Tomorrow we begin the student performances of Brundibár. The Rose is the absolutely perfect stage and best theater in Omaha for us to do Brundibár. Being part of the group that organized this excellent project, we were thrilled when Julie and James at Omaha’s Theater Company for Young People found these great dates for our production. We are all very grateful for the help and support of the theater.
Brundibár is a project that I hoped the Omaha community would experience. Going back to the late 90’s, I thought it would be a great thing for Opera Omaha to do at the Rose Theater. Our upcoming shows, 11 in all, are just a fantastic thing! Not easy to say how many people and organizations have helped make this happen.
I would start by mentioning the brainstorming and activism of Eunie and Debbie Denenberg and Fred Simon (they call him Freddy, but I don’t dare). Through their efforts the Institute for Holocaust Education and the very resourceful Beth Seldin Dotan began to consider a run of performances of this opera for middle school audiences. The opera is of itself a marvelous children’s fable about the importance of friends when dealing with great trouble. The trouble is Brundibár, the organ grinder, who monopolizes the performance of music in a small town. Sounds innocent, but the tactics of well organized bullies in a fable is intended to bring to mind governmental dictators. The history of Brundibár at Terezín in Czechoslovakia where thousands of Jews were held and eventually sent to Auschwitz during the Holocaust makes it impossible to not think of the Nazis and of Hitler when considering the plot of the opera.
I should mention, that last year, the Omaha Conservatory under the direction of Ruth Meints and Cindy Sloan, did a production of Brundibár using young instrumentalists as the cast. They did a nice performance at the JCC. As far as I know, it was the first time it was performed in Omaha.
One of the many good things that happened on the way to our performances this week was the joining of Opera Omaha’s new General Director, John Wehrle to the team. Through then Board President Kim Simon and other communicators, John heard about our idea and embraced it. We never could have done this kind of show without the skill and talent of Opera Omaha’s excellent staff: Mark, Brad, Blythe, Tara, Jen, Sarah, Joe, J., Kelly, Maggie, and Tom,… forgive me if I’m forgetting someone.
Beth along with Eunie and Debbie made contact with Ela Weissberger over a year ago and invited her to be a part of these presentations to Omaha Middle Schools. Ela is a remarkable woman who originally played the role of the Cat in Terezín. She has been present at many productions of Brundibár, adding her perspective to the experience for many who have just seen the opera. We are so fortunate that she will speak with our audiences about her experience of the Holocaust, Terezín, her family, her fellow cast members, etc. At the end of every presentation, the company will perform an encore of the Victory March with Ela and the entire cast.
Up high on the list of good things, also the marvelous audition turnout we had in the spring when many of our cast members were selected. They’ve been a fabulous group to work with.
Our orchestra was put together by J. Gawf who keeps on getting better in everything he does for opera in Omaha. We have an orchestra of 16 players, nine professionals and eight young players who study violin with Anne Nagosky. Anne is our concertmaster and we couldn’t be luckier to have some of her many students playing with us.
Karen Spurck and her choir from Morton Middle School heard about the production and joined us in early September. They’ve added so much to the production and have been great to work with. We are grateful to Karen!
David Ward a splendid singer and actor from the national ranks of opera professionals is taking the role of Brundibár and bringing great humor and theatrical flair to it.
We were also amazed that the National Humanities Conference was coming to Omaha exactly the week of Brundibár. This subject and project is a perfect match for that group of national leaders in the humanities. We hope many will be present at our final show.
Finally, our stage director Helena Binder began shaping the production and the staging last week. Her energy, passion, spark and playfulness are perfect for this show! A former dancer, she’s demonstrates the movements of the cat, the dog and the sparrow particularly well. All the performers and our whole show are in great hands.
