Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Hotter, and Quasthoff, and Ludwig... Oh My! - Dr. von Lyric talks Schubert

"Last week I mentioned that perhaps we could roam down some Biedermeier corridors with Franz Schubert (the subject having been raised by BLO's upcoming annex production of CLEMENCY which features an early song by that Viennese master) And so...

   One of my favorite singers (of Schubert but also Strauss and Mahler, and Mozart and on and on) is Christa Ludwig. I heard her often in recital and on the opera stage - Leonora, Dorabella, Dido, Fricka, Brangane , the Dyer's Wife - and she was always an eloquent and deeply moving singer.

   And just because I couldn't resist here she is again

   Hans Hotter - another singer I had the great privilege to hear perform  in the opera house -  Wotan, the Dutchman, Gurnemanz , King Marke. Although late in his career he was still  uniquely commanding and his voice darkly tinged with an almost cosmically tragic weight.

   A striking 1991 video of two  consummate Schubert singers Hotter (aged 82) and Thomas Quasthoff (aged 33)  Hotter was of course very famous for his reading of the Schubert song cycle "Winterreise" and this performance of the last song  both desperate and resigned is poignant. The expression on Quasthoff's face is fascinating...

     Of course any perusal of Schubert  would be incomplete with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Again an artist I heard perform many times in recital. I was always a bit conflicted about his singing - it often seemed over worked, over emphasized in contrast to the apparently more direct communication given by Ludwig and Hotter, but his commitment and musicianship can never  be denied" - Dr. von Lyric


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

First week of Rehearsals for Clemency - Asst. Director Eve Summer

"It has been a whirlwind week of rehearsals; over the past 6 days we have rehearsed musically and staged Hagar's Lament and Clemency!  Even though the entire production only runs about an hour, we still have to create fully developed characters and the performers have to commit all of their music and staging comfortably to memory, not to mention sneaking in costume fittings or dinner, so we have to come into the studio every day with a thoughtful plan of attack! 

We start the week, and then each rehearsal block by rehearsing musically; David Angus, the conductor, and Brett Hodgdon, the coach and accompanist, take the singers through each section before we begin staging.  Then we talk about character and the text a little, and then put the basic framework of the scene on its feet by giving the performers some blocking (telling them where to go on the stage, and when to do it).  In the first few days we had the whole production sketched out so that we could breathe easy knowing the building blocks were there. Next, we went back and started working on specific scenes, and specific moments within in each scene, and either refining or solidifying the blocking.

Eve Summer
Our day usually consists of two rehearsals with a lunch break in between (if there were a chorus, we would have three!).  Although it's only about 6 hours of rehearsing in studio each day (that may sound like an easy day), the work is incredibly intense, both for the singers and the team and staff who must be ferociously focused to put together, commit to memory, and perform masterfully a polished production within a matter of weeks.

And what do I do? I arrive about 1/2 hour before the singers are called to go over the plan for rehearsal, and check in with the director and stage management to see if there are any issues we need to discuss, such as scheduling a costume fitting, introducing a new prop, or modifying a bit of blocking.  During rehearsal I record the placement of all the performers during each moment of the opera both to serve as a reference to remind the singers of their staging, and to have a thorough record of the production in case it is remounted in the future.  I act as a sounding board for the director to bounce ideas around or suggest potential solutions to issues that come up. I take notes during each run and either go through them with the director and the artists, or work on them with some people while Andrew (the stage director) works with others. After rehearsal I finalize the plan for the following day's rehearsal and touch base with stage management to add any notes to the rehearsal report that goes out at the end of the day.

It's back to work in the studio for now, until next week when we move into the theater for tech!"

Monday, January 28, 2013

What to Wear? - Costume renderings by Clemency Costume Designer Nancy Leary

Young Abraham
Old Abraham

Old Sarah
Young Sarah

Three Travelers

Clemency - Design by Julia Noulin-Mérat

 Please enjoy these photographs of models of the set of Clemency!


Clemency - Notes from Director, Andrew Eggert

The creation of Boston Lyric Opera's production of Clemency has inspired a journey into the multiple musical and intellectual layers of the ancient biblical story of Abraham and Sarah. Figures from the Old Testament have long held a position of prominence in Western art music, in both sacred and secular works. James MacMillan's opera joins a tradition of works that renegotiate the traditional boundaries of genre, presenting audiences with a drama on themes of faith, in a contemporary musical language that offers a bold new reading of an ancient tale.

