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Archive for August 2012

A View From The Bridge (4)/Defining clarity

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The first principal rehearsal commences; we are at the top of the opera.

Maestro DeMain, Bill Bolcom and the production team sing the role of the Chorus, leading the principals to their entries.

But the scene is raising questions.

Maestro DeMain stops to clarify points of nuance with the composer, concerned with articulation and dynamics. But Bill is flexible about his markings- “I don’t want anyone to hold my feet to the fire over them –they’re guides. I’ve approximated what I believe is needed.”

This information gives a conductor room to make the interpretation his; but Maestro DeMain’s desire is to make the language come out more clearly. His comments on enunciation and diction provoke Catherine Malfitano to remember a saying of an actress, Dorothy Uris, who was later her diction coach. “Dorothy would say, ‘You gotta love those American vowels. You just gotta love ‘em’.”

Bill has written the music for the colors of Brooklyn. “These are guys from the street. It’s not diction. It’s dialect – ‘bewtaful’. Pay attention as if you’re doing a play; it is speech cadence. Keep in mind a heavy Brooklyn accent –then pull back. Light and shade; it’s not cantilenas, these long lines. It is dialogue, not recitative.”

Maestro DeMain rehearses the sequence again.

I am seated at a chair just behind the Production table. I watch the director, Amy Hutchison, listening to the singers. She is taking the measure of where the roles sit with them.

I can see into her open binder. The score page is on the left; opposite it is a page of the stage design. This page is a list of notes and marks for ‘physical placement’ of the action. For each character Amy is right at their moment in the score, with an awareness of where this moment takes place on stage. She is in the sight line of the singers and focuses on them individually as they sing. Though she mimes the appropriate ‘wattage’ of a particular character’s greeting, or action, it is with subtlety and not meant to detract from the singer’s communication with the conductor or composer.

Even though everyone is using the Met score, some of the singers have notations from previous performances. These items are from Indiana, or Pittsburgh, or Germany, and must be brought into alignment with the current production’s core.

It is important to have Bill here, determining these points.

It is Vulcan chess; a simultaneous multi-level progression of details, where the mix of director, singers, conductor, orchestra and crew must meld with the intentions of the playwright, librettist and composer, to achieve a harmony in the presentation of music drama.

It is, by any measure, an immense task, but by the time an audience sees the result of this effort, the nuts and bolts will not appear. It will be a seamless whole, to grip the imagination from beginning to end.


Written by tomminteroffthestoop

August 29, 2012 at 9:06 AM

A View From The Bridge (3)/Drama. Music. Melding.

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Arthur Miller’s play, A View From The Bridge, is an exploration of cultural crosscurrents in an adapting immigrant community in 50’s America.

It is also an unflinching view of a marriage, strained with too much unspoken, festering with human wants that ultimately erupt in a public tragedy of classic proportions.

As theatre, the work is a raw coil to an inexorable end. It is also a very visceral opera, with a score that makes our ears full witness to the anguish of a man’s disintegrating moral compass.

The confluence of music and theatre articulates the dimensions of a unique type of sung drama. Kim Josephson, who is the originator of the role of Eddie Carbone, is adamant as he says, “This work comes out of a particularly American tradition of theater. Arthur Miller is an American cultural institution. And Bill Bolcolm responds in a particularly American manner to the text. It reconfigures the stage. It is new opera. And people are up on their feet by the end of it.”

The morning after dinner with the composer, I attend the first Production Meeting.

Though they have been in detailed correspondence over the months, this ‘at table’ discussion is the first time the members of the full production, as well as artistic team, get to meet.

Beth Krynicki, the production’s Stage Manager, facilitates the introductions, identifying departments, director, conductor and assistants.

Christina Scheppelmann, Artistic Director of the Washington National Opera, welcomes everyone and expresses her deep regard for this particular work. She is proud of WNO’s involvement in bringing it to Washington audiences.

The meeting proceeds. It involves questions and answers to finalize issues of costumes, scheduling, props and design, the “fight” choreography, and ‘supernumerary’ criteria. (‘Supers’ are stage extras in non-singing roles.)

There are music issues to discuss as well. The score of the work has traveled through several productions, countries, and years. The copied score being used is the one from the Met production, which is the most extant version available of the cuts, cues, new music, and adjusted time markings of the opera.

