Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood. Performances were this past weekend, April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. This is her final post in the series.
Tuesday and Wednesday
I’ve been saying the word “almost” a lot: we’re “almost” there, it’s “almost” coming together, etc. During Noah’s Flood rehearsal on Tuesday and Wednesday last week, we finally abandoned “almost” and took that leap.
On Tuesday, we rehearsed the performance with the community choirs and orchestras for the first time at the Cathedral. Both elements added incredible majesty, grandeur, and energy. Still, the performance remained at the “almost” stage.
However, on Wednesday we added four main things: costumes, lights, the LA Opera Orchestra members, and most exciting of all, Maestro James Conlon. And one that day, two things happened that completely changed the game.
The first of these things came in the form of a surprise visitor: a bespectacled man with a close-trimmed beard. Blinking, I whispered to Noah (Yohan Yi), “Is that Christopher Koelsch?!” It really was. That’s when I really sank in that we were part of something so significant that it called for a visit by LA Opera’s President and CEO. My determination hardened. I would do all I could to help make it a great performance.
For me, that set the tone for the whole day. When the time came for rehearsal to start, we went to the halls flanking the sanctuary to review notes and warm up. As we did, we heard a murmur and applause from inside. Maestro Conlon had arrived.
I knew that the second I ran out into the sanctuary for my opening position, I would see him up there on the podium. My nervousness escalated, and the beatings of my heart hurtled to a peak. The thundering opening chords sounded. My running partner and I exchanged a glance; it was our cue.
At that moment, the second amazing thing happened. The moment I took off sprinting, my nervousness immediately converted itself to fear and anger. I ran down the aisle, bursting with desperation, searching everywhere for answers. When I skidded to a halt, it wasn’t me anymore, but at last, my character. For the first time, I carried my voice to the breaking point, singing on the edge of danger.
Throughout the program, director Eli Villanueva, assistant conductor Paul Floyd, and assistant director Heather Lipson-Bell have been urging us to realize our intention. Up until that point, it had been make believe. Now, one by one, we were all finding our own meaning in the words and actions.
We bumped through the rest of the opera, costume changes and Maestro Conlon and all. By the end of rehearsal, the only element left to add was an audience, which would come in during Thursday’s final dress rehearsal.
On the first day of tech week, Monday, I don’t think any of us could honestly say we were prepared to perform. By the time we hit Wednesday, we crossed the boundary between “almost” and “finally.” Thursday, Friday, Saturday, here we come. We couldn’t feel any more ready.
Thursday, Friday, and Saturday
At this point, I began reflecting on all parts of my Noah’s Flood experience—the beautiful music, the friendships made with the ensemble members and principals, the number of times we imitated Jamieson Price (Voice of God)—and I keenly felt the fact that it would all be over soon. I knew that it wouldn’t end without a bang: the last three days would be a stunning finale.
The first of these three days, Thursday, was our final dress rehearsal. For the first time, we had a handful of people in the audience. It went smoothly, and the audience loved the performance.
We still hadn’t endured the greatest test, though. On Friday, all of our emotions were at a peak. The stress from tech week had now accumulated, and it now aggravated by opening night nerves. It didn’t help that we were told that two thousand people were coming.
Downstairs, assistant director Heather Lipson-Bell led us through our warm-ups and review. Halfway through, Eli came in. He stood up on the platform and began to speak to us. “On Monday,” he admitted, “I was concerned.” He went on to tell us how we had then invested all that we had into the performance, and how it had now evolved into something truly beautiful. He concluded by saying, “Let your bodies and souls reach the heavens, and just do what you know to do.”
With his words in mind, we went upstairs to the sanctuary and got into our places. When we saw all the pews swelling with people, our hearts fluttered again. “This is what two thousand people looks like…” someone whispered. Eli’s words, though, repeated in our minds: “Let your bodies and souls reach the heavens. Just do what you know to do.”
And that’s exactly what we did.
Hearing the applause of thousands of people is a frightening, cathartic, overwhelming moment. We glanced around at each other, smiling uncontrollably. We had done it, and we felt fully confident to do it again on Saturday.
Saturday’s routine was the same as Friday’s: we brought our quick-change costumes upstairs, and then went back downstairs to warm up, review, and receive our final pep talk. Eli expressed how proud he was of us, and thanked us for giving our all. For the final time, we went to our opening positions.
Knowing that it would be my last time singing each number, I poured more than I ever had before into the performance. I tapped into my desperation during “Lord Jesus, think on me,” and let loose my fury in the storm scene. At last, we reached the finale. As we sang the soaring, wondrous melody of “What though in solemn silence all,” with the choirs and orchestra triumphantly accompanying us, I gazed out into the audience, and my throat constricted. When I sang the last “Amen” and slowly retreated offstage with the rest of the cast, there was no stopping it anymore. I sank down in the choir pews and wept into my sleeve.
The lights went back on, and audience swept us up in warm, rushing applause. We bowed and waved, still in disbelief. Then, when the audience began to disperse, I met up with my wave-mate. We went downstairs to hang up our costumes for the last time.
Muse and her "wave-mate" Ellie after the performance
There were still tears in my eyes as we went down the stairs and said goodbye to all the staff and ensemble members. That night, before and after, there were many incredible moments, but I think it’s best to end by relating a single incident.
Over the course of the program, I had become friends with a young man with an intellectual disability. He was always cheerful and bubbly, and whenever he saw anyone, he would break into a huge smile. That night, as I spoke with my wave-mate through tears, he walked in and noticed me. For a moment, he watched uncertainly. Then, he stepped forward and tightly wrapped his arms around me for a long embrace. When he finally pulled away, I looked up. To my surprise, there were now tears gathered in his eyes as well. Struggling not to cry, he hugged me and my wave-mate one more time, and shakily said goodbye. “Next year,” I managed to reply. He nodded, bravely smiled, and then slowly walked away.
I’ve covered this Community Opera program over nine blog posts. However, I think describing this one moment makes all of them unnecessary.