When Abraham and Sarah are visited by a group of three travelers, their faith and aspirations for the future are repeatedly challenged. These episodes drawn from the Book of Genesis all hinge upon acts of faith in times of doubt. The three travelers represent the embodied potency of the divine presence on earth, but they are a divinity that cannot be predicted. Abraham and Sarah are left questioning whether they are ultimately angels of mercy or angels of vengeance.

As an accompanying drama, our production introduces the figure of Hagar, Sarah's handmaid. We open with an early song by Franz Schubert, Hagar's Lament, as a narrative prelude that encompasses Hagar's struggles after being sent into exile by Abraham and Sarah. Schubert's musicalization of the inner world of Hagar resonates deeply with the themes of the opera. As the mother of Abraham's son, Ishmael, Hagar represents the origin of the other major branch of the Abrahamic line that would give rise to the faith of Islam. By integrating Hagar into the narrative, the domestic drama peers into the lives of husband, wife, and mistress and cuts across lines of social class, caste, and religion.

Presented in collaboration with the Artists For Humanities EpiCenter, our design for the opera is governed by the concept of creating an immersive theatrical environment. Beginning with the architecture of the EpiCenter's gallery space, we have treated the entire room as a stage in which multiple layers of action unfold. At the very center of the space, surrounded by and extending above the audience, we have placed the construction of a tree, an organic symbol of shelter and a metaphorical referent to the presence of the divine (a theme that recurs throughout scripture: the tree of knowledge, the burning bush, the oaks of Mamre). Yet our entire design is also conceptually driven by the idea of re-purposing the materials of the modern world. The materials in our scenic installation span the spectrum from the raw/natural to the fabricated, and we have considered the ways in which a new construction made from recycled pieces can give second life to pre- and post-consumer materials.

Clemency challenges us to rethink ourselves, to measure the impact of our lives in a modern world that continues to be marked politically and spiritually by acts of mercy and acts of vengeance. The contemporary relevance of the opera reaches a peak in the final scene, when the three travelers move on from the home of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar in order to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Here, again, the line between faith and action is tested. Modern-day headlines of conflict in the Middle East and other regions of the world remind us that religious fundamentalism continues to drive human beings to desperate acts of destruction. Now, perhaps more than ever, Abraham's plea for mercy must be heard.

- Director, Andrew Eggert

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Dr, von Lyric introduces Hagar's Lament

"I was chatting with my BLO friend John Conklin and he mentioned that yesterday was the first day of rehearsal for the BLO Annex production of James MacMillan's CLEMENCY. They were working on the Schubert song that is being performed with the MacMillan - an early song of his  that I was not familiar with. As usual YouTube provided an answer (see below)... and  furthermore it  occurred to me that we could in future weeks have great pleasure in  further tracking down and listening to some other great Schubert performances. In the BLO performance the role of Hagar is to be sung by one of their impressive Emerging Artists - the ever powerful soprano Michelle Trainor. As a matter of fact I attended the recent BLO Signature Series event at the MFA and heard Michelle eloquently sing a brief excerpt from the Schubert as well as a tantalizing bit of Strauss' SALOME (how grippingly intimate it was to hear SALOME in English... with the unexpected clarity of a piano reduction and in a relatively small hall , she seems to be whispering her "depravities" directly  into your horrified but fascinated  ears.)" - Dr. von Lyric

For an English translation of Hagar's Lament click here

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Clemency - Assistant Director Eve Summer on "Prep Week"

Just before months of discussion, research, designing, and preparation give way to a flurry of rehearsals, production meetings, and performances, 'Prep Week' at BLO gives the artistic and production staff a chance to either reacquaint or get to know one another, and to immerse ourselves, all together, in the details of the production.  We talk music, set, costumes, props, lighting, schedule, and chocolate chip pumpkin cookies before we transition to the rehearsal studio.  In order to be ready for opening night in a matter of only weeks, we spend Prep Week discussing, with a great deal of specificity, the outcome we are seeking for essentially every hour of the day for the next three weeks.  We talk about what scenes we will rehearse, what meetings we will need to have, what form of transportation the artists will take to get to the costume shop and how long exactly it will take for them to get changed before technical rehearsals.  We talk about when we might take a ten minute break two weeks from now, and we even talk about how hard or soft the lead in our pencils needs to be for optimal note taking!

Since CLEMENCY is my first production with BLO, I've been so pleased to have the opportunity to get to know the team before rehearsals begin.  I'm a free-lance stage director and choreographer and I normally work from my home when I'm not in production, so I get a real kick out of having a week in an office environment.  Though I'm tackling the same tasks I would be doing at home, there's so much to be said for the rapport and camaraderie, not to mention efficiency, the team builds by working on our pre-production duties all together in one room.  I'm sure my fondness for my temporary cubicle will start to wane soon enough, but by that time my prep work will be done and we'll be ready to move into my favorite place in the world to be; a rehearsal studio! 

If you're wondering what an assistant director does before they're in a room with a cast to assistant direct: I'm preparing the blocking book in which I record all of the staging for this exciting new production; I've auditioned the cutest bunch of budding thespians in order to find a 7 year old supernumerary to join the cast; I'm drafting and re-drafting the staging rehearsal schedule; I'm working with Karen, our Production Stage Manager, to schedule costume fittings and keep tech week plans on track; I'm listening to the music and studying my score; I'm touching base often with Andrew Eggert, our stage director; I'm re-reading all the ground plans, the source material, and my research; and I'm thinking about all of the incredible stories that inspired the texts for our production.

Bring on the staging rehearsals, now I'm ready to really get to work!

-Eve Summer, Assistant Stage Director

Saturday, January 12, 2013

"I never dreamed that this would be a part of my career." - Tenor, John Bellmer on his role in the Academy Award nominated film LINCOLN

Tenor, John Bellemer, performing in this Sunday's Signature Series presentation Genesis: Explorations on James MacMillan's Clemency, is currently featured in the film Lincoln, nominated for 12 Academy Awards. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Lincoln and focuses on the president’s tumultuous final months in office. True to life, the film depicts a scene in which President Lincoln attends a performance of Faust, composed by Charles Gounod to a French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré.

BLO spoke with Mr. Bellemer about the experience, meeting Steven Spielberg, what he’s most looking forward to singing next...

BLO: Tell us a little bit about your role in Lincoln. How is opera incorporated into the film?

John Bellemer (JB): I play the part of Faust in a scene where the Lincolns go to the opera. In the film, they show the Faust love scene between Faust and Marguerite [played by Mary Dunleavy]. This scene is historical; Lincoln went to see the opera with his family within the last couple weeks of his life.

BLO: Lincoln has been nominated for 12 Oscars; it must be quite a thrill to be a part of the project. As an opera singer did you ever expect to have a performance opportunity in film like this?

JB: No, and as a matter of fact, I would watch movies like Moonstruck and other films where singers are onscreen, and I always thought ‘How do you become that person?’.

BLO: How did you become that person? Was there an audition process?

JB: There were actually no formal auditions. It was absolutely random, I never dreamed that this would be a part of my career. Someone from New York City Opera, who I’d actually worked with before, was put in charge of special projects for the film. I got a call from her after she had put up a Facebook posting asking people to identify who they thought was currently singing the most quintessential Faust. She said, “You’d be surprised how many people came back to me with your name. I want to propose you to the producers of this film being shot in Virginia.” At the time, the film was under the working title ‘Office Seekers’. I thought it was going to be some kind of student project, and thought, “This is exciting, what other opportunity will I have to be in film?” Then, as I learned about the film, that it was based off of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, directed by Steven Spielberg, I was absolutely floored. I went down to Virginia for my first costume fitting – the period clothes, and facial hair - it was really amazing!

BLO: Did you have the opportunity to receive one-on-one direction from Steven Spielberg? What was his directing process like?

JB: We did meet; he introduced himself. He was very nice, and told me he’d seen some clips of my work online. By the end of the conversation he threw in, “By the way, I’m Steve.” You know, sometimes they direct these kinds of scenes separately, doing one day with those of us performing onstage in the scene, and the audience, in this case the Lincoln family in the Presidential box, on another. Spielberg directed the whole scene as one. The opera was directed by a stage director, and we spent a couple days in blocking rehearsal. On the day of filming we did between 20 and 25 takes, and Spielberg directed all of them. We filmed in a theatre in Richmond, Virginia, and he directed from the presidential box with the actors. It was amazing how close and intimate everything was in the theatre in Richmond. Most of his work was done with actors in the box, but he called all the shots for the whole scene.

BLO: Compared to the rehearsal schedule of a live production, over 20 takes in a row must have been exhausting.

JB: Not as exhausting as one would imagine. The whole scene is only a minute and a half long - it starts with the tenor line. Doing things over and over again, the biggest concern was that the continuity had to be right. We did the scene fully each time, my wife was in theatre at the time, and she was able to overhear some of pauses taken by the actors in the presidential box to work some of the lines and emotional moments.

BLO: Describe your favorite moment during filming?

JB: My favorite moment was the first time we fully performed the opera scene in front of the cast and crew on set. They all watched, and Mary Dunleavy and I, neither of us experienced in film, performed. When we finished, the room erupted in applause, led by Steven Spielberg and the actors. It was very exciting.

BLO: What was the experience like to see yourself on the big screen?

JB: I’m actually going to see it for a second time, because I have no idea what happens in the film after my scene. It was a very surreal experience. I could not tell you what take the sound is actually from. While we were filming, both of us wore an ear bud that played a recording of the music conducted by John Williams. Over the course of the different shots, sometimes the music would only come through the ear bud, so it was as if we were singing a capella. In others they played the music over large speakers and we had to lip sync while quieter dialogue was being filmed in the presidential box, sometimes it was a combination of both. You don’t actually see them in the film, but there was a full orchestra in the theatre. The orchestra pit was full of players in period costume – actual instrumentalists – who were miming playing their instruments the whole time. There was a conductor – the best conductor for a film situation that I’ve ever seen - he really knew what he was doing.

BLO: You’ll be performing with BLO at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in this Sunday’s Signature Series, Genesis, explorations on BLO’s upcoming Opera Annex Production, James MacMillan’s Clemency. What piece of music are you most looking forward to performing in this program?

JB: I love the Abraham and Isaac piece. It is one of the most beautiful, beautiful pieces of chamber music for the tenor voice. Handel’s Samson aria is such a treat for tenors as well, but if I have choose a favorite, I would choose Britten’s Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac.

John Bellemer can be heard this Sunday, January 13 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in Genesis: Explorations on James MacMillan’s Clemency, BLO’s Opera Annex Production. Mr. Bellemer has previously performed with BLO in Carmen on the Common and in the 2012 Opera Annex Production of Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse, staged at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Dr. von Lyric whats you to know about The Nicholas Brothers!

"Continuing our New Year's celebration of dance I'd like to show off - to those of you who don't know them - the uniquely exuberant and superbly athletic Nicholas Brothers. Check out their website: and enjoy the following clips. Fred Astaire famously called the sequence from Stormy Weather "the greatest dance film ever made" - Dr. von Lyric

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What do Rita Hayworth and the Bible have in common? Dr. von Lyric shares!

" I was chatting with my friend and colleague over at BLO, John Conklin, and he was telling me about a program they're doing at in the MFA/BLO Signature Series on January 13. Based on the upcoming production of CLEMENCY (which deals with the dramatic Bible story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar) he's put together striking operatic excerpts from Biblical sources (Samson and Delilah, Adam and Eve, Moses, etc) and of course Salome. That set me thinking - and perusing YouTube - and here are some scenes to dance your way into the New Year (veils optional)

From Alla Nazimova's 1923 silent film (with some truly outre sets and costumes derived from Aubrey Beardsley's drawings)

A flamenco version from Carlos Saura"s Salome 2002

Pasolini's 1964 THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST MATTHEW is a biblical "epic" like no other - rough, naturalistic, bold, compelling. His Salome is truly just a child and the dance before Herod is quietly haunting

A modern version (pant suit and all) from the Met's recent production. On stage, Karita Mattila apparently bared all at the end (with much attendant publicity ) ...but, reportedly, very, very very briefly. Do you think this approach works?

And then there's always Rita Hayworth. In this 1953 film Salome is dancing to SAVE the life of John the Baptist (don't ask) You'll see Judith Anderson as Herodias and ever decadent Charles Laughton as Herod leering from the side lines, Music definitely not by Strauss

OK....that Salome was a little silly but Rita Hayworth was one of the most beautiful of the Hollywood stars - and a wonderful dancer. She performed often with Fred Astaire who called her his favorite partner. So to really get the New Year off to a rousing start here they are together - elegant and charming as always. Enjoy and have a great 2013 - we'll continue our video tours of the great, the weird, the mysterious and the unexpected in the New Year! - Dr. von Lyric