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Blog entries tagged with Benjamin Britten

Noah’s Flood Rehearsal = the pain, the agony, the achievement

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 are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.


Recently, I heard a comic comparing a music rehearsal to the ER. Both are supposed to help you get better, both make you cry, and both are filled with excruciating pain. During Noah’s Flood rehearsal on Sunday, we experienced all three of these things.

For this rehearsal, only the animals, raindrops, waves, rainbows, and the raven and dove were called. I’m one of the fourteen waves. Basically, what we do is maneuver long strips of blue fabric, with two people per strip. I had a similar job during Opera Camp, so I thought I was prepared for this. However, I soon realized that there are two crucial differences between The White Bird of Poston and Noah’s Flood waves. Firstly, this wave scene goes on for 7 minutes, and secondly, while the Poston waves represented the Colorado River, these waves are supposed to make up a worldwide flood.

Flood #1

To help us achieve the desired effect, assistant director, Heather Lipson-Bell patiently and energetically taught us a bunch of different wave movements. I don’t want to give it all away before the performance, but I’ll just say that it involved incessant arm-pumping, duck-walking, and squats. Twenty minutes in, my wavemate and I were already hot and red-faced. By the end, we were ready to drown along with God’s condemned. I think my muscles hate me right now. 

After our exhausting wave movement session, we listened to the music for the storm and flood scene. When I heard the glorious, crashing music, it suddenly hit me: I’m actually in a Benjamin Britten opera. I’ll be singing something written by Benjamin Britten. Both that thought and the beauty of the music gave me chills. My eyes watered. There’s nothing like opera to bring on the tears.

Following this, we were released, but I didn’t want to leave yet. I’d been hearing the kids singing their animal parts upstairs, and I really wanted to get a glimpse of their rehearsal. Halfway there, I heard a huge, enthusiastic voice that almost sounded amplified. Turns out it was assistant director, Nathan Rifenburg – who happens to have twice the energy of an average human being.

When I walked into the classroom, he was animatedly demonstrating monkey movements, bouncing around and bending down to pick imaginary bugs out of a kid’s hair. I was trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, but it was just too awesome not to giggle. The best part was that the kids weren’t laughing at all. They took it all so seriously. Whenever Nathan told them to stand up, they immediately sprang up like jack-in-the-boxes. And their ark entrance scene—wow. They were so focused, and even if I couldn’t immediately tell what animal they were, I saw that they believed in it, and so I did too. The rest of rehearsal was delightful: the best parts included an impromptu “Doe-A-Deer” and Nathan’s colorful description of well-supported singing as “throwing your guts on the table.”

Flood #3

The day ended on an exciting note: as we were leaving, we received Noah’s Flood posters. It includes the names of all participating choruses and orchestras. The fact that we’re on the same poster as James Conlon is way too awesome to handle. And I had no idea that Ronnita Nicole Miller will be Mrs. Noye. I started spazzing out. (download the poster here)

As for us ensemble members, though?  Improvement: check. Tears: check. Pain: double check. We know what that means: this production is on its way to becoming something incredible.


Noah's Flood Rehearsal: When the Opera Pixies Take Over

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 are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Tickets become available tomorrow, March 14 at 10am.
 

With five upcoming tests, an essay to write, and a lost hour of sleep, I really didn't want to go to Noah’s Flood rehearsal on Sunday. I’d spent the weekend studying, sneezing, and wallowing in self-pity. When I finally dragged myself out of the house, though, everything changed. The opera pixies took over: the moment I signed myself in, all the stress disappeared, and I was ready to sing.

NF - Floyd coaching

Assistant Conductor Paul Floyd leads the adults in a music rehearsal.

The day started with a change of scenery. Instead of practicing in the auditorium as usual, we switched places with the children and went into the upstairs classroom. There, we reviewed the opening scene with assistant director Heather. Before I could get totally wrapped up in it, though, a few of us were pulled out for costume fitting. The group of us went into a small room, and we were greeted by costume designer Paula Higgins. After taking our measurements, she gave us costumes to try on. I loved mine immediately—it really looked and felt like water. I was reluctant to take it off, but I knew I’d see it a lot in the coming weeks, so I put it back on the hanger and returned to rehearsal.

Heather Lipson Bell

Assistant Director Heather Lipson-Bell

When we got back, we practiced the choreography with the singing and moved onto the storm scene. We waves didn’t have to learn the movements, so we stood off to the side and observed. It was so cool to just watch the scene develop—it gave us an idea of how it'll look to the audience.

After trooping downstairs and refining the opening a little more, most of the ensemble took a break. Those of us working with props, though, stepped up to rehearse with Heather and director Eli. Eli distributed wave fabric to each pair and determined our positions and cues. Then, we went over our movements and practiced engulfing the doomed. My and my wave-mate’s “victim” is absolutely terrifying when she begins drowning. To me, it looked like something out of a horror movie. Eli’s take on it was much different: he told our drownee that she’s supposed to look like Han Solo frozen in carbonite. Whoever talks about opera and Star Wars in the same sentence is automatically my hero.

