Monday | Apr 15, 2013

The work onstage by Conductor and guest blogger Hal France

Artistic rendering of costumes by Julia Noulin-Merat

We are now just over one week into rehearsals and each day one sees and feels the promise of the work. We’ve entered the heart of the story with explorations, shaping and dramatic choices being made by artists Sam Ramey, Kara Shay Thomson and Director Andrew Eggert.  In the process, each artist offers so much personal energy and investment to make things work. I’m not sure that, when seeing the performance onstage, fans realize how much personal vulnerability and ‘give and take’ is involved in the music theater collaboration.

This particular way of telling stories seeks the emotional ‘Ground Zero’ of human situations. It asks a lot of the people telling us the story, the singing actors. If we were to decide today, that there was no value in bringing out the strongest, most extreme things that happen inside people when they are pushed to the limit, opera should stop today! Most of us would not like our personal lives to be like operas. It would be just too intense. Most of us seek lives inside a comfort zone that’s manageable.

Bluebeard’s Castle as brought to life by the young Hungarians Bela Bartok and Bela Balasz in 1911 and tells the story of a situation that is beyond most comfort zones. That’s a good thing in my opinion.  Do you go to the movies to see something that is exactly like your life?

Bartok and Balasz explored the ‘what ifs’ of intimate relationships and situations happening on the edge of reality. The process it shows us something of how people behave in relationships, the conflicts they have, the resolutions they attempt, and the dangers they risk. As they say, nothing about this story is something you should try at home, but getting out of the house and our comfort zones is something that we need to do.

Join us for the performances of Bluebeard’s Castle next Friday night, April 19 at 7:30pm or Sunday, April 21 at 2:00pm!

If you’d like to sample the music and story ahead of time, join me for a short preview in the lobby 45 minutes before curtain. Enjoy!

Tickets can be purchased online through Ticket Omaha or by calling 402-345-0606.


Thursday | Apr 11, 2013

The Newlywed Game + an extremely twisted episode of Let’s Make a Deal = Love in Bluebeard’s Castle

The Newlywed Game + an extremely twisted episode of Let’s Make a Deal = love in Bluebeard’s Castle by Assistant Director and Guest Blogger, Allison Lingren

Photo from “The Gloss”

Monday night, there was a moment when Kara Shay Thomson, Judith, was marking (which means going through the blocking without singing at full volume) the beginning of the opera. All of a sudden, in response to one of Judith’s multiple requests to brighten the castle up, Sam Ramey dramatically proclaimed in his resounding bass-baritone: “We’re never going to turn the lights on!”

Not only was that moment hilarious, and made us all lose it for a second, it also got me thinking. If this were the Marriage of Figaro, the first 18 pages would be construed as Figaro and Susanna bickering over how high to set the thermostat and whether to leave the blinds open or closed. Then, the Count would probably come in and explain that the room next to his is much warmer, and Susanna should probably just sleep there…

But this is Bartok, and so opening material that, without music or subtext, could appear to be mundane marital discord over keeping the thermostat at a reasonable 68 degrees, instead plunges us headfirst into the script of Judith’s personal (and deeply psychological) episode of The Newlywed Game.  Though Bluebeard is reluctant to invite her in, she overturns his repeated attempts to push her away by reminding him that she gave up everything– family, roses, sunshine, even a fiancée– for him. In a moment of total transparency, she admits that if he turns her away, he will find her collapsed on his doorstep. Judith gives herself over to Bluebeard completely and, in return, she demands access to his entire internal being.

This story probably would have a much happier outcome if Judith stuck to traditional Newlywed questions like “What candy bar would you choose to describe our love life?”. Spoiler alert: That’s assuming his answer isn’t “Milky Way Midnight and you will join Babe Ruth, Mars Gold, and Hershey’s Bliss Dark Chocolate in my secret candy drawer.” But that wouldn’t make for very good opera, and so Judith’s version of The Newlywed Game morphs into an extremely twisted episode of Let’s Make a Deal.

Stay tuned to find out what’s behind Doors Number 1-3!

Do you need tickets to see Bartok’s operatic masterpiece on April 19 or 21? Purchase them online at Ticket Omaha or by calling 402-345-0606.

Tuesday | Apr 09, 2013

The Many Lives of Duke Bluebeard–by Assistant Director and Guest Blogger Allison Lingren

The Many Lives of Duke Bluebeard

From the Prologue of Bluebeard’s Castle:

“The curtain of my eyelids is raised,

Take notice until it drops again,                                                                                           

Ladies and Gentlemen”:

My name is Allison Lingren, and I am the Assistant Director of Bluebeard’s Castle. It is my happy task to take notes on all the finesse and detail work that Andrew, Sam, Kara Shay, Nils, Hal, and Krisztina do in staging rehearsals so that as the work progresses, we can refer back to the ‘Aha!’ moments and make sure they remain a part of the production. In turn, I get to share these moments with you and throw the door wide open (pun intended) on the rehearsal process!

