] was obviously not designed for live performances, it was to look at a painting of the battle [of Gettysburg].

BLO: What has been the most challenging venue that you’ve worked on for the Opera Annex series?
CR: Well, I think the Cyclorama will be one of the most challenging. Although, the Castle was an even larger volume and potentially even more reverberant. So that was a challenge too. The balance of these Annex productions is getting the absorption to be part of the stage set, the design; it’s not a permanent installation, [and we’re] limited by budget. In the Cyclorama what we could do was also limited by the structure itself and its historical significance…

BLO loads in to the Temple Ohabei Shalom for
The Love Potion, November 2014.
Another challenging space was the Temple Ohabei Shalom, where we did the production of The Love Potion last Season. An interesting space and  a huge volume, but as it turned out, that entire interior surface had already been treated with a sound-absorbing finish. Which made it quite non-reverberant, or dead, which is not what you would expect given the visual impact. You walk in and you expect to hear a long reverberation like a cathedral, but it’s not that at all. So our challenge in that case was to help bring some of the sound back to the audience that would otherwise be lost.

BLO: Anything you want to add?
CR: I would want to say that it’s been a profound honor to work with the production staff and the music staff; obviously we all share the same goals, but they have a love of opera which is inspiring and contagious and that’s been a wonderful opportunity for me.