Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

Archive for the ‘Opera Projects’ Category

In The Smoke Of The Sting .. a journey of ‘otherness’ for Pianist & Baritone

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..woke now -to the changes in directions buffeting country and personal journey..

Fully woke. And working.

It is my honor to be in process of collaborating with two esteemed artists -Ms Dana Kristina-Joi Morgan, and Jarrod Lee- in a performance piece I have written for Washington National Opera entitled “In The Smoke Of The Sting”, a music journey which threads the words, determination, and courage of three Champion boxers -Joe Louis, Emile Griffith and Muhammad Ali- through music and poetry, and arias from operas written about these men.
The intimacy of this salon piece invites us all to experience the nature of discrimination that was a daily fight to these men, who endured the truth that being titled ‘Champion’ did little to stop the public’s disquiet at such prominent ‘otherness’.
Current dates/locations of presentation that I will update should there occur any changes:
2/14/2017, 10:30 am, Anacostia Library
2/15/2017, 12:00 pm, National Postal Museum
2/18/2017, 2:00 pm, Takoma Park Library
2/22/2017, 10:30 am, Francis Gregory Library
2/24/2017, 6:00 pm, The Sitar Arts Center
2/26/2017, 3:00 pm, Westminster Presbyterian Church
2/28/2017, 7:00 pm, Shaw Library
3/1/2017, 7:00 pm, Petworth Library
3/2/2017, 2:00 pm, Bellevue Library
3/7/2017, 7:00 pm, Woodridge Library
3/9/2017, 7:00 pm, Mount Pleasant Library
3/14/2017, 7:00 pm, The Hill Center
…the energy and focus of Dana and Jarrod speak to how fierce artists work under & through all conditions – and capture attention, with fierce artistry!

Kennedy Center Millennium Stage: Washington National Opera preview of APPOMATTOX

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..ahead of the current production premiere of Philip Glass‘s opera APPOMATTOX, I was asked by Washington National Opera to sculpt a thread of narrative to give some context to music, and resonant issues of civil war/civil rights.

 
The result was an entirely collaborative effort with WNO’s music Administrator, Ken Weiss, participation by Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, and Greg Watkins, as the event’s Narrator, in a program of readings and song, presented on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage.

 
The evening’s performance was streamed live by the Kennedy Center.

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’”.

“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.”

..it 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..

A View From The Bridge (1)/…beginnings

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..beginnings are such nerve wracking moments.

But imagine the excitement of Washington National Opera, gathering exceptional artists together to give the sixth production of a work by a major living American composer. Compound the excitement with the knowledge that the composer will be present and that the opera has garnered, at each presentation, adulation, greater stature, and a deepening renown and suddenly, this ‘beginning’ is an event. And it brings WNO’s production team and company talents into an even brighter spotlight.

William Bolcom’s A View From The Bridge has been on WNO’s books for several years. Even so it has been a managed campaign- to wrestle a host of performing schedules into alignment, and then pin the date when costumes, sets, musicians, singers, conductor and director will be available, and, beyond that, present. After all, opera productions do not just happen, or leap, fully directed out of the wings!

This ‘Rehearsal Journal’ is witness to the work of the last weeks, bringing this work to a Washington audience and the Kennedy Center stage.

Though three of the cast members have been with this production from the opera’s premiere, each presentation of the work brings a new and additional team of performers to the ensemble. These performers must be rehearsed, not only in the music of the opera but in its staging, familiarizing themselves with its design, sets and movements.

Frank Galati was the original director of the work, but director Amy Hutchison has nurtured the piece through four of its subsequent productions. She is on her way to D.C. to direct our introduction to the work. However, even before her arrival, the WNO production team is smoothly preparing the way, verifying and binding schedules, while dressing the rehearsal floor with neon tape to indicate the positions and dimensions of the set.

The chorus, too, is hard at work in preparation.

The vast space of the Takoma Park rehearsal studio is stuffed with excitement, as choristers engage with the syncopations and dance rhythms of Bolcom’s work.

..my beginning is at the chorus’ third rehearsal; the work was completely new to them at the start of the week, and already they have memorized two-thirds of the opera.