Last night, the entire team came together for the first time. Stage Director Andrew Eggert and Production Designer Julia Noulin-Merat walked Sam and Kara Shay through the maze of floor tape that will become a real life labyrinth of platforms and stairs when we move into the performance space on Sunday. In his Director’s Notes, Andrew mentions that the production concept began with the symbolism of the locked door, which then was multiplied to create an entire theatrical space. The interior of Bluebeard’s castle is a complex structure of doors and passageways that physicalize Judith’s inner turmoil as she attempts to navigate and uncover the hidden corners of Bluebeard’s psyche. One has to wonder if the end result would be different if she would just stop and ask for directions!

We began at the beginning, as would please the King of Hearts. The Speaker (or, as he is sometimes called, the Bard), played by Nils Haaland, addresses the audience directly in the spoken Prologue. In this production, the Speaker takes the form of Duke Bluebeard’s devoted butler, a man who has been with him for decades, or, we begin to suspect, even centuries. He has seen this story play out between Bluebeard and his wives before.

The original “Bluebeard” story, the children’s tale about a monstrous prince who cruelly murders his wives for disobeying him, is centuries old and has taken on many shapes. It originated as one of the Mother Goose tales written by Charles Perrault alongside classics like “Cinderella”, “Puss in Boots”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and “Little Red Riding Hood”. After its publication in 1697, “Bluebeard” quickly established itself as a standard in the realm of children’s literature in France, Germany, England, and elsewhere in Europe.

However, by end of the eighteenth century, the story began to be adopted and recast many times over by the adult world of literature and opera. Writers explored the psychological motives for Bluebeard’s murderous tendencies and saw him as a lonely man haunted by repeated disappointments in the never-ending search for love.

To Bartok and the opera’s librettist, Balazs, the story was a powerful metaphor for the difficulties that men feel in their relationships with women. And so the Bluebeard character in Bartok’s opera is not the predatory creature from the Perrault tale who shouts so fiercely at his doomed wife that his bellows “make the whole house tremble.” Instead, the moans and the trembling now come from the castle itself, an external manifestation of Bluebeard’s loneliness.

But I digress – back to the Speaker! Andrew sees this character as the conduit of the story, and he and Nils are continuing to experiment with the perfect blend of ingredients needed to create this slightly paranormal figure (part devoted butler of an aristocrat, part human embodiment of Theatre, and a splash of the circus barker with a slightly sinister smirk).

As work on the Prologue went on, our Hungarian language coach and  accompanist, Krisztina Kover, pointed out that the score’s English translation actually leaves out the first two lines of the Hungarian text and begins with the 3rd line, which equates to the traditional “Once upon a time…” in English.  She translated the first two lines on the spot, and it was decided that “A riddle, ladies and gentlemen” will be the opening line of Opera Omaha’s production of Bluebeard’s Castle. Krisztina even played us a recording of a prominent Hungarian actor performing the Prologue in the original language, which got Nils thinking about the Prologue as an incantation. Cool discoveries like that are what make the rehearsal process fun!

Well, I shouldn’t give everything away in my first post! Stay tuned to the blog, where I’ll continue to expose more of the secrets of Bluebeard’s Castle, at least until Andrew decides I’ve said too much and shuts me up in a room with the three previous Assistant Directors…

Wednesday | Apr 03, 2013

Bluebeard Rehearsals Begin–by Hal France, Conductor and Guest Blogger

In just a few days, our team for Bluebeard’s Castle will arrive and start work. We will begin our process for this intriguing work with Stage Director Andrew Eggert, Designer Julia Noulin-Merat, and our superb cast led by the renowned American bass Samuel Ramey and rising dramatic soprano Kara Shay Thomson. We also have a special guest joining us, Accompanist and Hungarian Language Coach, Krisztina Kover. I’m pumped!!

You will not find a major American opera singer of the past three decades that epitomizes “best in the world” more than Sam Ramey. He is a superb performer who drew audiences to opera with his visceral stage presence, signature sound and rock solid technique. He has been sought after for leading roles in the finest productions and best recording projects year after year.

Whether singing Boris, Mephistopheles, or Figaro, Bel Canto or American Musicals, he has delivered on the world’s biggest stages. The contributions he’s made to opera and music have been very significant.

Sam has sung with Opera Omaha on two previous occasions. Early in his career, he joined Beverly Sills for the historic production of Lucia di Lammermoor that re- opened the Orpheum in 1975. His world tour program of Opera’s devil roles, Date with The Devil, came to Omaha in 1999. Samuel Ramey starred with Jessye Norman in a new production of Bluebeard’s Castle at the Metropolitan Opera that was broadcast on PBS. To say Opera Omaha is fortunate to have Samuel Ramey as our Bluebeard would be the greatest of understatements.

Of our leading lady and her performance of Tosca, it was said, “by her passionate restraint she was able to build a character, which was in every sense, a great woman.” I’m looking forward to working with Kara Shay Thomson.

I’m so impressed with the range of her repertoire and roles. Concert works like The Bells by Rachmaninoff, Strauss’s Four Last Songs and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony require personal depth and musicianship. Leading operatic heroines like Tosca and Sieglinde take great presence and understanding. Adventures operas like Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle take a special kind of intelligence and courage! These are only a few of her accomplishments to date.

The character she portrays in Bluebeard’s Castle, Judith, is cut from the same cloth as many of the great operatic heroines. Brave, complex, creative, and ultimately human, Judith is a superb character and a great challenge for a talented singing actress.

I’m thrilled to be working with Samuel Ramey and Kara Shay Thomson.

In my previous blog entry, I mentioned upcoming events surrounding Bluebeard’s Castle. Here are a few that you won’t want to miss.

Kansas native Sam Ramey will lead a Vocal Master Class for aspiring UNL singers at First Plymouth Church in Lincoln on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. It’s free and open to the public. This is a great opportunity for the singers and audience.

Tuesday, April 9 at 7 p.m. at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Andrew Eggert and Julia Noulin-Merat will present their concept for the production of Bluebeard’s Castle. I’ve watched this young team at work over the past year and expect that this conversation between director and designer will be an fascinating one for Omaha’s visual arts, theater, and opera communities. The Bemis is the perfect site for this discussion about design, symbols, secrets and history!

Speaking of history, 1911 was a very important year for the world of art. It included the completion of Bluebeard’s Castle, the publishing of Arnold Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony and Kandinsky’s On The Spiritual in Art.

Schoenberg’s twelve-tone harmony revolutionized music. Kandinsky, a painter widely credited with making the world’s first abstract paintings, was closely associated with Schoenberg and music. Kandinsky wrote extensively about music’s inherent abstract language and how it might be carried over into visual art. An epiphany came to Kandinsky during a performance of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. He dedicated himself to creating pathways where visual arts, poetry, music and theater could intersect and be infused with new energies. Kandinsky became one of the most important visual artists of the 20th century and his creativity exploded while listening to of all things, an opera performance!

April 9th at the Bemis will be your chance to hear how art forms will merge in Opera Omaha’s upcoming production with Stage Director Andrew Eggert and Production Designer Julia Noulin-Merat. Don’t miss them!

More information about these events is available on Opera Omaha’s Facebook page. To buy tickets to Bluebeard’s Castle, call 402-345-0606 or visit Ticket Omaha online.

Friday | Mar 29, 2013

The Symphony and a Psycho-Thriller–by guest blogger Hal France

Today I had the pleasure of being onstage with the Omaha Symphony at the Holland Center and I am looking forward to the contribution those musicians will make to our production of Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

There will be several really good opportunities before the performances on April 19 and 21 for everyone to get into my current favorite opera. On Tuesday, April 9, Stage Director Andrew Eggert and Production Designer Julia Noulin-Merat will be at the Bemis at 7 p.m. talking about their concept. I will be at Joslyn Castle with Nils Haaland on Friday, April 12 at 7 p.m. to talk about the score. We will also all be together in Opera Omaha’s space on Tuesday, April 16 at noon for lunch and ideas. Finally, I will be doing lobby previews 45 minutes before curtain for both shows.

Because of the production concept of Eggert, Noulin-Merat, and Opera Omaha there will be an orchestra of 70 playing Bartok’s score in the performance. This is the largest orchestra to play a full production at the Orpheum in Opera Omaha’s history. They won’t be in their usual spot, the orchestra pit; capacity 52, but will be in Duke Bluebeard’s castle onstage!

This will allow the audience a chance to experience Bartok’s remarkable score in its full sonic splendor. This new approach taken by General Director Roger Weitz opens the possibility for more new adventures and a variety of great operas in future seasons. Very cool!!

Last night, my class at UNO looked at a really interesting connection between this opera and one of my favorite things, movies! Bluebeard is really an operatic psycho- thriller! It precedes the film genre that Hitchcock, Welles, Scorsese and countless filmmakers made popular.

The class listened to Bernard Hermann’s scores for Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1959), and Citizen Kane (1941). We heard many things that reminded of Bluebeard. It’s interesting that Bartok and Bela Balazs, his librettist, finished Bluebeard in 1911 the same year Hermann was born. At the time, Bartok was 30, the same age Hermann would be when he completed his masterful score for Citizen Kane.

Listening to Hermann’s music and then to Bluebeard, one could hear what a resource classical composers were to the Filmic Arts. Long before filmmakers could show the limitless human imagination, larger than life visions were the ‘Bread and Butter’ of great musical storytellers and sound painters like Bartok, Stravinsky, Debussy and so many others.

Bluebeard’s Castle is a compelling psychological thriller and the 70 Omaha Symphony musicians onstage will be crucial to its success!

Tickets for Bluebeard’s Castle are available online through Ticket Omaha or by calling 402-345-0606.


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