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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.


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.


The Flying Dutchman: Technical Preparation

Numerous puzzle pieces of scenery for our new production of The Flying Dutchman are assembled to create one cohesive and spectacular vision. 

Flying Dutchman Technical Preparation

This is an early view from the auditorium looking through to the backstage. This bridge weighs nearly 5000 pounds and is an integral and dynamic element of the scenery. The bridge “flies” in and out on cue, controlled by a computerized chain motor console.

Flying Dutchman Technical Preparation

The deck is composed of hundreds of individual pieces of structural steel. When fully assembled with its mirrored surface, the deck becomes the playing area for dozens of cast members.  

Flying Dutchman Scenery Stage Lighting

The  scenery as designed is comprised of layers of vivid imagery  that only become apparent when completed with show lighting and effects. In this image, final preparations are made for the first onstage rehearsal.


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.


Behind The Scenes: Falstaff by a Nose

The LAO Wig Shop (or 'Ye Olde Wig Shoppe' the week Falstaff opens) is typically the hairiest of work environs at LAO…

Wig Shop

…but for this show some of their space is doubling as a special effects make-up shop for facial prosthetics.

Here, an epoxy casting of singer Rodell Rosel's face is matched-up with a corresponding casting of a sculpted fake shnoz. Known as the 'positive' and 'negative' molds, they'll be used to cast a silicone or rubber prosthesis to be worn on stage.

Falstaff Nose Mold

Multiple strikes of the gross lumpy nose are made and stored on plastic copies of the face so that they retain their shape as they await application.

Falstaff Nose

The 'flashing' of extra material around the nose will be cut away, then the piece will be painted to match the singer's skin tone.

Falstaff Nose

The prosthetic needs to be lightweight, not hindering the performers's ability to sing or emote facially. The casting, attaching and blending techniques are similar to what's done in movies and television in that the prosthetic pieces must be durable. But unlike television and film, there's no director yelling "cut," so make-up techs can't run in and fix things between takes. Nor is there any digital clean-up in post-production. 

Falstaff Nose

So, for singer Rodell Rosel as the lumpy-nosed Bardolph, a full-costume dress rehearsal also means full facial appliance, too. Wow, look at that thing…

Bardolph


Welcome to Jonah and the Whale

Our favorite high school blogger, Muse Lee, returns to LA Opera's blog to talk about her experience with our Community Opera Program.  This year we are presenting the world premiere production of Jonah and the Whale by Jack Perla and Velina Hasu Houston.

To me, LA Opera’s Community Opera program means many things. However, now that I’m returning to participate a second time, one memory stands out: the moment that we finally rehearsed in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Just standing in the Cathedral filled us with a sense of mystery, urgency, and wonder. The singing transformed from practiced mantras to spontaneous outbursts, and the movements sprang not from conscious decision, but from an inner compulsion.

Cathedral Opera

At the time, I didn’t quite realize the beauty of creating art in a holy place. However, entering my second year in the program, I’m starting to realize the true significance of the Community Opera program.

Community Opera is LA Opera’s annual project open to the entire community: children and adults, amateurs and professionals. After two months of rehearsal, participants join more than four hundred chorus and orchestra members at the Cathedral to perform an opera.

Orientation for Community Opera 2014 took place last Sunday. As I arrived in the room, I saw familiar faces everywhere. All my friends from last year’s program and Opera Camp were there, and they were just as excited as I was. We instantly began rehashing memories and belting out tunes from the operas we had done together. The moment our antics earned a fondly exasperated look from our director, Eli Villanueva, it was as if no time had passed at all.

Cathedral Opera

The Senior Director of Education and Community Engagement, Stacy Brightman, and our directors, Eli Villanueva and Leslie Stevens, gave us overviews of the program and led us through some of the choreography. We also learned about what we’d be performing: the world premiere of Jonah and the Whale. Jonah and the Whale is the story of a prophet fleeing from the Lord. As he escapes by sea, God sends a giant fish to swallow him. Inside the belly of the whale, Jonah learns the error of his ways and repents, placing all of his faith in God’s will. As the ensemble, we will play waves, sea creatures, sailors, and Ninevites in the story.

