Tuesday, February 26, 2013

So Do We all: Phyllis Pancella gives us a first look in the COSI FAN TUTTE rehearsal room

Although I feel I’ve just gotten off the plane, a week has already passed in which I’ve  done my first load of laundry, gained 5 pounds from just looking at all the Dunkin’ Donuts around, and, most incredibly, zoomed through the staging of two thirds of the masterpiece that is Cosi Fan Tutte.  What a week!

First, I should let you know that I haven’t been doing a lot of opera lately. When my son, now 11, hit first grade five years ago, I decided to stop accepting opera engagements during the school year for awhile, and stick with shorter concert outings. I have no regrets about that decision, but I also had absolutely no hesitation about chucking it out the window when the Boston Lyric Opera called.  Would I be interested in trying my first Despina, under the direction and with the Don Alfonso of the magnificent Sir Thomas Allen?  Um, let-me-think-about-it-yes.  I won’t bore you with the tedious realities of getting a household and middle-schooler ready for Mom’s first solo five-week road trip since 2000---lots of more interesting people have done it before me and would describe it better.  All I’ll say is that it turns out you can, in fact, help with homework and three-day-field-trip nerves via instant message. Walking the dog, doing everyone’s laundry and grocery shopping---not so much.

The smart, silly cast and the open, welcoming production and administrative staff made my re-entry very smooth, and I love spending time in Boston, even in the winter.  Despina herself was a little less cordial, with high notes in all the wrong places, but I figured I’d compensate for any shortfalls in vocal beauty with whatever comic voices/accents I’d do for her Doctor and Lawyer disguises. What I didn’t expect was how I’d feel when I trotted those things out in front of my colleagues at our first musical rehearsal.  

My heart actually pounded a little in anticipation of the Doctor’s entrance, and I felt this odd, warm sensation begin in my face.  Good grief!  Was I blushing??  A middle-aged Midwestern lady, 25 year veteran of the opera biz, mother of an 11 year old boy fercryinoutloud, blushing?  Did I blush when our Peerless Leader compared one of Mozart’s Cosi duets to worm copulation? No. Did I blush the next day at my costume fitting when the stitcher asked me to please hoist my breasts up as high as possible so she could make the right markings on the corset mock-up? or when John Conklin pointed to my shoes, and, thinking they had been pulled from wardrobe stock, said, “Well those would be perfect, since they’re so unfashionable”?  No.  Man, you just never know where you might still have buttons.  I love comedy!  I work hard at comedy!  But trying to make people laugh can make you look really, really stupid, and there‘s no bigger anxiety-trigger than that for me. You know what? I’ll probably get nervous singing in front of the chorus for the first time, too.  Always have.

English as a second language.  The single task on which we’ve spent the most rehearsal time thus far is language.  Why all those hours?  This Cosi company comprises a conductor and director/Don Alfonso from the U.K., and five other cast members from the U.S.  We are performing an opera written in Italian, that takes place in Naples in 1790, in a translation written in 1922 by an Englishman, revised by another Englishman in 1970 and again in 1988, for a Boston audience in 2013.….I think you might be getting the picture.  Of course, the ultimate goal is to communicate to this particular audience in this particular time and place the power of this piece.  Honoring that goal requires us to honor the original creation above all else, and we share a common desire to do just that.  But we all come from different backgrounds and with different pet peeves.  

David Angus is the Diction Police, with a special affection for punctuation.  He intentionally avoided writing the translation into his orchestra score so that he could discover whether or not he could understand the singers, who all have different regional dialects and different preferences when it comes to sung English diction (wish I had audio to share from the great “tooter” vs. “tyewtah” debate) and who are, by the way, mostly from a different country than he is.  Paul Appleby and I are both inclined to be the Grammar Police (“Ah, the subjunctive!”  “It makes no sense to combine the mechanical with the abstract.” “How did they get away with a subject-free sentence?”) and quake whenever the translator finds the wrong spot to put a preposition in (sic).   Then there are the changes we’re all making in the interest of singability:  e.g. maybe a sweet young soprano could sing the suffix -ing on a high G, but this well-worn mezzo can’t!  

