Behind the Scenes at Opera North
A Small, Talented Army Travels the Upper Valley on a Shoestring Budget
Playing the witty, rough-around-the-edges Eliza Doolittle, Emily Brockway sings about Eliza's wishes for a better life in "Wouldn't it be Loverly," during a rehearsal for Opera North's production of My Fair Lady at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hanover, N.H., on July 22, 2014. Brockway is flanked by Cockney girls played by Caitlyn McKechney, left, and Emily Geller.
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Choreographer Susan Lamontagne, left, works out dance steps with Branch Fields, playing Alfred Doolittle, in the vestibule of Our Savior Lutheran Church during a rehearsal for Opera North's production of My Fair Lady in Hanover, N.H., on July 22, 2014.
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Playing Henry Higgins, a dour professor of linguistics, Mark Womack belts out "I'm an Ordinary Man," to Music Director Louis Burkot during a rehearsal for Opera North's production of My Fair Lady at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hanover, N.H., on July 22, 2014.
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Branch Fields, playing Alfred Doolittle, sings about avoiding responsibility in "A Little Bit of Luck," during a rehearsal for Opera North's Production of My Fair Lady at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hanover, N.H., on July 23, 2014.
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When Opera North opens its annual season on Saturday at the Lebanon Opera House with a production of Lerner and Loewe’s classic musical My Fair Lady , followed in the next two weeks by Verdi’s La Traviata and a Young Artists performance of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene , it will deploy nearly 90 singers, musicians and extras, two conductors, three costume designers, a lighting designer, a set designer, two stage directors, two choreographers, a sound engineer, scores of lights, four backdrops and hundreds of props.
It’s not unlike going to war, with troops, officers, specialized equipment and clothing, objectives within objectives, and strict timelines. Everything depends on everybody doing their job s, and doing it well.
But what might cost a small opera company some $1.5 million to stage the same three ambitious works is being done on a shoestring at Opera North, said its executive director Pamela Pantos. By the end of the year, Opera North will have brought a spring concert, the three operas and education and outreach to the Upper Valley for a minuscule $670,300.
By contrast, according to an article this spring in the Wall Street Journal , the Metropolitan Opera spent an outsized $4.3 million this year on a lavish production of the Russian opera Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin, which included $169,000 for a set depicting a field awash in brilliant red poppies; the cost for sets for all three operas at Opera North is roughly $15,000.
The Met spent more modestly on a production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin : $2.7 million. But the Met’s budget for Prince Igor or Eugene Onegin looks miserly next to the gargantuan $75 million it cost to mount the ill-fated Spiderman musical on Broadway.
What does it take for Opera North to stage three productions with large casts on an impossibly tight budget without compromising quality and artistry? The answers are as simple, and as complex as these: Ingenuity, collaboration and the support of the community, from financial donors to volunteers.
“It’s such an incredible effort from everybody ... Everybody thinks it’s about the main performers, but it’s not that at all,” said Pantos, who has been executive director of the company for six years.
On a sultry evening last Tuesday, the cast of My Fair Lady , which includes principals and Young Artists, rehearse in a large room at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hanover. They were called for 6 p.m., making it their second run-through of the day. Opening night is a little more than 10 days away.
Louis Burkot, Opera North’s artistic director and the conductor for My Fair Lady , is at the front of the room along with the stage director Catherine Doherty, lighting designer John Bartenstein, choreographer Susan LaMontagne, costume designer Collette Benoit, stage manager Byron Abens and other members of the crew. They sit with the book and score in hand, marking cues as the cast rehearses. Arthur Bosarge, who is in the Young Artists program, which trains both singers and aspiring directors, conductors and designers, sits next to Burkot, accompanying the performers on an upright piano.
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion , My Fair Lady debuted on Broadway in 1956 with Rex Harrison as the irascible martinet Henry Higgins, voice and dialect coach, and Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl who wants to rise above her station in class-conscious, early 20th -c entury London.
The Opera North production stars opera singer Mark Womack, who has sung with the company before in Romeo and Juliet , and a newcomer, Emily Brockway, who comes out of musical theater. Out of some 200 women who submitted their resumes, Brockway was one of 20 finalists to audition.
It was clear pretty quickly that Brockway was the one, said Doherty, who is best known to Upper Valley audiences as a longtime director and actor with Northern Stage. While the other women had talent and had performed the role in national and international tours, Doherty said, “they seemed stuck” in those earlier productions. Brockway’s interpretation seemed fresh. Burkot cast Womack because he has performed both opera and musical theater.
Because he was not a natural singer, Rex Harrison was famous for performing the songs in a kind of patois that combined both song and speech, a talking singing. Womack, on the other hand, is a trained singer and has been able to switch back and forth easily between singing the songs, and speaking them.