To sum up the program, Dr. Brightman stated, “Art belongs to everybody. Opera certainly belongs to everybody. And this opera house belongs to everybody.”

As we laughed, leapt, and danced for the next hour of orientation, I reflected back on my Cathedral experience and thought about Dr. Brightman’s words. I’m beginning to understand what she meant. Only now do I realize why in the Cathedral, everything fell so naturally into place. It’s because art itself is an act of faith. Art fills us and lifts us up. Art brings the community together, because though it may not have all the answers, it shows us that others have the same questions. And making artistic choices, devoting ourselves to art, and sharing it with the community are in themselves a leap of faith.


Coming Home to the Opera

Our favorite high school blogger, Muse Lee, returns to LA Opera's blog to talk about her experience with our Community Opera Program. This year we are presenting the world premiere production of Jonah and the Whale by Jack Perla and Velina Hasu Houston.

When you mention opera to your friends, chances are that they’ll picture gold-rimmed theater binoculars, fancy dresses, and singers trilling in foreign languages. Well, that is, unless they’ve participated in LA Opera’s Community Opera program.

3 Muskateers

Our First Rehearsal
This season's Community Opera kicked off on Sunday, January 26. People of all ages and ethnicities poured through the doors of East Los Angeles Performing Arts Academy (ELAPAA): amateurs and professionals, children and adults, opera veterans and curious newcomers, all coming together to put on the world premiere of Jonah and the Whale by Jack Perla and Velina Hasu Houston, to be performed in late March at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Stacy Brightman, LA Opera's Director of Education and Community Engagement, stepped up to deliver a welcome speech and to introduce the program to us. As she talked about how we’d be performing in the grand Cathedral, how we’d be joined by more than 400 chorus and orchestra members, and how we’d be led by Maestro James Conlon, I just sat there smiling uncontrollably. We’d be singing alongside our friends and alongside world-class musicians, and better yet, working with them to achieve the same goal: a spectacular work of art. Though it’s my second year participating, I still don’t think I’ve quite wrapped my head around it. I sure was glad to be back.

Laughing

We began the day with movement warm-up led by assistant directors Leslie Stevens and Heather Lipson-Bell. They led us through stretches and strengthening exercises to prepare us for the strenuous movement required for Jonah and the Whale. Even as my muscles were screaming, I couldn’t help but think about how much I had missed Heather’s enthusiasm and Leslie’s occasional slip into a Dracula voice.

Rehearsing Jonah

After the mini-workout, assistant conductor Paul Floyd and assistant director Nathan Rifenburg led us through some of our music. We sang through the hymn Faith Be Preserved. As I lifted my voice with everyone else’s and listened to the searching, resolute melody unfold, I made a note to myself to remember exactly how I was feeling: curious, stirred, moved. Since we’re performing the world premiere of this opera, when the audience hears this melody, this would be how they will feel, too. Everyone in the Cathedral will be hearing this music for the very first time, just as we are now.

The kids went with Nathan, and director Eli Villanueva ran a staging rehearsal with the rest of us. He emphasized the importance of moving as an ensemble, led not so much by the music but by the collective breath of the group. He guided us through several patterns of movement, or katas, which we would need to learn for Jonah and the Whale. Leslie joined him, and together, they led us through the katas with the corresponding music playing.

The Jonah Company

Our first Jonah and the Whale rehearsal ended with that. After a few closing announcements, we all headed home. Though we were a little exhausted, we all felt renewed and rejuvenated, and already in love with the opera.

