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Austin Lyric Opera

Primary Use of Medium: Musical Theater

Interviewer: Donna Wetegrove
Interview Location This interview/observation process takes place with the Austin Lyric Opera Chorus Members and Production Staff in the ALO Scene Shop and on the grounds of the University of Texas at Austin Campus in the Music School Building and Bass Concert Hall. Preparations are underway for their production of Aida.
Interview Date: 2.1.02
Writer: Donna Wetegrove

Inspiration - Art Form/Product
Special Offering
Additional Comments
Artist Profile

Inspiration - Art Form/Product

From this writer's perspective, following is an in depth view of some of the significant stages that occurred in the development of ALO's 1999-2000 season production of Aida

ALO staff at initial fitting session
Kate, Ann & Paula are pivotal players from the ALO staff in the costuming process. Since most of the costumes are rented for this production, they usually try to get them about the same time musical rehearsals start. Ahead of the actual fittings, staff is presorting costumes to the cast member list. For Aida, costumes actually came direct from the last production rental so they were still dirty. Minnesota Opera sent someone to Austin to help with the cleaning process. Many of the costumes are made of raw silk so the cleaning process must be intentionally handled to preserve their character and quality.

"The bible"(see photo) of all costumes included with the production rental was actually available to Kate, Ann & Paula at the beginning of this season (which was Oct./Nov. 99). Ann was charged with preassigning costumes for this production as well as the previous production of Candide. There were six (6) crates of costumes total for Aida. This is a big show! Also, unusual to this show, the production costumes include wigs for the chorus, shoes, ladies bustles & undergarments, etc. … all the details that capture the period of the costuming.

ALO staff set up certain days that chorus members can sign up for times to be fitted. Each session allows twenty minutes with each person to handle the volume. In Aida, with and excess of seventy (70) chorus members and twelve (12) supers (non-singing "extras"), six (6) days are dedicated to fittings.

At the fitting sessions, each cast member tries on as many costumes as they are cast for so staff can evaluate additional needs including hems. The staff does all their alterations at ALO's Scene Shop until they can move into the theater … usually the week before the scenery goes up (1 ½ weeks before the production opens). In this case, setting up in the basement at Bass Concert Hall allows the staff to complete their alterations and be prepared for all the unexpected things that can show up in a live production setting.

Time is short. So many people to manage … one of the largest chorus productions with multiple supers and dancers too. It is hard to manage the chatter with so many bodies. Tension is at the cusp of every interaction as crucial timing elements and cues are refined. The alternate cast is performing tonight. Austin Lyric Opera traditionally employs two principle casts to support their currently dense performance schedule (four nights in a row). The scenes are being timed for information sharing with the stage crew once the production moves into Bass next week. The principle cast is becoming familiar with the interaction with the chorus movements. The set itself presents many challenges with its multitude of steps and its center portion that hydraulically works in the round. Susan Threadgill, stage manager, takes a moment to caution all chorus members that swift movements without contact or pushing other members is imperative for everyone's safety. The lighting designer, David Nancarrow, joins rehearsal tonight as he works to fine tune his design concept and timing prior to moving into the theater.

All staging rehearsals are accompanied with piano. Maestro Kellogg leads each rehearsal musically. Working in concert with the director for all movement requirements. It is imperative that all principles and choristers have a line of site to the Maestro for music cues and maintaining the general pace of the opera … very important.

Assistant Conductor & Chorus Master, Julian Reed, continually briefs the chorus on off stage positions and provides feedback on diction and overall sound quality. For off stage coordination, Julian must have a line of sight either personally or electronically to the Maestros' direction to assure proper timing as well. One cannot trust their ear back stage or else sound will be behind that of the orchestra and singers on stage.

Tonight, an initial effort at staging for the curtain call is even attempted. It is two minutes till quitting time … it all counts! Groups are called according to how they are seen on stage during the production.