The timeframe is a puzzle for some. Yes, the production design places us in 1790 (sort of), but which archaic words enhance meaning and which obscure it?  (So far, chary is out, and trepidate is hanging by a thread.)  And then there are the Britishisms:  “takes the biscuit” instead of “takes the cake," "I’ll crease myself with laughter,“ instead of…what?…“I feel my sides are splitting?“  Ah, which ones to keep, which ones to jettison, and why.  It is a messy, imperfect process that is alternately galling and hilarious (I‘m happy to report that “You dirty basilisk” has entered our rehearsal lexicon), but which ultimately clarifies our intentions and priorities as actors.

Nicole Tongue, our assistant director, Karen Oberthal, our stage manager, and Brett Hodgdon, our coach/accompanist are madly scribbling the alterations we’re making in rehearsals, while making good suggestions of their own.  Mr. Allen will eventually have to pull the plug on all our, um, contributions, so that timing, diction, and surtitles (never mind memorization) may be finalized.  At that point, since we‘ve all grown rather precious about our language of origin, we’ll each have to swallow hard about some final text decision that makes us cringe or worry.  But for now, our job is to argue about every single tree, so that our audience will be able to see the lush and complex forest that results.

Why do it in English in the first place?  Ah, I’ll leave that to you to discuss.  I’m just the maid.

~Phyllis Pancella

Costume renderings by Così Fan Tutte Costume Designers

Here is a sneak peek of the costume renderings by Così Fan Tutte Costume Designers 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Lorenzo Da Ponte: A Man of Many Words

Lorenzo who? Lorenzo Da Ponte, He was a frequent collaborator of Mozart, he also founded the first Opera house in New York City. 

Lorenzo was born originally a Jewish Emmanuelle Conegliano near Venice in 1749.  He was an Italian poet and librettist well known for his collaboration with Mozart. When his mother died his father remarried to a Catholic woman and the family was required to convert to Catholicism. He entered a seminary, learned some Hebrew, became a professor and ordained minister and also had several affairs. These affairs eventually led to him being banished from Venice and he fled to Vienna.

While in Vienna, he became a distinguished poet and librettist. He was named Poet to the court to the Emperor Joseph II. In 1738, Da Ponte and Motzart met and quickly created three works of art together, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così Fan Tutte. Unfortunately soon after these successful collaborations, Mozart and Joseph II passed away leaving Da Ponte jobless. He relocated to London where he wrote plays, librettos, and ran a bookshop. This time, instead of countless affairs, he was arrested for debt. He fled to the United States to escape trial.

He finally settled in New York City where he taught for years at Columbia University Italian language and literature. While there, he also founded the first Opera house in New York City. His death in 1838 was highly publicized and in a strange turn of events his actual remains whereabouts are still unknown. While there is a stone maker in the cemetery in Queens, there are sources that say he is actually buried in downtown Manhattan. Wherever he is, his contributions to music aren’t forgotten. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"Clemency" - Tech Week

So we're finally opening CLEMENCY after an exciting tech week at the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter!  This has been a tech week like no other, particularly because we are in a unique performance venue and additionally because we are staging in the round (that means the stage is in the center of the room and the audience is set up in a circle or in sections all around it on every side).  

In a proscenium theater, the production team would set up camp in the orchestra section of the audience and use what we call a "God mic" to communicate with lightwalkers (volunteers who walk the path of the performers so we can see what the light will look like on the artists), stage management, crew, and artists onstage during rehearsals, but because we're staging in an intimate venue in the round, the director and I are constantly on the move, checking out sight-lines from every angle and running up onstage to adjust blocking here and there!  