“It all kind of blends together. It’s a skill he has by nature or has learned over the years,” Burkot said in a later telephone interview.
The organizing theme of this season, Burkot said, is London-Paris-New York: the London of My Fair Lady , the Paris of La Traviata and the New York of Street Scene , each of which “embodies the personalities of these cities.” The range of settings also gives the company, he said, “an opportunity to capitalize on what we think our strength is, which is to show off singers with a broad range of skills.”
As one of the most accomplished and wittiest of 20th century Broadway musicals , My Fair Lady had been under discussion for some time, Burkot said. But it has very particular requirements. It asks, he said, singers to “use their voices the way an actor would. The characters are so detailed, they’re not broadly sketched, particularly the two leading roles. The singing is complex but not in a sort of showy way. I thought there would be a lot of interest in these roles.”
As with most works of art what sounds or looks effortless is accomplished through both talent and endless hard work. Librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe produced a score that combined devilishly clever, Gilbert and Sullivan-like wordplay with poignant but unsentimental ballads, and rollicking music hall numbers.
“The desired effect is one of very melodious writing,” Burkot said. “But it’s almost second place to the display of the words. Nothing is sacrificed for the rhythm of words, that’s front and center from the very beginning.”
By 9 p.m., the rehearsal room in the church is stuffy and hot, and the cast’s energy is waning.
“It’s so nice and cool in here, Maestro,” Doherty said, looking at Burkot. Then she raises her voice to the cast. “Let’s go!”
Those on stage walk slowly to the front while those not in the scene sit on chairs in the back, dangling their legs over other chairs, looking at their iPods or smartphones or talking quietly at the back. Brockway and Womack are rehearsing the ending of the show, when Eliza Doolittle tells Higgins she’s disillusioned and angered by the way he’s treated her as a robotic commodity, rather than a human being with feelings. Womack drops a few lines, Brockway yawns.
“They’re officially at the wall now,” Doherty said.
“We’re in the homestretch,” Burkot said encouragingly to the cast.
Last Friday afternoon, Brockway and Christopher Flockton, an English actor who lives in Hartford and plays Henry Higgins’ kindly roommate Col. Pickering, are in a drab office in Whipple Place in Lebanon fitting their costumes. A schedule is attached to a wall showing the costume changes from scene to scene, and what each leading performer will wear. Costume designer Collette Benoit is making notes on what needs adjustment — sleeves let out or waists taken in, shoes that fit, or don’t. A side room contains nothing but hats, laid out neatly on the floor.
Brockway is attempting to get her feet into a pair of tightly-laced boots she’ll wear during a scene set at Ascot, the famous English race course, but they don’t fit, so Benoit brings her another pair. Flockton, trying on a tweed jacket, realizes that as eternal bachelor Pickering, he’ll need to remove his wedding band for the show.
In the next room, Marissa Baker and Kearney Starr, the costume designers for La Traviata and Street Scene , are busy sewing. The two women are also responsible for overseeing the costumes’ maintenance during the run, washing, ironing and making any repairs. On the wall near them are photocopies of Edwardian women wearing lofty hats the size of battleships.
Benoit, who has also designed costumes for Northern Stage, begins her work months before actual production, reading the musical book, researching the period, collecting articles of clothing and accessories. She then designs what’s called the costume plot, the flow of costumes from scene to scene that “hopefully support the character.”
The way costume helps the audience interpret the story and characters can be very subtle, so subtle that the audience may not register it consciously, which is the point, Benoit said.
In a later scene, Brockway, who has flaming red hair, is dressed in green. Flockton will wear a greenish vest. The entire scene is shot through with green tones, which signals, Benoit said, that both Higgins and Col . Pickering are sympathetic to Eliza. In a later scene, Eliza’s suitor, Freddy, wears a brown hat, not a green one, which tells the audience, whether they realize it or not, that he is not destined to win her heart.
To marshal some 80 different costumes for the show on the Opera North budget, said Benoit, “you have to be resourceful.”
The hats alone would challenge the costume budget were they to buy them outright, and have them shipped. So, Benoit said, what they didn’t already have in stock, or could borrow from other companies, they sewed themselves. Pantos bought unadorned hat bases and Opera North volunteers decorated and sewed them in one afternoon in early July. “They came up with some incredible pieces.”
Benoit, who lives in Chester, Vt., has chosen to work in regional theater because she’s found that bigger budgets sometimes come with bigger headaches, and not necessarily better quality. “Sometimes more is just more. I don’t like it when bigger productions throw money at a problem,” she said.
Opening night is a eight days a way. Rehearsals have moved from the church to the Opera House. It’s rare for a cast to spend the entire rehearsal time, which in the case of My Fair Lady was a month, on the stage. The set designer Karen Kozlowski, sitting in the house with Doherty, lighting designer Bartenstein and technical manager Craig Mowery, is anxiously awaiting the arrival, via Federal Express, of three backdrops, which have been late in coming.
