Friday, July 07, 2006
Challenges in Telling the Story of "The Greater Good"
David Schweizer: Director
The physical landscape in which this story takes place is very problematic. If you’re thinking of a story to turn into an opera, Maupassant’s Boule de Suif is an unlikely choice. The first half is set inside of a coach and the second half is mostly taking place at various meals while they’re trapped at an inn. That really isn’t the most invigorating thing to watch. To make things trickier, Stephen Hartke (composer) and Philip Littell (librettist) follow the story very closely. What this story does provide is a sort of psychological ensemble. There is this unit of screwed-up, snobbish French upper-class people. Together they create this single character which is a besieged social class in the midst of the Franco-Prussian War. Even this can be tricky in terms of conventional opera because it does not easily provide moments for individual to step out of the framework and sing an aria. However, these were issues that Stephen and Philip were really interested in exploring and solving.
I was around for a lot of the development process of the work. Part of me would think, “Do we really have to be in the coach for that long?” Another part of me would say, “Let them just do it!” This part of me won, because it interested me to take on the challenges that they were creating with the opera. I like to say to myself that nothing is impossible on the stage. You can find a vocabulary to tell any story. Later on in their writing process they would ask if certain things were okay, or if more music was needed between different scenes. I told them whatever they wanted to do was fine and that I would find a way to make it work.
Glimmerglass is an incredible place to work in terms of artistic standards. The designers, the singers - there are so many wonderful colleagues here. However, it’s not a rich company. We didn’t have a lot of money for this show. There’s a large stage that has to be filled with imagery and we can’t simply throw big scenic ideas at it. This situation is fine with me because I don’t really work that way. For me it is about creating strong images that are very haunting and imaginative. We want to transport people into another world without spending millions of dollars to show them the literal setting. I’m very interested in seducing the audience and drawing them in.
photos (from left to right):
1. David Scheizer explaining the show using the model of the set.
2. David Schweizer working on staging with Dorothy Byrne (Mme. Follenvie).
Let's Go Shopping!
The Greater Good has been a big job for me, because so much of the items need to be authentic. Eating is a very important part of the show. What meals the characters are sitting down to eat will express the passage of time. This means that we need many sets of dishes and glassware that look accurate to the period of 1870. Mark Wendland, the set designer, wants the dishes to be mismatched since the characters are eating at a small, humble inn that may not be used to feeding this many people. This means I can’t go out and find a single set of dishes. I have to compile a mismatched collection that looks good with the set and is appropriate to the time period. A lot of this stuff is being found in antique stores and flea markets in the area. It isn’t always easy to shop for props when you’re working for a company out in the country.
One of the most interesting hunts that I’ve had to go on for The Greater Good is the soup bowls. The composer, Stephen Hartke, thought it would be great if while they were eating they could create percussion sounds by banging on the dishware. So not only do I have to find things that are period appropriate, but they have to have a broad range of pitches when struck. It has been a fun challenge to go around searching for bowls and tapping on them to see how they ‘sound.’ Once we’ve accumulated enough of them we’ll start talking with Stephen to see which bowls produce the sounds that he likes. At that point we’ll also be figuring out whether we’re going to fill them with some amount of water or leave them empty.
photos (from left to right):
1. Karen tests out one of the "musical bowls" for The Greater Good.
2. Assistant Conductor Zachary Schwarzman leads the cast in a soup bowl accompaniment for Dorothy Byrne's (Mme Follenvie) scene.
The Many Sides of Props
Anna Goller: Properties Master
For The Greater Good, the set is meant to look very abstract. The props and the costumes, however, have to look very realistic so that the audience can have a good sense of what time period the story takes place in. Much of the action takes place in a large set piece which represents a carriage, but on top of that there are piles of luggage trunks. The designer was insistent that we find real trunks that look as if they belong in the 1870s so that they look as realistic as possible. It has been a big challenge to accumulate enough trunks that fit with Mark’s image. Those challenges, however, are what I love about working in props. You never know when someone is going to walk in and ask for a flying woman made out of cardboard or a tandem bicycle that can easily be ridden backwards.
Another thing that is great about props is that you have to have a huge range of skills. We have an incredible crew of artisans that can do almost anything. They are skilled in carpentry, painting, sewing, welding, and anything else you could think of. Because props covers so many different kinds of objects you have to be ready for everything. Beyond this, you have to have a good knowledge of history. The designers will give clear ideas of what they want, but when they ask for a trunk from the 1870s that a poor person might own, you have to know what that looks like. In The Greater Good we are not building very many original pieces. Instead, the artisans are modifying the period pieces that we’ve found so that they can be suitable for use onstage.
1. Anna Goller takes inventory of some of her props.