Last night was the final dress rehearsal for Pagliacci – we were able to run the acts without stopping for the most part. While we have gradually moved to running scenes and then bigger chunks of the piece – transition moments, entrances & exits often require adjustment from the work we did in the rehearsal room and our initial stage/piano rehearsals. Final dress is also one final chance to resolve the lighting cues. Ben Pearcy, our lighting designer, has focused the stage lighting with a variety of colors to both light the artists (especially their faces) and to shift the mood to mirror the emotional journey of the score. We made a number of notes at the last rehearsal, and now we need to review our work, edit our choices and see it again. We work a great deal balancing color temperature – something too bright and the life gets washed out of the picture, but something too dark or too saturated, and details are obscured. Some of the gentle gel color in the lights turned the actors’ skin and costumes the same color as some of the scenery, so that’s at the top of our list to remedy. It involves electricians on ladders crawling out to lights hung way overhead or on the balcony rail – often a time-consuming process – but it’s something you can’t really know until you put the whole picture together. Ben directs our eyes to the climax of the story in each scene – and it’s often amazing to see a set under “work-light” (normal overhead lights) and see it spring to life when the stage lights are turned on it (or in many cases, artfully turned off).
Monday was our first stage/orchestra which went quite well. But there are always those “ensemble” places between stage and orchestra that can be a challenge. A chorus (and cast) used to hearing the percussive piano has to adapt to the smoother lines of woodwinds and string instruments. Verismo opera is notorious for shifting beats and taking moments “out of time” – part of the evolution of the art form rearranging style and structure to engage the audience. Richard Buckley is a master of this style of music – so we look to him to guide our adjustments from the last rehearsal that will make a difference tonight.
At the end of rehearsal we went through our last set of notes – looking for those moments that we can improve: pointing up details to lend focus, encouraging strong moments to be a tad stronger to read to the back of the auditorium, and confirming cues with our stage manager. She’s the unsung hero of any production – the coordinator / den mother/ anticipator of problems / time keeper in all our rehearsals. You won’t see her take a bow onstage, but when the curtain goes up or the lanterns light up, she’s the one in control of all the elements and synchronizing them with the music. Opera is a great process – melding together so many talents, so many arts – and is at it’s best in a brilliant natural acoustic where the collective energy of so many becomes united behind one idea – the composer’s music. Now we look forward to adding the final element: the audience !
The last day before the final dress. This has been a fast process having started rehearsals only one week ago. All the soloists are excellent and have come very prepared. Garnett has directed a very detailed vivid production and all on stage are energized. This is the first time I have worked with the Omaha Symphony. They are being very responsive and cooperative, and I look forward to making music with them in mode. Pagliacci is always a challenge due to its musical language and huge emotional palette, but, always extremely rewarding.
I am at “home” now after the first orchestra dress. I put home in quotes for the obvious reason. It isn’t really home, but we do our best to make it feel like our home. I even go so far as to pack and ship a box of things that I consider a bit luxurious. They are mostly kitchen items: a good set of CUTCO knives, a hot water pot that heats water super fast, spices, left over kitchen condiments from my last job…you get the idea. Then before the last performance, I will pack it all up and ship it off to my next gig.
It’s always difficult to unwind after a high energy rehearsal like tonight. I was all geared up since this is my first Nedda. Before the rehearsal I “walked” through the whole show with all of my staging and double checked all of the spots I have a tendency to miss musically. I also make a game plan for the rehearsal. For example, I have a phrase that repeats itself in act 2, but with slight changes. So I resolve to commit the first version to my brain before the show and second version during the intermission so I don’t confuse myself during act 1 and accidentally go into the second version.
I also make a game plan vocally. I decided that for this rehearsal I was going to focus on taking a good low prep breath for every phrase of singing. I do these little game plans because it can be very easy to get swept away with all of the other things going on around you and not do anything well. As for how I did in succeeding with my plans? Well, I wasn’t able to get a good breath for every phrase, but I did much better that I would have if I had not planned for it. And yes, I DID get the two phrases correct for each act. A small victory.
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!”
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