To everyone’s satisfaction, the meeting has stayed within an hour. The principal cast now arrives. Maestro John DeMain greets the composer. Bill beams, “It’s like a reunion.”

Catherine Malfitano, Gregory Turay and Kim Josephson premiered their roles in Chicago. John Del Carlo and Richard Bernstein came to the cast when it premiered at the Met in 2002.

Bill is introduced to the newest members of the production. Christine Brandes has the role of ‘Catherine’, and Kirk Eichelberger has the role of ‘Louis’.

Bill looks to the last member of the cast. “Hi. Who are you?”

Greg Warren.”

“Oh. You get to go ‘Yeah’”.


Greg has the role of Mike, and is a former recipient of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Award.

With palpable excitement everyone moves to take a music stand and a chair. Bill and the production team spread out over three, six foot tables. Everyone in the room is working from a copy of the score.

Maestro DeMain is seated in a conductor’s chair that is slightly raised above the rest of us. He opens the oblong volume of the orchestral score. He takes his baton in hand and, before instigating a single note of music, looks at the composer.

With this gesture, it is no small thing to realize that we are at another moment in the chain that forges into history of this opera. We are witnesses to the wishes of the composer, his thoughts – his intentions. We will all leave this room with that first-hand information, to participate- whether through conversations or the reprisals of roles -in the onward momentum of this new, American operatic work.

A View From The Bridge (2)/Connecting with Bill Bolcom

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In life, as in theatre, you should always be ready to make room for the unexpected.

…leaving my first rehearsal: Cindy Oxbury, the Assistant Director, asked if I’d like to find some time with Bill Bolcom? I said “yes”, assuming this meant for the following day when the composer would be in town. –Ah, no; I’m working with a collection of ‘get-it-done’ professionals! [Note to me: for the duration, be careful what you ask for.]

The composer was on a train from New York, but in response to a previous query as to his arrival and evening plans, Cindy had a waiting email from his assistant, suggesting: ‘He has to eat, maybe you can get together with him for dinner.’

Two phone calls and an hour of rest later, Bill Bolcom was off the train and walking into the River Inn with us.

Conversation was an easy interaction to have with him. Dressed in smart black casual, he was very excited to be in DC for the opera. But he became even more engaged as talk began to press into unanticipated terrain.

I mention having read about his working with Eubie Blake.

Bill’s face picks up a warm smile. “I think Eubie was my last real mentor. When Joan Morris and I were married, you know he came to the wedding and played the Wedding March. In ragtime. -…I think what I really learned was how to be – well.. Eubie felt that ‘composing’ and ‘performing’ were two aspects of the same thing; he didn’t see himself as one or the other. Neither do I.”

I am glad to have this ‘entry’ to segue into the rhythms of jive and bounce, still in my ear, caught scatting throughout the piano score. “I felt your affinity with jazz very evident in the piano reduction; the currents are so clear. The opera is full of jazz syncopations.”

Bill nodded. “Eubie never liked to call it that; he used to work in a brothel. There, ‘jazz’ is what you did in bed. So he always called it ‘ragtime’. Yes, it’s in the work. There’s also ‘doo-wop’, ‘blues’, ‘swing’, the whole soundscape you’d expect to encounter pouring out of open windows in a Brooklyn immigrant neighborhood of the 50’s.”

But the mesh which binds the neighborhood’s disparate ‘soundscape’ is the composer’s personal musical language, which honors not only the jazz roots of American music, but the ‘song craftsmen’ who best put a handle on making American dialects and idioms lyrical.

Gershwin. Kern. Irving Berlin. Irving Berlin is American music. The American song – ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime’, ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ – these people were models for the nexus of ‘word’ and ‘note’; the whole bolt together is out of heritage – the insoluble amalgam.”

We are finished with the meal by this moment in the conversation. There is a little wine left in Bill’s glass. He eyes me, pleased and slightly suspicious. “You’ve got me thinking. I answer questions all the time. Suddenly, I’m having to re-enter situations and look at them differently. That’s good.” is best, however, for people trying to understand the wrestle when speaking of “American opera”; it comes out of a source which has no monolithic style, but is a crucible of acculturation.

And suddenly, we’re speaking about Arthur Miller…


Bill, in a 2009 interview, even more expressive of his association with Eubie Blake..

A little of the artistry of Eubie Blake; from a performance at the age of 98..