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Blog entries posted during January 2012

The Festival Play of Daniel Through the eyes of Community Ensemble Participant, Rachel Staples

Community Ensemble Member Rachel Staples rehearsing for The Festival Play of Daniel

When you are a budding performing artist, the small perks are big perks!  Even though I live in the valley, it is totally worth the drive to downtown to rehearse at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.  Something about being there inspires me, gives me hope, and encourages me on my performing artist journey.  Having my name on the comp list for parking at the Music Center downtown is always so thrilling, even though that may seem silly.  I feel really special driving in and putting my initials next to my name so I can park, as an artist, for free.  This is a small personal joy that embellishes my heart and makes me feel truly appreciated.  As we all piled into Rehearsal Room 4 for our first official rehearsal of The Festival Play of Daniel, I felt an exciting thrill. There were faces from last year’s opera, new faces I had never seen before, as well as faces of alumni from the performing arts college I work for.  This was very awesome to see.  I am very impressed by the young dancers, actor and singers.  The community ensemble is filled with all levels of talent, age, and experience.  It is an honor to be among such a group.

I must admit, one of the most exciting parts about the first rehearsal was hearing the main stage opera chorus rehearsing.  As we were going over the beginning announcements, we kept hearing impeccable voices echoing through the floors of the Dorothy Chandler.  Hearing these astonishing voices was especially enthralling to me as a young performing artist.  I love opera!  I love the powerhouse of sound!  Hearing the main stage chorus rehearsing was like getting a fast-blast-backstage-pass.  It was the icing on the cake for our first rehearsal.  Everyone in the room responded to these sounds.  Everyone smiled as their voices ticked our eardrums.

Listening to the Director of the LA Opera Education Programs, Stacy Brightman, speak about the integrity of the show and the expectations all of the performers was a confirmation of why I love being an opera singer – because I get to work with some of the most amazingly accomplished professionals in the performing arts industry.  Stacy sure knows her stuff and I love hearing her speak!  She has a remarkable poise that could get anyone in the world excited about opera.

Eli Villanueva directing Rachel and the cast of The Festival Play of Daniel

When we began to work with Eli Villanueva, the Stage Director, my passion for opera was once again strengthened and renewed.  Eli has a way of articulating direction that ignites the fire inside each person in his cast.  Eli speaks in ways that everyone (even the smallest of roles) feels appreciated, included, and important.  We all learn from his exemplified professional demeanor, and it is such an honor to be a part of his cast.  I am always on the edge of my seat to hear each resonant word he speaks.

I cannot wait until the next rehearsal, and I most especially cannot wait to be a part of the experience of the final community product – The Play of Daniel!

Boots By any other color

Since I started working in costumes over 10 years ago I have had a hard time accepting things for what they are. I have closets of clothing, shoes, and accessories that are the “wrong” size, “wrong” color, and “wrong “ shape and style. That is nothing though compared to the “other side”…when you cross the dark divide of my closet area into the land of desperation. A land inhabited by clothes that have lived a hard life and show it. This is where I store away items requiring a little more love, serious repair, and encouraging words. I refuse to give up on any of them. It’s not hoarding, at least not in my eyes.

Every now and then there is a beautiful, joyous moment when a situation calls for one of the items that I’ve been clinging to, and I get to declare that this not a disorder or something that my friends should worry themselves about, but rather, this quirky attribute is actually an asset. This moment occurs a lot more in the costume shop where we have ample storage space, but in both situations, it is a satisfying feeling.

In the upcoming “Simon Boccanegra,” the designer’s vision called for red boots, (Cordovan to be exact), for the character “Pietro.” Of course they are a specific type of period boot, and they needed to be a men’s boots, no less, in a certain size. Lucky for us we found the exact boot we needed in our stock…but they were white.

That is where Sondra in our crafts department stepped in. She began by removing all existing finishes already on the boot, and then she re-painted the boots with an acrylic based leather paint that she had to mix herself.

After letting the boot dry, she had to dull down the shine, and go back in and add depth.

Throughout the process Sondra had to check the color of the boots under stage lights that we have set up in one of the fitting rooms.  Our shop is lit with fluorescent lighting which adds different tones and makes colors read differently than the warm stage lighting does. The whole process only took an expert like her 45 minutes.

On a side note, Sondra says she first thought of doing crafts when she was just a little kid dying Easter eggs.  Now her daily routine involves dying, painting, making hats, accessories, and anything else that may come her way, and believe me, a lot does.  I am hoping that she will pay a visit to my closet of misfit rags next.

Simon Boccanegra opens February 11.

