Thursday, July 06, 2006
Learning a New Work
Jill Gardner: member of the Young American Artist Program (Mme. Loiseau)
As a singer, working on a world premiere is very exciting. Anytime you open up a score, even if you’ve sung it four or five times, you want to be looking at it from a fresh perspective. With a brand new work there is no history. You are helping to create it. What that gives you, more than anything, is a deep respect for the music. All you have is that music; you have no memories of seeing it on the stage or hearing it on recording. Everything that you have is there on that page, which makes learning the role a much more detail-oriented process than when you’re rediscovering a familiar work. These details are used not only to learn the notes and rhythms, but to better understand who your character is.
We received the score in sections starting around January of 2006. Sometimes you would get a part of the score which had a lot of music for your character, and other times not. The final part of the score was given to us when we arrived here this summer. Mr. Hartke arrived after we had gone through the music a few times with Stewart Robertson, the conductor. What is fabulous is that Mr. Hartke will be here for the duration of the summer, both for rehearsals and performances. He is very generous and wonderful to work worth. His excitement is palpable in rehearsals, which brings a great energy to the singers as we work through the piece. There’s also a very reassuring confidence that I feel from him about the music that he’s written.
I think at this point we’re all finally beginning to get into his sound world. He has an incredible sense of rhythm. It is very clear that he is writing very specifically to the text. The music seems so in tune with the story we’re trying to tell. Mr. Hartke creates these wonderful moods and atmospheres that give you a lot of insight into the characters. Two days into staging rehearsals, I’m really pleased about where we are.
1. from left to right: David Schweizer (director), Jill Gardner (Mme. Loiseau), and John David Dehaan (M. Loiseau) in staging rehearsals.
Promoting a World Premiere
Don Marrazzo: Director of Public Relations
One large difference between promoting a new piece as opposed to a standard one is that there is an obvious hook that you can use. You push the fact that your company is producing a world premiere. This guarantees a certain amount of coverage. It also gives us some obvious target areas in terms of marketing. The Hanson Institute from Eastman, for example, provided a large amount of the funds for the commission, so that gave us a very easy way to promote the work in the Rochester area. Working with a new piece, however, means that there will be many unexpected changes along the way. If, for example, you push in a specific area of the country because one of the singers is from there and then that casting suddenly changes, you have to be prepared to adjust your strategy.
The work itself is changing as well. I have to be sensitive to the fact that the composer or director may not feel comfortable giving interviews until they have finished a certain amount of their work. The press will often ask very specific questions about how the work is shaping up, what the second act is like musically, and so on. In the earlier stages of the piece Stephen said that he didn’t want to speak with much of the press. As the public relations director I have to strike a balance between pushing the work soon enough, and making sure that the composer is at a place in his process where he feels he can speak about the work publicly. Promoting a work of Stephen’s has been a great experience. He’s been wonderful to work with and has been open to the various ideas we’ve had in terms of how to pitch this opera to different radio stations and papers.
1. Don Marrazzo
Caroline Worra: soprano (Boule de Suif)
Right now we’re in my favorite part of the rehearsal process. We’ve taken the first few days to work through the music and make sure we’ve really got it. It’s so important to have that confidence so that we can bring it with us into the first staging rehearsals. I love working with David Schweizer’s style of direction. He likes to get us up and into the work as soon as possible. A week into the process, we had the entire show staged. For a piece this difficult, it’s great to know we’ve gotten already through it and are now beginning to fine tune. We’ve gotten that first layer taken care of any now we’re putting in the details. At this point we’re beginning to develop our characters and their relationships with the other people in the story, which is so exciting.
A lot of the things that we’re discovering in our characters are already written into the music. The score is absolutely brilliant. As we’re getting deeper into our roles we’re finding that the music really supports us in the paths we’re taking. Working with Stephen Hartke has been so interesting. I can tell that he’s a very specific composer. Everything he writes is very intentional and has a clear reason for being there. It’s so fun to keep finding the reasons for all of his choices. Right now we only hear a piano in rehearsal, but even that has so many colors in it. You hear a certain color that may mean a certain action, or a certain attitude. Creating all of these connections is wonderful.
