Tuesday, July 18, 2006
The Musical Colors of "The Greater Good"
The colors that Stephen Hartke (composer) pulls from the orchestra are brilliant, which didn’t surprise me at all when I started receiving the score. It seems like a very natural progression from Stephen’s earlier music. There are so many varying timbres and combinations, from a small chamber group to a fairly lush romantic sound. I hear a bit of his recent symphony (Symphony No. 3) in it as well. He’s pursued a few interesting sonic ideas that are a little bit different. When all of the guests are eating with the tuned bowls, he has created a kind of miniature gamelan orchestra onstage. It is both amusing and very interesting to watch the singers “playing” their bowls with the orchestra. There is another very engaging effect where the string players play above the bridge to evoke a specific event in the piece, but I don’t want to give that one away. I’ll just say that it is highly original.
The makeup of the orchestra is what really gives this piece a unique color. In our initial conversations Stephen said he was very interested in tilting the sonority of the piece in a certain direction. He’s written for four clarinetists instead of two. They play everything from contrabass clarinet to piccolo clarinet. The result is this oily color. Much of the time these clarinets are written clustered in the low register, which gives the orchestra a deep molasses sound. The sound of the piece has a tendency towards the dark and interior. I love it. It is a very striking sonority.
1. Stewart Robertson with Caroline Worra (Boule de Suif) and Matthew Worth (Coachman) at the second Sitzprobe.
The First Time in Costume
It is such a wonderful transformation that happens when you put on your costume for the first time. Most of your character work is done internally, but having those outer layers really helps to add the last details. In the first weeks of staging you’re wearing your own clothes and a rehearsal skirt to get a feeling for what it will be like. Once you have the real costume on, everything is different. This has been especially true with this character because I have to wear a fat suit. It became a lot more difficult to climb into the carriage! There’s also a scene where I have to pass food out to people. Bending over to get things out of the basket was much more challenging with all of that padding in front of me. The red-haired wig made a big difference as well. As a redhead, you act very differently than you do when you’re a blonde! We’ve also been very lucky to have so many rehearsals in our costumes. We’re beginning our final week of rehearsal now. At most companies, the last week is when you would first get your costumes, but we’ve been wearing them for most of last week as well. It helps to have that extra time to adjust and really explore the character.
1. Caroline Worra (Boule de Suif) in the costume designed by David Zinn.
Boule de Suif's Costume
David Zinn: Costume Designer
It is important that Boule de Suif stand out in a subtle way in terms of costuming. The color undertones on her clothing are slightly more vibrant than the others in the carriage. The choices for the cuts in her clothing were important as well - what parts of her she’s revealing compared to what other people are. What I didn’t want to do was put her in a miniskirt or something ridiculous like that. First of all, she’s a courtesan, she’s not a hooker. She needs a kind of dignity. She’s a little bit of the freak at the party, but there have to be enough similarities to make it believable that she is riding in the same coach with these snobbish people. Her exterior has to be such that she can pass in that society. This is done in the details. She has a few more shiny things than the others. She has a jacket that we’ve cut in a slightly more modern way, like a little denim jacket, so that she seems a little more tarty. Like I said before, these things have to be subliminal messages for the audience. I don’t expect them to notice a lot of these choices consciously.
photos (from left to right):
1. David Zinn’s sketches for Boule de Suif’s costume.
2. David Zinn’s color rendering for Boule’s costume.
Commissioning "The Greater Good"
I’ve known some of Stephen Hartke’s (composer) music for over twenty years, particularly his orchestra piece Pacific Rim. I thought his was a very original voice. Since my first encounter with the work, first hearing it and then conducting it myself, I have been following his music. When it came time to commission a piece for Glimmerglass, I wanted a piece that would satisfy both audiences and musicians alike. In general, I feel that much of contemporary American opera is very conservative in style, and lacks the musical substance that earns respect from musicians. Stephen is a composer whose music has both compositional integrity and a unique style. I had a few conversations with the folks at the Howard Hanson fund at Eastman. They were already awarding Stephen a commission for a new work. It wasn’t quite large enough for an operatic commission, but we decided that we could find funds to make it a suitable amount. One thing led to another and Stephen received the commission.
While Stephen was working on the piece we had a few sessions where he would come out and play what he had written so far. This was not only for myself, because I could read the score, but for my colleagues as well. It was particularly helpful for the design and technical teams. He would try and approximate what he had written for the orchestra on the piano while singing the vocal lines. They were quite entertaining days, actually, since much of the music is for soprano! We began receiving the score in pieces as it was written. The final pages arrived very much at the eleventh hour. We got the last chunk of music towards the end of May, which was only a few weeks away from the initial rehearsals. It was quite a challenge. One surprise was that the piece ended up being about twenty minutes longer than we initially expected. I’m glad, because the work needs to be that long. The shape of the piece is wonderful. However, in terms of budgeting, I had planned orchestra rehearsals for a shorter piece. Financially speaking, it is too late to add another rehearsal at this point. I now have to steal some of the orchestra time from another production to try and accommodate for the extra length of the opera. That is a bit of a trick. This is a very musically complex piece, but I feel like in the last week the cast, the orchestra, and myself are finally finding a level of comfort with it. I almost hesitate to use the word comfort because this piece is a challenge and will remain one, but I think we’ve finally clicked into the groove.
1. Stephen Hartke (composer) and Stewart Robertson (conductor) discuss the music during a break from the first Sitzprobe.