Estas Botas Son Para Cantar (These Boots Were Made For Singing)

El proseso de capturar el color exacto del diseño en nuestro taller de vestuarios.  Con el internet en las manos y poco tiempo y poco dinero, a veces no podemos encontrar las cosas que deseamos.. El diseño requiere botas rojas pero no cualquier rojo, un rojo que captura  el color de  SANGRE ..  ademas  las botas  necesitan capturar la epoca cuando los hombres usaban mallas… si mallas… Con suerte encontramos las botas en nuestro propio taller, pero las encontramos en color crema…..no rojas!

Con la ayuda de Sondra Veldey (la asistente artesana ) capturamos los deseos del diseño..  2 tipos de rojo, una gota de café se convierte en sangre o el color Cordovan.   Le pregunto a Sondra cuanto tiempo le tomo el proseso de cambiar el color.  Sondra me dice 45 minutos, pero antes de aplicar el color, las botas necesitan un proceso.

Primero hay que remover cualquier residuo y luego aplicar una crema de cuero para limpiar las manchas.  Finalmente  logramos el color sangre…o Cordovan.

Digo, Sondra nos salvo de uno de nuestros diarios dilemas que suceden a menudo en el taller… No se lo pierdan!  Las botas color sangre y la production Simon Boccanegra, que se entrena febrebro 11..

Nos vemos en el teatro..

The Magic Dream, Day 6 – In Which Katherine Finds her Funny

The Magic Dream, Day 6 from LA Opera on Vimeo.

I found my funny.

I didn’t know I was looking for it, but this show has certainly brought it out in me.

I had always been sort of serious growing up. Not that I didn’t have fun, but I was always a thinker, future-focused. When I went to theater school and received comment cards from my professors that read, “Katherine is a committed performer, but she seems serious in class,” I got so angry! “I’m just paying attention,” I would cry silently to myself.

Then I got into opera, into roles like Pamina, Violetta, and I got to suffer. I love to suffer onstage! I told myself that I was okay at comedy, and great at suffering.

I suffered happily for many years, until I was hired to play Gina in The Magic Dream, here at LA Opera. Gina is essentially a mash-up of three different characters in Mozart’s The Magic Flute: Papagena, First Lady, and First Spirit. That means she serves to forward the plot, deliver information, and act as comic relief.

In our version of the story, she’s really a magician, and since it takes place inside a dream, anything goes. Perhaps it’s knowing that these performances are meant to be for children, but I’ve felt such a tremendous freedom in exploring this character in all of her aspects, especially her voice and her physicality.

Most performers tend to have a “way in” to their character. Some create whole biographies for their characters, some need to find a quality they already possess in common with the character, and some don’t feel at home until they get into costume and make up. For me, it’s usually a mixture of all of the above, but something magical happened in the middle of our dress rehearsal when Eli, our director, walked onto stage in the middle of our kooky nightmare-gameshow scene and handed me a pair of diamond-encrusted, 1960s cat-eye glasses, à la Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire. Suddenly, I knew exactly who this crazy girl was, and my body naturally adopted her mannerisms: her extreme awkwardness with her limbs and her habit of pushing her glasses back up on her face when she’s excited.

I know my performance is waaaaay over the top, but I think children naturally have a highly developed sense of the absurd. No matter how big I get though, I always try to mean it, which is what I think makes it funny for the adults in the room.

I remember something else from theater school: comedic characters never think they’re funny. To them, everything is life-or-death.

As you can see in the photo below, I just wish people would take me more seriously.

The Magic Dream, Day 5 – On Stage

I have a confession to make: I snuck onto the main stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion.

Ok, well, I didn’t exactly sneak, I more ambled up the staircase on stage right, and poked my head around the corner to see if the stage was in use. It was empty, and the house lights were up, affording me a gaping view of the four-tiered hall.

Apparently the second most common fear, after death, is public speaking. That’s right, death, and public speaking. For a performer who’s used to getting up in front of people, this can seem a little strange. But looking out into the dazzling ruby hall of the Chandler that afternoon, I was awestruck. I was tempted to try my voice out in the hall, but that seemed a little too much like a scene out of Fame, so instead I let the silence seep into me.

Can you imagine the thrill and the profound responsibility that comes with being on a stage like that? The strange thing is, it’s usually scarier for a singer to perform in front of an intimate gathering than a darkened grand hall. When we step in front of an audience, we are gifted with the chance to be a conduit of divine transcendence. I don’t mean in a religious sense, but as a via of pure, sublime beauty. Or tragedy; or even humor. Every time I perform, it is my fervent wish that at least one person in the room walks out having lived, even for a moment, something outside of their regular experience.