This part of the process is about experimentation. We’ve had the time to learn the basics of the piece and now we’re all trying to find out how deep we can go. All of us are trying many ideas so that David [Schweizer, the director] can see what is being brought to the table. He allows us the confidence to show our ideas and then works with us on exploring within that framework. It think it’s the mark of a great director when you feel as if he’s helping you to discover your character rather than defining it for you from the first rehearsal. At this point in the process, working with these people, I’m in seventh heaven!
1.Caroline Worra (Boule de Suif) and Laurann Gilley (Music Coach/Accompanist) in a staging rehearsal.
Musically Portraying the Story
Stephen Hartke: Composer
Portraying the characters in this opera was an interesting challenge for me as a composer. Most of them are pretty terrible people. I had to divorce myself from that and present them in a way that seemed musically plausible to me. Although I don’t agree with many of these characters’ moral decisions, it was important to remember that we all see ourselves as the heroes of our own lives. When writing music for these people it was important that they come across this way. Loiseau thinks he’s the life of the party; the Count thinks he’s in control when he really isn’t. I remember in an early stage of the writing process Philip Littel wrote a line that I felt I really couldn’t set. I ended up setting the line and, in hindsight, realized it was bothering me for personal reasons and not dramatic ones. I had to get over that very quickly as I was working on this piece.
This story is really about waiting and being frustrated about it. These characters are trying to get out of Rouen and are being held captive there unless Boule will agree to meet the Prussian Kommandant’s wishes. The challenge is to musically and dramatically depict that without causing the audience to feel as bored and frustrated as the characters are. For this reason the music moves very quickly between these moods of frustration, boredom, and so on. It will, I believe, keep the audience engaged. Another aspect of this story which is very tricky to portray is the neutral feeling of it. I really want the audience to feel as if they’re not sure what is going to happen. Even though this story takes place in the middle of a war, the city of Rouen is nowhere near the battlefield. It is an occupied city which has calm mornings and quiet nights. For this reason the music in opening is a very simple diatonic theme in the harp that gets stuck in a rut. It doesn’t really go anywhere, leaving the listener unsure of what is going to happen.
photos (left to right):
1. Director David Schweizer (right) looks on as Stephen Hartke (composer) demonstrates his "bowl tree", an instrument he created for the opera to evoke the sounds of horse hooves.
2. Stephen Hartke and Zachary Schwarzman (assistant conductor).
Early Music Rehearsals
Laurann Gilley: Music Coach/Accompanist
Some people may wonder what my job is if they only see the final product of an opera. Very often I’m not playing in the pit, but I’ve been a part of the rehearsal process from day one. As the Music Coach/Accompanist for the show it is my job to play for all music rehearsals and staging rehearsals. Towards the end the orchestra will come in, but it would be very impractical to rehearse with a full orchestra for the first few weeks. My job is to help the singers become fluent in this music as best I can. This means playing different parts of the orchestral score so that they’ll know what they’re listening for when the orchestra shows up, helping find ways to grab some of their pitches that are difficult to hear, and keeping an eye out to make sure everyone is keeping true to the music while we go through staging rehearsals. These singers are incredible; there really isn’t a weak link in the cast.
The first rehearsals for this were a little slower than they would be for an opera in the standard repertoire. It’s new for everyone and the music has many difficult moments in it. We reserved the first three days strictly for musical rehearsals. These rehearsals didn’t involve any staging. It was very important to have this time set aside to make sure everyone was comfortable with the music itself. The first two rehearsals were focused on fine tuning bits and pieces of the score that were challenging. On the third day we read the piece straight through with Stephen Hartke, the composer, present. That day was so exciting because we finally got to hear the entire arc of the piece. Its one thing to hear it in your head as you’re practicing, but to have all of those beautiful voices singing is a completely different experience.
Since then we’ve begun staging rehearsals and have been very lucky to have Stephen present for almost all of them. He’s been very good at allowing the opera be the piece of art he created and not changing very much, if anything. Throughout rehearsals he will throw out ideas about certain ways that he hears the music. We just finished working on a section with the coachman and he had pointed out that he heard it as a sort of blues. I wouldn’t have thought of that before, but it made complete sense. The orchestration and the rhythms in the score certainly give a blues feel to the music. The coachman has a very free, improvisatory sounding line while there’s a very steady bass note pattern in the orchestra.
1. Laurann Gilley
2. Stephen Hartke (composer) and Laurann Gilley