Saturday, July 22, 2006
How does it end? That is a question opera audiences so rarely get to ask. Tonight, as audiences take their seats and wait for the curtain to rise, they will. Tonight the cast and crew's hard work, energy, and time finally come to fruition. After a week of music rehearsals, weeks of staging rehearsals, hours spent painting sets and building hats, and countless other duties the piece is going onstage in front of an audience for the very first time. Although it is always a special moment when a production takes the stage, this one will be particularly special. Audiences will have the chance to see a work which has never been seen before. We hope that you will join us this summer to be a part of this incredible event. In the next week we will have a few more updates and insights into the creation of The Greater Good, so make sure to check back. We hope that you have enjoyed this look behind the scenes of a world premiere thus far, and look foward to seeing you at the theater!
Beefing Up Boule de Suif
This opera is so much about appetite and sensuality. At that time being overweight could be connected to an idea of sensuality. This lines up so neatly with the story because it exaggerates what is both attractive about Boule de Suif and what ultimately imprisons her. Caroline Worra is the perfect person to play this role, but she is a very lovely figured woman. We knew that we really needed to pad her because that fact that Boule is fat is so central to the story. She needs have a lot of flesh. The important thing was to pick a size that made the point and was believable. It is a real body shape that we felt could blend well with the parts of Caroline’s body we do see. This was difficult because we’re not doing a lot of makeup to make her face fatter, and the suit has to look believable with her face and her hands. It’s also been a great stand-in as we’re working on her costumes. We have it set up on a dressmaker’s dummy in the costume shop, which is sort of weird. It looks very lifelike, and it’s strange when she’s not wearing it. It’s very weird to just stick pins in her boobs.
1. Boule de Suif’s fat suit waiting for rehearsal in the costume shop.
Stephen Hartke: Composer
Having now been through the experience of writing and rehearsing this opera, there is little that I would change, musically speaking. It turned out pretty much how I expected it to. At some moments it turned out even better than I thought it would. This is such a big piece and has so many facets to it. There are a few things that I could beat myself up about if I wanted to, but over the years I’ve learned that it’s just not worth it to do that. That is why it took me a long time to write the piece. I had to be sure it was at a place where I could live with it.
The gratifying part of the process has been watching the faces of the singers as they shape the characters to themselves. There are some scenes that are so much more powerful than I predicted. This is a great cast, and their involvement in these characters is incredible. There is a scene where Boule sings about her illegitimate child while the others are playing cards. The range of displeasure that they show towards her makes the scene very chilling. That kind of detail makes moments in this opera more than I could ever have imagined.
Writing this opera has been like being the father of the bride. I’ve nurtured this score for a long time and now it has to go out into the world. I can’t hold its hand any more. I have to let the score go off with the people who have come for her and trust that they will treat her well. I didn’t really have fear or trepidation going into this process, but there is a very emotional response when you hand over that score. Your kid goes off to get married and you have to trust that it will work. You can do nothing other than make sure that you’ve raised a good kid. The piece is completely independent of me now. There’s a kind of emptynest syndrome that sets in. It isn’t my piece anymore.
Every piece I write changes me. It doesn’t just change my music, it changes me. Whenever I finish a piece I get very excited and think, “Now I know how to compose!” Then I begin the next piece and feel like I have to figure it out all over again. I’m starting a piece for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra right now, and I’m a bit distracted at the moment. I’ve been sitting in the orchestra rehearsals for this opera and thinking, “Maybe I should do more of that.” This new piece is for the same orchestral makeup as Bach’s first Brandenburg Concerto. I do find myself listening to what I’ve done with the oboes in this opera and trying to think about what other things I might do in this next piece. I really enjoy hearing the oboes in this orchestra. They have a wonderful sound.
