C&V Roundup: The Last Three Sessions

Rachel Peters, guest blogger
Composers & the Voice Composer Fellow, 2011-12

It’s been a long time since you’ve heard about what goes on behind closed doors in our C&V laboratory. There are now three classes to describe, so as Inigo Montoya says in The Princess Bride, “Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.” And fellow Fellows, please chime in if I’ve misremembered or omitted something.

December 12th: We whisked through our final Role Analysis roundup, then onto acting class, where we worked with our partners to identify and agree upon beat changes in our assigned scenes from Ibsen’s Ghosts. Each team read their scene in front of the group with these discoveries in mind.

In the evening our singers were back to perform our second pieces. Let me just say that if you think opera is fusty and outmoded, we are here to prove you wrong! Topics for the evening included but were not limited to stalking, S&M, a transgender Jewish wedding, racist cops, and robot love. We began with Amy singing Ronnie’s absolutely heartbreaking “When I Find You,” another installment from her Holocaust-era opera The Waiting Woman. Then Rebecca sang my “Pronoun”; the take-home message for me was that writing the approach to the note is everything and can change the sound entirely. Justin treated us to another of Sara and Zach’s monodramas, “Installing your Blinds,” by turns lilting and sinister. Next up was Brandon’s interpretation of Mika’s setting of Rob Stephenson’s text, “O Song,” full of potent and timeless images. Equally potent are Mika’s tempo markings and instructions. My favorite is the last [instruction]: “Basically don’t make a big deal of it.” Jorell sang two songs in a row, Sidney’s harrowing “Stop and Frisk” and Rob’s playfully twisted “A Man’s Needs.”  Also from Rob’s Fetish (An Erotic Opera) was Andrea’s plaintive performance of “Talk to Me.”

December 19th: Our ranks were severely diminished by flu season and awards season- only three of us were present for an evening of acting and libretto study. After a new warm-up game called “Big Booty,” we had a chance to delve deeply into some physical character work for Ghosts based on 1) a highly detailed questionnaire Kathleen gave us 2) some people-watching we’d done with our characters in mind. Ronnie and were both assigned to play Mrs. Alving, and I was fascinated by our very different takes on her physicality. Then we played our scenes in different styles to change up what could become rote line readings. This included telenovela and, of course, opera.

Maestro Steve led us through a final sweep of Tosca libretto/score analysis (see previous blog entries for burning questions and some answers thereto), then we read William Ball’s libretto to Lee Hoiby’s A Month in the Country. We discussed potential choices of fach/range for each character relative to age and type, then Steve revealed how Hoiby went along with or against them and why.

January 17th: Special guest star Charles Jarden started off the afternoon with a chat about the logistics of producing new work and a helpfully candid/candidly helpful Q&A. Then it was on to Improv with Terry. Highlights included “Freeze Transformation,” identifying given circumstances when walking from somewhere specific and then to somewhere specific, grappling with a difficult imaginary object, free association singing based on a (not musical but literal) theme, and a game I can only call “Bippity Bippity Bop/Jello/Airplane/Elephant.” Reportedly we now have a robust toolbox from which to build longer form improve scenes.

In the evening, we heard the singers perform our third pieces. Again, we were not quite a full house, but those who were there did benefit greatly from the extra time. First came Rob’s “Soprano’s Lament” for Amy. This song, which features a lot of patter and what Amy called “chewy words,” mainly in one particular place in her range, led to a very productive discussion about stepwise vs. leap motion up to climactic high notes and optimal ways to navigate back and forth across the passaggio. Rob was open to experimenting with some changes as Amy got to try out what felt best. After that, Brandon sang my cabaret standard-ish “Baby in a Jar” (lyrics by Robert Maddock). Everyone offered up a variety of suggestions for interpretation, and after incorporating a few things I had not previously considered, the result was better than I ever imagined. Next came Sidney and Daniel’s clever interpolation of Walt Whitman’s text into another narrative. It is a terrific study of what can be done while the singer stays on only one or two notes for long stretches. Justin’s stalwart and fiery execution is proof that what looks like a lot of one thing on the page can take on all sorts of colors. The incredibly athletic piano part helps the cause too—Go Mila! Finally, Jorell sang Sara’s and Zach’s latest monodrama, “Shush, Love.” (It was Morbid Lullaby Night at C&V!) Sara, Zach and I hail from MuSiCal ThEaTrE lAnD, among other places. Every time they present I am pleasantly shocked at how they careen wildly from tropes of contemporary musical theatre sound to something altogether different; this new piece was certainly no exception. It seems to be a trademark that gets more refined every time, which is especially fun because their characters are always so blissfully sick.

We are poised to take over the opera world in 2012. Thanks as always to all the performers, coaches, and teachers. Next session: more Improv with Terry and Acting with Kathleen.

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