Well, tonight was the sitzprobe rehearsal; the first time the singers sing against, I mean with, the orchestra. We sang while ‘sitzing’ on stage while the orchestra played in the pit of the beautiful Orpheum Theater. Someone asked me this evening how many productions of this show I have sung. I think I have sung around 6 various productions. However, it was my introduction to the piece that I would like to share with you.
While living in Germany from 95-99, I was cast as Tonio for an 8 City European tour to celebrate an anniversary celebration of Utrecht University in Holland. The university cast the opera with young professional international soloists and pulled the orchestra, chorus and crew from students, alumni and folks from Utrecht. Now, what made this tour particularly special was that we performed the opera in a round blue and orange circus tent. While the orchestra was set up on one portion of the outer ring, bleachers were set up in an identical way that one would find when attending a circus. As the crowds would come into the tent with sodas and popcorn, etc., the orchestra played Fellini Film music scores while a host of clowns, acrobats, and jugglers created a unique atmosphere preparing the environment for this magnificent piece of music drama. The audience, the tent, the summer time, and outside air all joined together to create an incredible evening. The action took place inside the tent ring where you would expect to see animal acts and the like. Nedda’s huge dress, which was hung atop the tent, looked like a net dropped and draped over the waiting sopranos head in the middle of her aria. Canio’s vest flew in as he prepared for his aria. For the Commedia scenes as well as the opening chorus the extra acrobats and jugglers had wonderful tricks.
The single element which made this a particularly wonderful experience was that the entire company traveled and camped in each city much the same way that Canio, Nedda, Tonio and Canio do in the first act. Each city where we played: Cagnes su mer, Sarlat, Luxenbourg, Bologna, Fiesole, Pisa, Luzerne, and Utrecht, greeted us as we entered the city much the same way as Leoncavallo’s characters are welcomed. We had a staff who cooked for us and the entire company of crew, orchestra and chorus camped in their own personal tents. While the principals were provided with pension or hotel stays, I chose to camp with the company. This experience of truly living Pagliacci was a tremendous gift. After the show closed the company needed to liquidate all objects and items associated with the tour. I acquired my Tonio costume which included very special shoes just made for me. I wear these shoes each time I sing this role and Rigoletto as well. Be sure to look at my shoes.
Omaha, get ready for a wonderful evening of music drama next weekend. This is another moment when I can sincerely say, “I love my job!”
Day four of rehearsal and our first night on stage – It is always exciting to move from the rehearsal space to the theater. And what a beautiful theatre visually and acoustically – an ideal space for an opera. I think it is one of the best regional theaters I have ever been in. Also, our first night with the chorus – a warm and inviting group. They sound great!
The first rehearsal on stage is always fraught with problems – a new space, always bigger than you imagine, the great distance from the orchestra pit and the conductor, but also exhilarating, like your own personal playground. The set is stunning and enormous.
But most importantly, it is my dog’s birthday today. Lulu is a seven year old Bichon Frise. She has been traveling since she was six months old and has been all over the country with us. No great celebration, but she did get a special bone from Whole Foods. We were also treated to a visit from my wife’s best friend and previous High Priestess in Aida here at Opera Omaha, Jodi Frisbie. One of the great things about the vagabond life of an opera singer is being able to reconnect with friends who live around the world. And as we unwind after the rehearsal, drinking tea and snacking, the ladies are contributing to this very blog entry.
So how is it playing lovers onstage with my wife? I will let the audience decide if we are a convincing couple.
As a native of Wichita, it is a real thrill to be back in the Midwest after years of living and singing in Europe. I am among old friends, new friends, and an ensemble of truly gifted world-class artists. This is also my first time performing the role of Beppe (the character who tries in vain – trust me on this – to keep the show going when Canio goes off the deep end and pulls the knife out). And while it may be my first time in this role, the cast is full of artists who have performed this piece a number of times, one of whom is our Canio, Tonio DiPaolo.
The singers who have done this opera before can pass on helpful tips like Tonio did for me today. At the end of Act 1, Beppe runs on to the stage to confront the knife-wielding Canio, who goes berserk after discovering that Nedda is cheating on him. Canio wants to cut Nedda to pieces, and Beppe wants to bring Canio back from the edge so that the show may go on. As Beppe temporarily calms Canio down, he must sing a particularly tricky passage that requires perfect coordination with the Maestro. One misstep and it is too late to regain musical footing.
For this entrance I had envisioned a super hero sprint across the stage, leaping down a few stairs, tackling Canio, and tossing off my tricky phrase all within five seconds. Some things work better in theory. We did it; I came in a beat late, and then realized it was not such a good idea. But you have to try things out, I believe. Tonio turned to me, made a simple and gracious staging suggestion to rectify the situation, and it worked. It is times like these when one appreciates good colleagues and a benevolent rehearsal atmosphere. Thankfully, we have an abundance of both.
This is my first blog as Canio. Being on the road and getting to know new faces and reconnecting with familiar friends is very enjoyable and also similar to the story of Pagliacci. In the opera we are a traveling troupe of performers who get caught up in a very unfortunate dilemma. Following the plot and story line is a must. In the end I end up killing my wife and her lover. In real life we are the same troupe without the problems of the opera plot. We get to make up the story as we go along. That’s why being a performer is so much fun. No killing of colleagues or complex opera plots to worry about, at least for the most part. Just an enjoyable chapter of a performer’s life where we get to live as a troupe and make music and put on a good show. A few weeks together – where all we are concerned with is our troupe. Of course we all have another side, with our families and other responsibilities to think about. But bottom line it is so much fun! What an honor to make great music with wonderful colleagues and to have another opportunity to sing Canio with Opera Omaha. Here’s to a great show, in bocca al lupo, Tonio DiPaolo signing off.
It’s 4:30 in the morning and I can’t sleep. After a year of planning, we are now poised to start principal rehearsals this morning. It’s a chance to reunite with several colleagues from past productions and to meet some singers new to me who are mightily impressive. Our chorus has worked hard the past week to capture the letter and the spirit of Leoncavallo’s choral writing, and we had the first staging rehearsal with the Ragazzi (Italian for “kids”) yesterday emphasizing key words like “Evviva!” and “Indietro” and “Arrivano !” for dramatic and vocal effect.
What keeps a stage director up at night? The pieces can’t stage themselves – nor should they. We’ve brought an extremely creative cast together, and I want to see their best ideas, their responses and reactions to the characters and situations. But, just as the strongest writer craves an editor, the best opera wants guidance, balance, and a taut storyline. Essential to this is the score. I try and base my decisions on the music – honoring pauses, tempo changes, the small indications from the composer – so that the visual story mirrors and enhances the aural one. Perhaps that’s what keeps me up at night. Do I know the score well enough? We’re listening to a bunch of clowns – or so the title says. Pagliacci is the plural of one of the Italian words for clown. Which will we believe: the clown or the human? Are we expressing ourselves or performing for you? Part of the genius of this opera is this underlying paradox.
The music is in the hands of Richard Buckley, my trusted friend and colleague. We have collaborated on Tosca, Turandot and Pagliacci over the past several years. He knows how to make these pieces crackle with life, with vigor, and above all, with dramatic intent. While we all have cherished recordings, they are placeholders for the shared experience of 100 musicians focused on a central theme, a central goal in a theater full of engaged listeners. As Pagliacci unfolds, Richard is with me at every step with his attention to our blueprint (the score) and his instinctive pacing and leadership.
One moment we staged yesterday with chorus had no singing in it whatsoever. The townspeople return from church (or the tavern) and head home before the evening’s Commedia dell arte performance. Its background to the principal action of a fight between Canio and Nedda over her supposed infidelity which we have yet to stage. With the energy of 40 additional characters onstage, the dimensions of the story become exponential. Now each of these chorus “stories” are attached to a soundtrack and we have the Verismo (“slice of life”) world unfolding in front of us. Key moments in opera almost always happen in isolation, but when the powers (and sheer numbers) collide and combine; Opera shows its true force. The visual drama on the stage matches the energy of this score. But hopefully our audience will be too caught up in the opera to notice the solid construction behind it. Pagliacci can be a harrowing ride. That’s our challenge. As rehearsals to begin — and maybe I can get the ideas out of my head, onto the stage and I can get some sleep!
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