A Visit from the Composer
Our next rehearsal took place on Super Bowl weekend, Saturday, February 1. Because of the big event, we had some traffic problems, but eventually, we were all gathered at ELAPAA. The day began with a big surprise. Dr. Brightman stepped up to give her opening announcements, and after she had welcomed us, she told us that we had an amazing opportunity that day. She explained, “When we’re doing La Bohème, we can’t say that Mr. Puccini is in the room.” However, we now got to say the equivalent, because Jonah and the Whale composer Jack Perla had come to visit.

Mr. Perla sat down to watch our rehearsal. Like last time, we began with movement warm-up, then transitioned into working on the hymn. We’re already making significant progress with the diction, the dynamics, and the intention behind the words. I hope Mr. Perla liked what he heard.

Jack Perla and Cast

Next, the kids went with Nathan for their rehearsal, and we went with Eli for ours. We reviewed our movements from last time, fine-tuned them, and practiced several times with the music. Then, Eli divided us into smaller groups: sailors, clouds, waves and parts of the whale. He worked with the whales and the waves to start choreographing the storm. With the whale and wave props there, I could already start to envision the whole show coming together.

At the end of the day, we received our Jonah and the Whale posters. I admit that I may have screamed a little when I spotted my Operalia favorites in the list of singers. Looking at the glossy poster and reading over the names of all the groups involved, it struck me again what a big deal this production will be. I felt more honored than ever to be a part of it.

Jonah Poster

With that, we broke for the day. After final announcements, they sent us on our way. As I lined up for sign-out and observed the diverse crowd around me, I tried to put a finger on it all. Indeed, opera really isn’t just about daggers and ball gowns and wine glasses. The Cathedral experience is impossible to describe, but this is how I’m feeling right now: more than anything, Community Opera is a lot like going home. 

Tickets are available beginning February 5 at 10am at www.laopera.org


Thais: Tech Behind-the-Scenes

If you look closely at the Eros statuettes in Act 2 of Thais you will notice that there are actually two different Eros statuettes. One beautiful shiny Eros sits on a pedestal in the gold room in Scene 1 and the other tarnished and worn-looking Eros (a breakaway prop) gets thrown to the ground in Scene 2.

The breakaway Eros arrived with the set. The gold room Eros is an interpretative sculpture inspired by Hypnos the god of sleep and created by our Resident Lead Scenic Artist Tony Reveles. The statuettes have different appearances to signify the passage of time and the distinctly different emotions and actions of the two scenes. 

Thais Eros sculpture LA Opera Tony Reveles

Using the original Eros statuette as a guide, Tony begins by researching images and then sculpting the head from modeling clay to get a feel for the figure’s dimensions. 

Thais Eros sculpture LA Opera Tony Reveles

Detail of the finished clay model

Thais Eros sculpture LA Opera Tony Reveles

In the next step Tony takes the dimensions from the clay sculpture and free-form draws the figure onto the foam block. 

Thais Eros sculpture LA Opera Tony Reveles

He carves away at the block carefully using precise dimensions from his primary sculpt. 

Thais Eros sculpture LA Opera Tony Reveles

Tony uses precision tools to further detail his final interpretation of the sculpture.  Note the original breakaway Eros head on the right.

Thais Eros sculpture LA Opera Tony Reveles

A coating of acrylic medium is added to seal the porous material prior to the application of the final surface treatment.

Thais Eros sculpture LA Opera Tony Reveles

The figure receives a scenic treatment of aged patina and gold leaf. This is the finished Eros sculpture in the gold room Act 2 Scene1.  


Live-Tweeting Dido & Aeneas/Bluebeard's Castle Final Dress rehearsal

During the final dress rehearsal for Dido & Aeneas/Bluebeard's Castle, we invited some of our favorite tweeters to join us to live tweet the opera. From newbies to seasoned opera fans, all agreed that director Barrie Kosky's innovative production breathed new life into these two operatic masterpieces. Click "view as slideshow" to see all of the evening's tweets and Instagrams and join the conversation using the hashtag #LAODidoBluebeard.