A look in the rear-view mirror at the recent Inspector from Rome workshop:
We set out to put Act One of this new opera “on its feet,” since that’s the only real way to figure out what works and what doesn’t (and everything in between). We get a chance to adjust the piece before we get into a production period when such adjustments would cause the project to run over deadline and/or over budget. And, a telescopic look at Act One invariably has positive implications for the development of Act Two.
Wolf Trap commissioned the first Musto/Campbell opera (Volpone) and premiered it in 2004. Since then, John and Mark have written two more operas – Later the Same Evening for the University of Maryland and the National Gallery of Art, and Bastianello for the New York Festival of Song.
The jumping-off point is the classic comic play The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol. Setup: Provincial community awaits arrival of important official but mistakes the wrong guy for said official. (Kind of like Waiting for Guffmann…) The basic premise is time-tested and, not incidentally, in the public domain. The source play takes place in 19th century Russia, but our opera takes place in 1932 Sicily.
We engaged a conductor, director, stage manager, and singers for all roles in Act 1.
The piano/vocal score was provided to the singers about 2 months out. (A portion of it came a bit later.) Because John composes with Finale we were able to output a midi file from the score, enabling the singers to listen to the accompaniment and their parts on computer or iPod. An artistically limited vehicle, but a fabulously helpful tool.
The singers were asked to learn and absorb the material well enough to withstand an informal staging process. We have done workshops before with some singers still on book, and given the short turn-around for these things, it’s completely understandable that artists may not be as completely memorized as they would be for a production staging period.
We spent about a day working the music for each of the act’s three scenes. The absolutely marvelous thing was that by after that first day, the singers were completely off book for the staging portion of the workshop. (Thank you thank you thank you thank you.) The director was then able to experiment with a potential staging as if we were going to go onstage with the thing in a few weeks.
In a production situation, when you hit a snag, you examine your approach to the material to see why something isn’t working. But in the workshop, you are also able to take a look at the material itself to ask if there might be something there that is impeding success.
What We Learned
We looked at the entire piece from micro and macro perspectives. Some examples:
Text Setting: Pitch
This is particularly important for a comedy, where intelligibility is critical. John had done a lot of this vetting while writing, but we caught a few more things that needed to be inflected differently in order to come across clearly. This arose most often when a particular syllable ends up too close to the extremes of the vocal range, where differentials between vowels just aren’t as pronounced. (I’m not talking about singer vowel modification, just the acoustical properties of frequencies that limit our ability to hear things in extreme ranges.)
Text Setting: Rhythm
Timing is everything, and crispness of rhythm goes a long way toward vitality. Most of the changes consisted of shortening note values so that the inflection and delivery of a word or sentence didn’t come across as stilted or affected.
Because Mark works in rhyme, and the structure of his libretti is so married to the structure of John’s music, many problems are encountered and solved before the notes even get written. But even during the workshop, Mark listened intently and suggested occasional alterations and alternatives to refine the language, illuminate the characters or improve intelligibility.
The metronome indications in the score had to be created in abstract during the compositional process. Conductor Tim Long internalized them, we began rehearsing with them as gospel, and found that they were pretty easily negotiable. But once the thing got up on its feet, John felt that quite a few of them were too plodding. An easy change to make in the score, and one that has important implications for the score’s effectiveness. Tim understands what makes transitions and tempo relationships intuitive, and he and John worked tirelessly to determine the best way to get in and out of sections of the score.
Precious few, proportionately speaking. But if we can nail most of them in the development phase, that’s pure gold for the copying/printing process.
With yours truly at the keyboard, John had a pretty good test case for what’s playable and what isn’t, and how it sounds when reproduced by someone who doesn’t yet know the orchestration (which is still in John’s head and not yet in mine). Many pianists better than I might’ve nailed the thorniest parts of this score. But I’m a pretty good indication of what Average Rehearsal Pianist can do without creating carnage. John now knows which parts of the piano/vocal score need to have their expectations reduced :)
A few times we adjusted the rhythmic or pitch placement of an individual line within the texture of a duet/trio/ensemble, so that the desired effect was achieved – so that the audience could more easily hear what was meant to “stand out.”
Two transitional moments were amplified in length because there wasn’t enough music written to achieve the needed entrances or exits. John wrote some more music that evening so that it could be tested the next day. And in a few cases, we found that as little as a single measure of music (subsequently deleted) was getting in the way of the timing of the phrase and the rhyme.
The entire week, John was absorbing the way in which the vocal lines fit within what he has conceived for the orchestral texture. Some vocal/instrumental doublings were added to clarify the balance. And brainstorming ensued as to specific colors for certain effects.
Our singers were heros, learning the score quickly and smartly. But occasionally, there were moments when they struggled disproportionately with a specific interval/pickup, etc. Sometimes the effect was worth the struggle. (Says I:) But almost as often, John would suggest a tweaked vocal line that preserved the intentions of the original but was far more intuitive to the singing brain.
The Big Picture
And finally, at the end of it all, we took a deep breath and presented it to a small audience of friends. For if an audience can’t get caught up in the story, then all of the negotiating about sixteenth notes, quarter rests, and synonyms is irrelevant. The entire creative team had a chance to step back from the microscope and allow the hour to unfold in real time. This week we’re gathering our thoughts and sharing them.
I cannot say enough about the value of an environment where all parties bring experience, smarts, patience and good will to bear. Kevin staged the piece, and Tim conducted it, as if we were going to perform it. The singers dug deep and worked hard. Stage management endured our almost-daily chances of rehearsal venue with admirable good humour. And the composer and librettist were willing to look at their material with enough detachment and professionalism to allow it to breathe.
As we formulate our responses to the workshop, John is busily orchestrating Act I, and Mark is writing the libretto to Act II. Things will move quickly to keep us on track for workshopping Act II in September! Till then, we turn our collective opera attention to summer 2009, which is (gulp) right around the corner…