One thing I definitely learned with this piece, somehow, was how to write music quickly. I don’t know if that lesson is going to last or not. I had to get the piece done somehow, so I did. I wrote the second act in seven months. I don’t really know how I did that. A lot of this is because much of the material in the second act is developing things already heard in the first. Still, there were places where I really didn’t know what I was going to do. The old nun’s aria was one of those spots. I had an idea of what it was going to be, but not completely. It ended up taking me around two weeks to finish. That was a big hunk of music to get done in that amount of time. Learning not to beat myself up so much was a lot of the process. As you get older and accumulate more pieces you relax a little more. You realize that not everything hinges on one piece. When you’re young you have only a few works. You get nervous and think, “I hope this is the piece that makes my career!” No single piece makes your career. It is the body of work that does it.
photos (from left to right):
1. David Schweitzer (director) and Stephen Hartke (composer) look over their scores during an early staging rehearsal.
2. Stephen Hartke (composer) talks with Seth Keeton (Cornudet) during a break from rehearsing the aria accompanied by “clanging bowls.”
Reflections on the Rehearsal Process
David Schweitzer: Director
The addition of the orchestra added a huge amount of information for me. The first Sitzprobe was the first time that anybody had heard this piece. Stephen (composer) had heard it in his head, and Stewart (conductor) could understand how it sounded from looking at the score, but for everyone else it was brand new. The way Stephen uses the orchestra is so meticulous and so refined. Every phrase is rife with meaning. With a new piece there is always that inevitable frustration that you only have a handful of rehearsals with the orchestra.
I have snuck into every orchestra rehearsal to get as much knowledge about this piece as possible. It allowed me to know when I could take even further advantage of the sounds in the music. I would go back to the rehearsal hall and put new ideas into the staging. While writing the piece, Stephen would tell me what was going on in the orchestra, but that is completely different from actually hearing the music. Being informed by the orchestral sounds over the last week and a half has certainly given me the challenge of utilizing everything that is there. In the end it should look as if we were as comfortable with this piece as we would have been if we did an older one with recordings.
Stephen has done some really audacious things in this piece. There is sparseness to the orchestra that is very striking. The music rises up and creates excitement from time to time, but for so much of the piece he only uses what he needs. The instrumentation is so beautifully exposed in this piece. It is risky at times. The singing is very exposed as well. There is a very subtle, translucent quality to a lot of what he’s done in this piece. It really places the onus on the singers. They have to have a real stage presence. They can’t just stand there and sing in a sort of generic way. I’m so pleased with these performers. Everyone has been so responsive in rehearsals. It has been a wonderful process.
One thing that I tried to do in rehearsals was create a very positive and supportive environment. When working with a brand new piece, it is important to eliminate any feelings of nervousness or tension. It was my job to create a playing field in which the singers could experiment safely. This allowed them to make their own discoveries within the range of what I was interested in doing with the piece. Then at a certain point in the process I became a little more specific with my intentions. This way of working gives you much more interesting textures out of people. Giving them that space is very important. In a situation like this, where everyone is dealing with something new and unknown, I could have been very specific. I could have dictated every action to the singers. This may have created a level of comfort. What I’ve tried to do, instead, is blend that kind of clarity with a good amount of room for experimentation. I staged the whole opera in a few days, which is something I’m known for doing. However, that is like a first draft. After creating that framework people can free themselves up a bit and really explore their characters. By having everything staged so quickly, the singers are given the illusion that we have more time than we really do. This is, perhaps, slightly manipulative, but the role of a director is manipulative to a certain extent. There isn’t enough time to be completely honest. If I shared everything I thought with them we would need many more weeks of rehearsal. I have to constantly search for strategies to create the illusion that we’ve endless amounts of time with the piece. The final product needs to feel as if the singers’ actions are natural and personal. If it feels as if I’ve placed the actions onto them, it can be spotted immediately. It has to be genuine.
photos (from left to right):
1. Caroline Worra (Boule de Suif), Andrew Wentzel (Le Comte de Breville), and Elaine Alvarez (La Comtesse de Breville) in the final dress rehearsal for The Greater Good.
2. David Schweitzer (director) showing Mark Wendland’s (set designer) set renderings during the company intro the day before staging rehearsals began.