I know our little show isn’t necessarily grand; it’s a retelling of Mozart’s The Magic Flute designed to introduce children to opera. But it isn’t lost on me that one of those children might walk away with what could be the defining memory of the moment they fell in love with music. I know I’ve walked away from certain performances (or films or ballets or photography exhibitions) thinking, “I’ll never forget that.” I hope to do the same for someone else.

I will never forget standing on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler.

The Magic Dream – Day 4

The Magic Dream – Day 4 from LA Opera on Vimeo.


Question: How many tenors does it take to change a lightbulb?
Answer: One. He holds the lightbulb and the world revolves around him.


Opera singers are often plagued with stereotypes, even within our profession. One could easily substitute “soprano” in the joke above (apparently mezzo-sopranos are less prone to ego trips).


Scarves, Zicam, and water-with-no-ice aside, I wish for a moment to stand up for my fellow singers and address the most pernicious and cruel stereotype of all: singers are terrible musicians.


I suspect this assertion often comes from conductors, pianists, or instrumentalists frustrated with singers’ frequent musical sloppiness. We drop beats, we mistake accidentals, we ignore cutoffs. Don’t ask us to honor or care about the harmonic context within which we are singing. We don’t care. In fact, all we really care about is “how do I sound?”


Are we singers often guilty of this behavior? Sure. Is there any excuse for being a sloppy or careless musician? Absolutely not.


But if I could put this into perspective for a moment: singers are operating on a different paradigm than that of many other musicians. Instrumentalists are specialists; singers are synthesists. Singers are multi-taskers. We have to deal with music, words (usually in a foreign language), stage business, acting and reacting to our fellow singers, creating a believable character, and watching the conductor. And we have to do it all from memory.


Now, I’m not trying to belittle the work of the instrumentalist. On the contrary, I think we singers could take a cue from their attention to detail and the awe-inspiring commitment to hours upon hours of tireless practice, next to which most opera singers look downright lazy.


But it’s also important to remember that, while most instrumentalists have been working their craft since they were children, most singers can’t begin real operatic training until they’re about eighteen. That means that when a thirty year-old singer performs with a thirty year-old pianist, the pianist probably has about ten years more of expertise under their belt. When a singer drops a beat or seems obsessed with their own voice, it’s probably because so much of their attention is still absorbed by just trying to make their voice work.


Operatic singing is really hard. It takes most people about ten years before they can know with some certainty that the music that’s in their heads will come out of their mouths. Most singers I know have masters degrees, meaning they have committed at least six years of full time work on singing, language and diction, repertoire, stage craft, art song, theory, pedagogy, and rehearsal.


Singers, to sing well, can’t be stupid. And, like any art form, the closer you get to the best singers in the world, the less likely you are to find sloppiness or carelessness of any kind.


To make my point in a more lighthearted way, in the video above I put a camera on my head during rehearsal and noted how many separate events of stage business I had to accomplish in about 45 seconds of music. From memory. The count: 16. That’s an average of one move, which has to be synced to the music (meaning we have to listen and count!), every 3.5 seconds.


I hope that by bringing non-singers inside our experience, even just this little bit, we can, through understanding, begin to dispel this stereotype. I also, just as fervently, encourage every singer out there to go out and take some lessons in an instrument besides the piano.


In the end, singers and instrumentalists alike could be well-served by absorbing the best traits of the other.

The Magic Dream – Day 2


The Magic Dream, Day 2 – Meet the Cast from LA Opera on Vimeo.

I know opera has a reputation for being “heavy,” “long,” “serious,” and – dare I say it? – BORING.
I have to say though, that in the seven years that I have been part of this strange musical world, I have never met such a crew of boisterous, good-natured, good-humored, creative, silly, and passionate people. Maybe it’s because everything about this art form is so, well, BIG: big sets, big costumes, big voices. I guess it takes some pretty big personalities, too.
Our little opera, The Magic Dream, is pretty silly, as you will see. I was going to write a little introduction of our cast and creative team, but I think, in this case, video speaks a thousand words.

The Magic Dream, Day One – Rehearsal

The Magic Dream – Rehearsal Day 1 from LA Opera on Vimeo.

The Magic Dream
Day 1

There’s really nothing cooler than bypassing the towering glass facade of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, curving around towards the underbelly of the Music Center, and turning into the unassuming doors that are the artists’ entrance of LA Opera.

This is the big time.

In the room next door, Maestro Conlon is conducting the first sing-through of the upcoming Recovered Voices project. You get the sense of being part of something really big, really exciting.

And then the fist sing-through starts, and you finally get to hear what were, until now, imagined voices in your head. You’re part of a team with a common cause – the music!

Staging has already begun, and I can tell you now, this is a seriously talented – and seriously goofy – group of artists.

This is going to be fun.