NF Adults Rehearsing 

Director Eli Villanueva leads the adults in a staging rehearsal.

With Eli’s instructions in mind, we put it all together, running through the whole storm scene with music. Since my wave-mate and I are standing at the front, we could watch the entire scene unfolding behind us. The effect is just astonishing. Enraptured as I was, I wouldn’t have minded staying longer, but time was up. Rehearsal ended with a few final announcements.

I signed myself out and walked through the door. As I left, I started remembering all that homework that lay in wait, and all that studying that had to be done. Somehow, though, it no longer looked so bad. I guess the opera pixies hadn’t abandoned me.


Tickets Available Now For Noah's Flood (Noye's Fludde)

Noah's Flood Key Art

LA Opera artists will collaborate with more than 300 members of the greater Los Angeles community for two performances of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood (Noye's Fludde) this spring at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Conducted by LA Opera Music Director James Conlon and presented as part of the Britten 100/LA celebration, the performances will take place at 7:30pm on Friday, April 19, and at 7:30pm on Saturday, April 20.

Thanks to generous longtime support from the Dan Murphy Foundation, LA Opera is able to produce Noah's Flood and offer it free of charge as a special gift to the community. Advance tickets are required for admission; there will be a $1 per order handling fee and a four-ticket limit per household. Tickets are available now and can be reserved online at www.laopera.org or by phone at 213.972.8001. But hurry, they won’t last long!

Noah's Flood is presented as part of Britten 100/LA: A Celebration, a series of events taking place to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). One of several Britten operas on Biblical subjects, Noah's Flood (Op. 59, 1958) is a colorful pageant where children play all the animal roles, parading two-by-two into the ark. Regarded as Britten’s most lovable work, the opera is based on one of the famous medieval Chester mystery plays, dating back to the 15th century.

Scored for a combination of both student orchestra musicians and a professional chamber ensemble, the opera features inspired and delightful musical innovations; for example, the raindrops are represented by the sound of a series of mugs of varying sizes slung on string and struck by wooden spoons.

Bass-baritone Yohan Yi will perform the role of Noah and mezzo-soprano Ronnita Nicole Miller will be Mrs. Noah. Mr. Yi and Ms. Miller are former members of LA Opera's Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program. Actor Jamieson K. Price will be heard as the Voice of God. The orchestra will include musicians from the LA Opera Orchestra performing alongside the Hamilton High School Academy of Music Orchestra and the Celebration Ringers of Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena. The performers will include teachers from LA Opera’s Opera for Educators program and students from LA Opera' annual Opera Camp, as well as the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels Choir, the Beverly Vista Middle School Choir, students from the East LA Performing Arts Academy, the Holy Family Filipino Chorale and Children’s Concert Chorus, the Mariachi Conservatory, Pueri Cantores San Gabriel Valley, the Sacred Heart School Choir and Schola Cantorum, and participants in LA Opera's Zarzuela Project.

The stage director will be Eli Villanueva. The scenic designer is Carolina Angulo and the costume designer is Paula Higgins. The lighting designer is Tantris Hernandez. The sound designer is Jon Gottlieb and the prop designer is Melissa Ficociello.

Noah's Flood is part of the LA Opera Off Grand initiative, dedicated to presenting a wide variety of artistic exploration throughout a broad geographical area.

This production made possible by a generous grant from the Dan Murphy Foundation.

Special production support also received from the Britten-Pears Foundation, the City of Los Angeles, Department of Cultural Affairs, and Mr. and Mrs. Joseph A. Saunders.


Noah's Flood: Taking The Leap

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.

Noah's Flood

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.

Noah's Flood

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.

Noah's Flood

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. 

Noah's Flood

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.”

Noah's Flood

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.

LA Opera

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.

Noah's Flood

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 Ellie
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.

Noah's Flood


Breaking the Sexual Codes in Billy Budd

Billy Budd

While Benjamin Britten is often credited with having revived British opera, he could equally be recognized for awakening opera to the mostly untapped dramatic possibilities within the subject of homosexuality. Because he came of age when such things were left unsaid, his hands were tied – constrained by law and social taboo. As a result, Britten’s insurrection was subtle, accomplished by writing in code. 

In a moment when gay civil rights are a subject of fervent national debate, LA Opera presents Billy Budd - a work populated by people with secret feelings: composed by a closeted gay man; with a libretto written by E.M. Forster, also a closeted gay man. Forster described the resulting tension in the opera as “love constricted, perverted, poisoned, but never the less flowing down its agonizing channel; a sexual discharge gone evil.”

Music Director James Conlon has written extensively on the use of code and its meaning in the works of Benjamin Britten. To learn more, read Maestro Conlon's essay in The Hudson Review

LA Opera's strikingly theatrical production of Billy Budd, conducted by James Conlon and directed by Francesca Zambello, opens February 22 for six performances only.