Ken Weiss, who is acting Chorus Master for this production, may smile easily, but his ear keeps a keen eye on diction. “I’d like to hear more ‘m’ on ‘Man’. Remember the back of the house. I don’t know if I’ll hear it otherwise.”

The chorus responds, singing, “A man works. A man eats, sleeps, raises a family”..

“Yes. Great. Good.” Ken goes back to an earlier point. “Not just the words, the intent. He sings, “..when the tide is right.” Stops. “It’s an eerie moment and eerie experience.”

The chorus falls into his meaning; hushed and articulate, they sing, “..when the tide is right.” Ken smiles.

I hear what he means, what it is he wants the sound to convey: something imminent and foreboding, something..

Dr Joy Schrier has stepped in to fill Ken’s place at the piano.

I have moved forward on my seat to hear her playing Bolcom’s music, listening to the simple, haunting keys the composer has chosen to underpin this first moment of ‘..something’.

I am excited to realize that I will soon be able to meet the man who has created this work, whose piano score not only speaks of his knowledge of creating theatre, but of his clear assimilation of American music’s antecedents.

Tomorrow’s rehearsal will be the first to bring the production team, Maestro John DeMain, William Bolcom, and the principals of the cast together.

I will follow my curiosity and find a moment to speak with the composer, because this American opera pulses with the sound of the real deal.

_____________

Stepping out of the past now.. I want to offer some flavor of this amazing composer.

This is a clip of Bill Bolcom, in a 2009 interview, discussing his Graceful Ghost Rag..

And this is a clip of the music:

Summer discoveries..

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..well, there was the glut of dust bunnies under my books, in the living room.

..there were the carton of ‘good intentions’ and projects itemized for attempt, on my desktop..

-there was the joy of immersion in a particular book: Verdi’s Aida; The History of an Opera, in Letters and Documents, by Hans Busch, which detailed the gestation, creation, collaboration and first years of performance of that seminal opera.

Incredible story.. And an amazing trove of documents, many unseen before the publication of this book; first drafts of the libretto, with Verdi’s markings sculpting the prose into the shape we know the opera; contracts; letters and telegrams- flying between the composer, Verdi, his librettist, Antonio Ghislanzoni, and Giulio Ricordi, Verdi’s cunning publicist, producer and representative –as well as a circus of others, from the Highest in Egypt, to various and sundry scoundrel impresarios; from desperate divas, to decrepit theatres.. The book, needless to say at this point, was spellbinding, and gave full texture to the tapestry of ‘creating’!

Let’s see.. Other summer discoveries..

..there’s the vat of ice cream that shouldn’t be in my freezer in the first place!

..there’s surprise at the somewhat savage commentary on Michael Phelps, and his Olympic performance..

..there’s also little surprise, at the vitriol in the political summer campaigning ..

But then, two days ago, came a true surprise, as I finally attempted one of my summer ‘to-do’ items: filing (oh joy)!

Going through loose stacks of papers, I found a collection of writing that I’d accomplished in 2007 – unjustly fobbed into an anonymous manila envelope.. In its way, the writing resonated greatly with the comprehension of the Verdi book..

I started working for Washington National Opera, in the Marketing department, in 2005; doing small pieces in the Playbill on various operas, and their composers. 2007 proved to be an accomplished year for me in that department. It was the year of WNO’s production of Bill Bolcom’s A View From The Bridge, and I was engaged to create, a first time, on-line ‘Journal’ of the journey, from initial rehearsal to production.

I remember many things: the camaraderie, and professionalism of the cast; I remember my introduction to the composer, Bill Bolcom; I remember my astonishment at the jazz qualities of the score..

Most of all, I remember my wide eyed adventure in being a ‘writer-in-the-room’, witnessing this assembly of talent to stand an opera on its feet..

..but now, rescued from the obscurity of my filing system, the notes from those incredible sessions.. bring the experience vividly back to mind..

So, as the summer lopes into the dog days of August, I think I’ll post these episodes, to pin the memories to these ‘pages’..

To be clear that I’m speaking of that experience, I’ll head my entries with: A View From The Bridgeand the particular ‘episode’ of the experience..

-because, as I’ve realized, chronicles are important, and you never know who’ll come across them in the future..