Once again, for this particularly large show, the music room at UT is brimming with chorus, orchestra, principle singers, ALO's general director, maestro, chorus master and a special horn section in the upper "balcony" (a space that rarely is needed at sitzprobe). This very full room is balanced acoustically for this first time that all participants get to hear and interact with each other musically. ... quite a spectacular event in its own right. It is a working session so Maestro takes advantage of natural pauses and changes in the music to request refinements and check in with principle singers as to their comfort with the piece before progressing. The sound is so full due to the size of the room. A true working session that certainly presents glimpses of the glory that will be experienced in the theater when the layer of the set is added in less than one week.

The orchestra is arranged traditionally in a semicircle at the front of the room around Maestro, as they will be in the orchestra pit. Next is the line of principle singers; then the chorus – arranged in music rehearsal format with the sections grouped together for tonal support (even though on stage, many times choristers are isolated and must still carry the same vocal strength). Sopranos to the left; altos (or mezzo-sopranos) & tenors, tenors & baritones in the center; basses to the right.

Professionalism is all that is tolerated in this time. Each participant must come prepared. Missed entrances, poor tonal quality … lack of confidence is not tolerated. Errors are a waste of time and time wasted equates to an expensive loss if everyone cannot progress through the entire opera.

It is awe inspiring to think what each ear in the room is listening for to assure their role. It is as a stone carver looks at a piece of stone and interprets its intended outcome. Opera is a layered medium and every layer must be represented in the crescendos and diminuendos.

The entire time is calculated – even the breaks. When reconvened (precisely 20 minutes), the pace is picked up at exactly where it left off … like a well-oiled machine. In all this seriousness, you can still see amazing camaraderie between the singers. There are plenty of smiles, gestures of support and lots of applause for jobs well done. It is amazing to witness the power of the human voice, of opera. You can feel the story in the strength of the whole. You don't have to love opera to fall in love with the commitment of these individuals and experience their humanness. Like a drop of water in the ocean, the power of the whole is magnificent and what the audience will witness in Bass Concert Hall in one week from now.

When at rest during sitzprobe, you see chorus and principals reading a book, the paper … lots of crossword puzzles, some follow along with the music score. And yet, when time to sing, they are on purpose and attentive. Looking to Maestro for their cues. With all the rehearsals, the score has become second nature to them by now.

An interesting thought to contemplate, here is Verdis' music, written in the 18th century, and yet there is much room for Maestros' interpretation for moments held to accommodate the music and accentuate singer's personal styles. Subtle differences can be noticed between the two principal casts as one educates their ear. It is up to each participant of the orchestra and chorus to remember where Maestro calls these queues and support them through each performance. And the subtleties are incredible. Maestro can ask and receive exactly what he wants. The orchestra, as a whole, responds as a single actor to a director … truly beautiful to witness in its progression. The point of opera is to carry emotions along with a story. ... not to intimidate, not to overrule. To come simply to listen … to be moved, to perhaps fall in love is the place to start and hold on to. There is much education available to support the love – as with anything. You don't have to know it all.

After a dinner break, chorus members, principles, supers and dancers convene in the theater to experience their first run through with the enormous ALO signature falcon on stage. Quite an amazing sight! Here cues are refined to allow for proper entrances and exits with the wings, curtain drops, all the props, etc. Seeing the bird in motion with the center circle of the stage on hydraulics is a very striking moment ... one that allows you to experience the glorious wing span of the bird. Since staging rehearsals included the steps and turntable of the stage set, refinements at this point in rehearsals is much more advanced than the normal expectation for this first night in the theater.

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Special Offering

Don't forget, teachers are encouraged to call Austin Lyric Opera's education department direct at 512.472.5927 to arrange to participate in their school touring program or any other special requests that facilitate furthering the opera and music experience of your students.

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Additional Comments

Austin Lyric Opera has there own website at www.austinlyricopera.org

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Artist Profile:

Austin Lyric Opera
901 Barton Springs Road
Austin, Texas 78704
512.472.5927
www.austinlyricopera.org

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