After a successful skit rehearsal, we are ready to face another run-through tonight. You can perhaps imagine the complications, inherent in an opera production, that are not present in a straight concert. The singers have all their music memorized, and they are acting as well as singing. They can’t just stand there and look at the conductor. The conductor has to deal with the singers, the orchestra (that’s us!), the timing of everything. There are changes of lighting and sets to coordinate with the music. There are issues of balance, since the singers move around and since their voices project much more when they sing up high than down low. There is, in this opera, a scene in which one singer is singing from off-stage. Where should she go? The balcony is perfect, but then she can be seen entering by audience members seated in the balcony. We could close the balcony, but that means less audience. Everything is balance and discussion, balance and discussion.
This afternoon, the director worked through the skit scene with us. The scene takes place in a dance club in London in the 1980s. The lead character is a young Chinese woman dressed outlandishly as a pineapple (don’t ask me – I never went to dance clubs). In the skit, the brass players take turns uttering reprehensibly racist pickup lines to her. We stand in line stiffly, waiting to deliver our come-ons in an acting style that makes Kevin Costner look loose and expressive by comparison. The director instructs us to pretend to have excited conversation as we wait, possibly gesturing at our hero to accompany a suitably ribald comment. Suddenly, the scene starts popping a little. He works with each of us, making our snide comments come to life. I play a moron who compares the hero favorably to his Jewish mother, remarking with pleasure that Chinese women are submissive. I eventually (when I can remember my lines; Brenda has memorized lines and notes for a 50-minute opera, and I can’t keep 4 lines in my head for 30 seconds) get the hang of it, and come across like a sniveling, pseudo-sensitive asshole. We all start putting some personality into our roles, and we end up with a thoroughly offensive pickup scene at which our hero takes justified offense.
Next to fix: another part of the club scene. Again, the brass players are to create a murmur in the dance club, with occasional offensive remarks shouted out. We have terrific balance problems: there is a tape recording (thank you, Su (the composer) for giving us a little break from playing), there is live percussion playing a club beat, there is plenty going on, and how do you create a murmur with five guys, and add the shouted come-on lines on top of it? We eventually work it out (thank you, Ben, our trombonist, who came up with the solution). Jon and I mutter the whole time, while Tim, Ben, and Ray take turns shouting out lewdities. They are busy at work as I write, inventing their crude commentaries. Not only does the scene, played this way, create the right atmosphere – it gives Jon and me a great opportunity to horse around and blow off some steam, while looking like we are having a great time, which we are.
If a production lives or dies in the details, then we can feel good at having addressed a few of these details and found solutions that work.
Four local newspapers ran articles today about the opera. The first performance is in two days. Tonight, we check transitions again, which is not fascinating, and then run through the opera for the second time.
Final note: there is an understudy for the main role. What if Brenda takes ill? This is how an opera production (or any play, I guess) works: someone has to sit there and watch everything on the off-off-off chance of having to go on. Mary, Brenda’s understudy, whom we have watched watching us for 3 days, had a chance to sing one number today. She sounded great. What a tough job.