Lyric's Chorus Master Michael Black has been preparing the chorus of nuns and the von Trapp children (14 total, including main cast and understudies!) for the upcoming production of The Sound of Music—no easy feat!
As Lyric's chorus master since 2013 (after filling in as interim chorus master during the 2011/12 season), Black comes into The Sound of Music with a wealth of experience in the operatic world from his work with Opera Australia. He's a long-time admirer of Rodgers and Hammerstein's beloved musical. "This is my first time working on The Sound of Music, although I must have watched the movie at least a dozen times whilst growing up and am very familiar with the original Broadway cast recording, so it almost feels as though I know it as well as La Traviata or Madama Butterfly!" he says. "There's not a note of it that was unfamiliar to me when it came to preparing the music for this production."
The power of an opera chorus
Black approaches the preparations for this beloved Broadway musical with the same focus and discipline he brings to every mainstage opera. "With The Sound of Music, the chorus music is exclusively the nuns singing and therefore it has to be clean, precise, blended; all things you would expect of an opera chorus," he elaborates. "And the wonderful thing about the musicals here at Lyric is that we always offer 12 places in the chorus of the musical to members of the Regular Chorus who come to audition to be part of the production. So the sound you get is going to be the same wonderful sound you get when you come to hear one of the operas in the season."
Sound of Music's operatic connection
The original Broadway production of The Sound of Music also has a curious operatic connection, one that Black was quick to relay to the chorus for this production. "More experienced Lyric subscribers and opera lovers may remember the wonderful Tatiana Troyanos," he continues. "I love the fact that she began her professional stage career as a nun in the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music In our first ensemble music rehearsal, I spoke about this to the nuns to highlight the fact that the caliber of our work has to be this good."
Becoming a family
In addition to his work with the nuns, he reports that "working with the von Trapp children has been an absolute delight." Black was able to sit in on the audition process, so he met the actors three or four times before they were officially cast and got to know their individual personalities. "As you would expect," he adds, "each one of them is an amazingly talented individual, so to see them take all this individuality and then become an onstage family in a short space of time has been nothing short of miraculous."
An unexpected visitor
One of the highlights of the rehearsal process was in the second week, when Chicago Bulls star center Joakim Noah was in the building for a Sports Illustrated photo shoot. His changing room was next door to where Black and conductor Rob Fisher were just about to start a rehearsal von Trapp children and understudies.
Black quips, "I'm not entirely sure who was more excited meeting Joakim Noah, the kids or myself. I know I was certainly the first person in the rehearsal room to pull out their iPhone to ask to have a picture taken with him! Since moving to Chicago, I've seen three Bulls games and Joakim and Carlos Boozer are my favorites and so when Joakim walked into the room, it was unbelievable."
The children were able to perform "Do Re Mi" for Noah, and the professional athlete was even able to connect their two seemingly different worlds: "He listened to them sing and then spoke to them of the importance of teamwork, having a good coach and then being able to listen to the coach and then performing as a team, all things in common with both sport and opera or stage work."
His favorite things
When asked about his favorite part of the show, Black confesses to being "an old sentimental sucker. I always mist up when Captain von Trapp and Maria realize they're in love and in this production it's a very beautiful moment with Billy and Jenn." Unable to choose just one moment, he also notes that "Christine Brewer will bring the house down with 'Climb Ev'ry Mountain' and I'm getting goose bumps right now thinking about the reprise right at the end of the opera with the entire ensemble singing with her."
Finally, he can't help but put in a bid for the youngest von Trapp: "Little Gretl , as you would expect, steals every scene she's in."
- Michael Black (credit Kurt Sneddon)
- Nuns in rehearsal (credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago)
- Joakim Noah visits Lyric Opera (credit Carrie Krol / Lyric Opera of Chicago)
- Nicole Scimeca (Gretl) in The Sound of Music (credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago)