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#tbt: LA Opera Does Porgy and Bess

George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was the closing production of LA Opera’s inaugural season.  It was seen as a highly influential production, created for Houston Grand Opera in 1976, that made the case for the work as a true opera, rather than a Broadway musical, and restored Gershwin’s complete original score. Director Jack O’Brien described the experience of working on the opera as “opening a treasure never seen,” because of the artistic community that formed to create the show. It was a triumphant season finale, conducted by John DeMain, with a magnificent cast that included Donnie Ray Albert and Carmen Balthrop, alternating in the title roles with Mic Bell and Henrietta Davis.

In May 2007, another production of Porgy and Bess closed LA Opera’s 22nd season. This production featured Kevin Short and Alfred Walker alternating as Porgy and Morenike Fadayomi and Indira Mahajan alternating as Bess. Watch a clip of the performance here.

Mic Bell as Porgy in the 1987 production of Porgy and Bess



ARIA( 4 Scrabble points) - Italian- An aria is an operatic solo, accompanied by music. Similar to a monologue in a play or a solo in a musical, an aria is the truest expression of a characters desires and soul; it's an outpouring of emotion often occurring when a character is most vulnerable. Watch Plácido Domingo sing Canio's aria "Vesti La Guibba" from Ruggero Lenocavallo's Pagliacci 

Speaking of ARIA, have you heard of our ARIA Program for Young Professionals? Open to those ages 21 – 35, this package gives you access to four operas and exclusive after parties where you can do just that: express yourself! 

Check out the full collection of Word Wednesday terms here.

All Is Bustling On The Opera Front

Meredith Arwady and Arturo Chacón-Cruz rehearse a scene from Gianni Schicchi.

Weeks before opening night, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion bustles with preparations for the upcoming opera season. As summer draws to a close, props are unpacked and organized, costume fittings occur, large sets are unloaded, and rehearsals are in full swing for Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci. Members of the LA Opera community participate in the ebb and flow of a pre-season opera house, a delicate dance of rehearsals, collaboration, and copious amounts of coffee.

A rehearsal stage has been set up in a room upstairs. Lines of yellow tape designate where the stage set ups are located for different acts. Friday’s rehearsal contained props for Woody Allen’s production of Gianni Schicchi. The scene takes place in Buoso Donati’s bedroom, after he has just died, and family members search frantically for his will to verify a rumored question: Did Donati leave his fortune to a monastery?

In character, all the singers – including Arturo Chacón-Cruz, Meredith Arwady, and Greg Fedderly – tear apart the space with gusto. Papers are thrown every which way. Dresser drawers are removed. Even pasta is flung in the air, all while the deceased Donati lies in bed (at one point Stage Manager Lyla Forlani stands in as Donati). It’s a hysterical first 10 minutes of the opera that ends with the discovery of Donati’s will and the confirmation that he has, indeed, left everything to the monks. At this discovery, singers mourn the loss of Donati’s fortune in true operatic fashion, complete with loud crying and exaggerated movement.

Suddenly, stage director Kathleen Smith Belcher chimes in with some notes. Belcher tweaks the singers’ performance slightly, while other creatives and crew confer on the staging. Rehearsals at LA Opera are not just between singers and directors; several creatives and crew members also attend. Stage Manager Lyla Forlani is there with her assistant stage managers, as are Music Director James Conlon’s assistant, Ignazio Terrasi (who also works as the production’s Italian diction coach) and Props Master Alan Tate. Larger shows have even more people in attendance. For Pagliacci, there are more than 120 cast members on set at certain points.

Kathleen finishes her notes and the cast goes through the scene again. It is their final, off stage rehearsal, and the singers repeat the section until they feel comfortable – cue the pasta throwing!

The season may be a few weeks out, but the hustle to opening night has already begun. 

For tickets to Gianni Schicchi/Pagliacci click here.

Costume Shop of Wonders

“What a costume designer does is a cross between magic and camouflage.”
 –Edith Head

Today, LA Opera’s two-story costume shop in Downtown LA is filled with racks of costumes for the upcoming season. There are rows of colorful pieces for Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci right next to Grecian-inspired items for Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma and 19th-century sailors’ clothing for Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick. It’s a striking clash of styles and time periods. I’m at first overwhelmed by the sheer volume of costumes for these productions and how they do not even begin to encompass the company’s extensive inventory.  Yet, as a first time visitor, it’s also thrilling to be surrounded by creations that are a crucial part of creating the operatic characters seen on stage.

Associate Costume Director Missy West finds me amongst the costumes. She tours me around the second floor production and fitting room space, where her staff is hard at work resizing and refurbishing costumes for Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci. While most people see the designer as the forefront of any costume creations, a large staff oversees and executes the details of a designer’s vision. Missy explains this to me as we walk through the space. There are costume directors, wardrobe managers, cutters, craftsmen, drapers, tailors, seamsters, and sometimes multiple assistants working on a single production (or more).  The costume process begins months in advance of a revival or rented production being staged and years in advance of a production conceived and built from scratch.

Like fashion designers who play with a canvas of a model muse and an overall thematic vision, costume designers and their staff work to reflect a singer’s individual essence within the framework of a specific production’s aesthetic.

How is Ana María Martínez’s unique spin on the role of Nedda reflected in her costumes? I speak with Costume Production Supervisor Jeannique Prospere, who oversees Pagliacci and works directly with Costume Designer Raimonda Gaetani. She tells me that Nedda’s day dress is being reworked to reflect singer Martínez’s personality and take on the role.

After chatting with Jeannique, it occurs to me that working on the delicate balance between physicality and personal charisma might be the costume department’s greatest and most underappreciated talent. It’s truly inspiring to witness how they can so define a character and singer.

After being lost in the costume shop for hours, I say my goodbyes to Missy West and spend a few more moments wandering through the racks of costumes not currently in use. There are miles and miles of shoes and boots, vintage hats, and yet to be used rolls of fabric.  I feel as if I have entered an antique clothing store, in the hopes of leaving the store as someone entirely new. Costumes have a particularly transformative magic unlike any other aspect of production, and it is spectacular to witness both behind-the-scenes and onstage.

It's A Props World After All

From cars to animals, props are part of a production’s core. Whether they have been sourced for a new production or arrive as part of a production that’s rented from another opera company, props all have stories behind them. Working with props involves researching about new worlds and eras to help tell the story. This can often lead a props coordinator or production assistant on a scavenger hunt through several antique shops, online auctions, or even to the nearest seaport.

Placido Domingo as Pablo Neruda and Cristina Gallardo-Domas as Matilde Neruda in 2010's Il Postino

The discovery of new props can often be the most thrilling part of the whole experience. For LA Opera Prop Coordinator Lisa Coto, this was certainly the case with the 2010 world premiere of the new opera, Il Postino. “It wasn’t a set that had a ton of props in it, but what was there had to really tell a story. A lot of heart went into that show,” says Coto.

Coto has worked as the company’s props coordinator for the past five years; Il Postino was her first show. She recalls visiting Talley Ho Marine Salvage & Décor in San Pedro, CA, and purchasing a used boat directly from owner Allen Johnson who is also an experienced fisherman. He was so knowledgeable and enthused by the production that the company invited him in to teach the cast and crew about different netting techniques. A video recording of his hands mending nets is featured in the show projections for the final production. For Coto, Allen Johnson is now not only a valuable resource but a personal friend.

Walking around the stage is a reminder that not all props are newly purchased. Props for the upcoming double bill of Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci are being unpacked and inspected. Shows such as these that have been built and propped several years ago are finally seeing the light of day from being in storage. In some cases, shows are rented and travel around the world to different opera companies where sometimes the props must be updated or repaired. It is always exciting to see what we find when a show is unpacked for the first time. In addition, props yet to be assigned to a particular show are held in storage rooms, where various brick-a-brac line walls of shelves. It’s just as easy to find a 19th century sword as it is to find a large plastic ravioli (one of Coto’s favorite stock props).

LA Opera has a plethora of “stock props” and it is a part of Coto’s  job to maintain the valuable antiques that are increasingly hard to come by. One of Coto’s other favorite stock props – it sits in her office - is an as-yet-unassigned 1928 portable Brunswick phonograph record player that has been refurbished to play music once again with a simple hand crank. She encourages people to stop by and play a fox trot from an original 1908 10-inch record if you have the time.

1928 portable Brunswick phonograph record player

From a single peak behind the curtain, it is clear how vast and intricate the world of props is. Props for various shows serve a multitude of different design aesthetics, even though they may technically be the same type of item. Today - the stage was lined with bikes from both Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci. The untrained eye cannot always tell the show bicycles apart, but there are some that fit that darker, less modern aesthetic version of Schicchi, while others are straight out of the 1990’s inspired Pagliacci. This is very much the challenge of those who work in the field of props. How can a world be created through props that is seamless, where singers transform into operatic characters and stories unfold over hours on stage? It’s a challenge that those at LA Opera live up to year after year, whether through sourcing new props or searching through an assortment of existing props waiting to see their day on stage.