Kozlowski and Bartenstein are following the backdrops’ progress on their phones, using the tracking number. They were supposed to get there the day before but, according to the Federal Express website, the Opera North office was closed when the delivery person tried to deliver them.
There’s a discussion among them about whether the office was closed or open — open, they decide; yes, someone was there — but the long and short of it is that the backdrops, some of which will be used in both My Fair Lady and Traviata , are not at the Opera House and they need them, as the saying goes, yesterday.
The back of the stage shows Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in moody darkness. No cast are on the stage at present: it’s a tech rehearsal. Bartenstein sits in front of a long table that holds the laptop with which he cues the lights. The London backdrop shifts from darkness to sunset to something in between. Doherty, watching, observes that Bartenstein is “sculpting what’s happening emotionally with light.”
Kozlowski, who is the head of tech design in the theater department at the State University of New York at Binghamton, began working on the set design in the spring, mindful of ways she could economize creatively. So she designed backdrops and sets that could work in more than one production: a garden backdrop in My Fair Lady will also be used in Traviata ; and, said Pantos, it also can be used next spring in a Lebanon City Center Ballet production of Alice in Wonderland .
To get a sense of how technology has changed theater and opera , look no further than the London backdrop, which looks a little like Monet’s famous canvases of the Houses of Parliament. It looks painted but it has been digitally produced by a company in Pennsylvania that specializes in scenery, said Kozlowski.
It began as a photograph that Kozlowski liked and then manipulated digitally on her computer, and was then transferred as a file to the company. Kozlowski’s preference would have been to see the backdrops on muslin, but because that expense was prohibitive, they are printed instead on matte vinyl. As she explains the process, the news comes that the drops will be there in two minutes.
“The eagle has landed!” Doherty exclaimed.
Within five minutes, the stage crew has unpacked the drops and attached them to what are called the pipes, which are rolled up at the top of the stage until they’re ready to be used.
With just five days until the opening, the cast and crew are now putting in 12 to 14 hour days at the Opera House, hammering out the finer details. On Monday they’re going through the tech rehearsal, matching the action on stage to the action of the lights and sound.
This is the first year that Opera North is using supertitles in its English language productions, to make it easier for the audience to follow the dialogue, Pantos said. And it’s also the first year, said Bartenstein, that they will be using hand-operated follow lights to put spotlights on performers at key moments, rather than having to program them into the computer, which makes everybody’s job easier.
“The job now is to keep everybody really calm. If there’s a fire and there always is, out job is to put it out,” said Pantos, sitting at the back of the house. “And keep it out,” said Burkot, who has walked up to talk to Pantos.
“This is the challenging week,” Pantos said.
The cast and crew break for lunch. The stage is quiet. From the audience, the stage looks spacious. In reality, it is shallow, with almost no space in the wings. Performers or dancers coming off-stage have to pull up so they don’t hit the Opera House walls, rather like an airplane braking at maximum force as it comes in to land on a short runway.
To give the illusion of greater depth, Kozlowski designed a sloping rake that extended the stage out into the theater, which has its own perils. Watching from the audience, Pantos gets up to give a note to choreographer LaMontagne about the apparent placement of a crate at the edge of the stage. Pantos is worried that the performer sitting on the crate, legs dangling off the stage, will interfere with the musicians in the orchestra. LaMontagne assures Pantos that she is, in fact, moving the crate so that doesn’t happen.
Farther down in the house, Bartenstein is running swiftly through the lighting changes. Based in Springfield, Mass., he has worked in musical theater, opera and ballet for more than 20 years and has been Opera North’s lighting designer for five years.
Like the other designers, once he accepts an assignment he researches the show’s history, the period and the settings, reads the score and talks to the director. He then spends 30 to 40 hours drafting the lighting plot into his computer. For the uninitiated, the lighting plot, he explained, is the ground plan of the theater and where the lights are, what colors they’ll be, where they’ll point and what their purpose is. Every light is assigned a different channel in the computer program.
Once that’s completed, he said, he creates the look of a scene, and “then it’s much more of an art form.” The effect of light on an audience is immensely suggestive, but they’re not always aware of how just how evocative it is.
“Sometimes the biggest compliment is no compliment at all. Subtlety is powerful,” Bartenstein said.
Lunch over, the cast begins to drift back into the theater. With any luck, by the time the rehearsal is finished, they will have worked 10 hours and not 12 to 14, which pushes everyone to the limit of what’s tolerable. But even as the blocking and lighting proceeds at what seems like a tortoise pace, there’s a sense of magic being wrought, piece by painstaking piece.
“I’ve been working in the profession 33 or 34 years,” said Doherty. “And I never get tired of seeing how this all comes together.”
Nicola Smith can be reached at email@example.com.