There are so many factors that we take for granted in a traditional theater that we have to account for in a site specific performance.  Where will the assistant stage managers go to help get performers and their props onstage - there are no wings!  Our amazing stage management team has been creeping quietly around the building to all the vantage points we are using in this unique production, up and down the stairs, in the kitchen and the hallways!  Our Production Stage Manager and Light Board Operator are hidden away in a staff kitchen behind the performing space!  Where will the performers get ready -  there are no dressing rooms!  We have created curtained off private rooms for the artists in a big loft paint studio on the third floor of the building.  How will the singers see the conductor?  In a proscenium theater he would be right in front of them in the orchestra pit, but we're staging in the round.

This week we have been finding just the right placement and angles for little video monitors around the center platform of our stage to give the singers maximum visibility of David Angus's movements without distracting the audience who can actually see the monitors.  In a proscenium theater the lights point across, down at, or from the audience at the stage, but in the round we have to make sure the stage is lit beautifully without pointing instruments into the audience itself.

Clemency and "Hagar's Lament" only total one hour in length, so rather than gearing up all our energy for one big run, we've been running the whole production twice in each rehearsal block!  Although the stage time might be the same as doing a longer opera once, the energy level and concentration buildup, and release, from doing a full run of a production are intense, so everyone is working as efficiently as possible to get the most out of each rehearsal while conserving stamina for the second run!  It has been a fabulous and exhausting week, and I'm looking forward to seeing the fruits of all our labor from my seat in the audience very soon!
Eve Summer
Stage Director

Monday, February 4, 2013

TOMORROW: James MacMillan at Brandeis - FREE for the Public

James MacMillan at Brandeis University

Tuesday, February 5, 3:30pm
Slosberg Music Center
Brandeis University
415 South Street, Waltham, MA 02453. 

This event is free and open to the public!  

 “The story of Clemency comes from a strange episode in Genesis that many people have puzzled over for years. What is the significance of it? What is the meaning of it?” – James MacMillan

This Tuesday, February 5, Brandeis University will host a discussion exploring  the significance of Clemency’s story.  Dr. Jonathan P. Decter, Edmond J. Safra Professor of Sephardic Studies at Brandeis University,  currently teaches a course Introduction to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam at the university.  Dr. Decter will open his class to the public for a special discussion of the significance the story of Abraham and Sarah holds for these three faiths. He will be joined by Clemency composer  James MacMillan, who often  finds inspiration from spiritual sources.   Clemency  is no exception.   MacMillan will speak about how these figures inspired an opera.   BLO’s Opera Annex production will be the US premier of Clemency. 
BLO’s critically-acclaimed Opera Annex continues with the US premiere of James MacMillan’s Clemency. The libretto, by poet Michael Symmons Roberts, is drawn from the book of Genesis. Abraham and Sarah are childless and nearing the end of their lives. They are approached by three travelers who share the unexpected and miraculous news that Sarah will have a child in old age. The mood darkens as it becomes clear that the travelers are on a mission of vengeance upon the neighboring towns, and Abraham pleads clemency for their inhabitants.  Falling before the moment when Abraham takes his son Isaac up the mountain to be sacrificed and after he has banished his handmaid Hagar and his son by her, Ishmael, the story of Abraham’s encounter with the three travelers makes a crucial and oft-puzzled over change in him.
For its US premier at the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter beginning February 6, Clemency will be preceded by a performance of Franz Schubert’s Hagar’s Lament. The song, its lyrics drawn from a moving poem by Clemens August Schücking, centers on Hagar—mother of Abraham’s firstborn child—who poignantly sings of her sadness and anger after being abandoned in the desert with her dying son. The pairing of the two works allows the audience to compare not only the musical styles of MacMillan (a living composer) and Schubert, but also draws attention to the histories of Ishmael and Isaac, the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham’s personal struggle with clemency.

For a synopsis of BLO’s Opera Annex production of Clemency , including Hagar’s Lament, visit