Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Opera 101: Inside tech week

Opera secrets revealed! What happens at Lyric during the summer? Each opera has a week-long summer tech. Read on to for a day-by-day breakdown of the preparations for Verdi's Il Trovatore.

Lyric's opera season doesn't officially start until Saturday, September 27, when the eagerly anticipated new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni opens the Diamond Anniversary season. However, the staff is already busy behind the scenes. For Lyric's technical department, the most intensive period is the eight weeks of tech—one week for each mainstage opera.

Here's a day-by-day breakdown of the tech week for Verdi's Il Trovatore. Wondering what exactly tech week is? It's the period of time where the sets are assembled so that the lighting and automation cues can be programmed. One of the key elements of Trovatore that dominates the preparations: the giant turntable that houses almost the entire set. It rotates to change scenes and transition between acts without a break in the action.

(A look at ll Trovatore in performance)

Wednesday, July 23 and Thursday, July 24

The trucks carrying the sets for Il Trovatore arrived at Lyric for unloading.  As one of the largest shows being presented this year, it took two full days to unload. The sets for Porgy and Bess were still on Lyric's stage at the time, finishing up their tech week touches while Trovatore was delivered.

Friday, July 25

The Porgy and Bess set was dismantled starting at 8 a.m. It took the stage crew most of the day on Friday (and even part of the day Saturday!) to completely take apart and pack up Porgy.

(The scenery handling area backstage is always busy during tech.)

Saturday, July 26

As soon as the crew finished taking down Porgy, assembly of the Trovatore sets began. During any tech week, the crew first tackles anything that needs to be flown in (meaning items that will need to come in from above during the performance), while the stage is completely empty. For Trovatore, this includes the Goya-inspired show drop curtain that greets audience members when they arrive and the wraparound cyclorama—the half-cylinder show backdrop that is raised when not in use. There is also a gate and part of a wall that are brought in during part of the show—an impressive technical feat.

(These items need to fly! Clockwise from upper left: The Goya-inspired show curtain; the cyclorama from the stage looking up and from the top of the fly space, looking down.)

Sunday, July 27

The show deck was assembled. Very few operas actually take place on Lyric's real stage floor. A show either has a floor (any covering 0 to 2" in height) or a deck (anything over 2"). Because Trovatore's sets are on a rotating turntable, the show has a 12" deck so that the motorized elements can fit underneath. The deck for Trovatore is divided into pieces that are 6 ft x 6 ft and then assembled to cover most of the stage. Once the deck is built, the rest of the show's elements (walls, rocks, gates, etc.) are put into place. 

(One blueprint of the show's deck and a look at the turntable's motor on stage.)

Monday, July 28

Monday was completely devoted to lighting. The lighting crew comes in and figures out the various lights that need to be focused on stage.

Tuesday, July 29; Wednesday, July 30; and Thursday, July 31

Once the set was completely assembled. work began in earnest. The lighting cues and automation cues were written and programmed. The set was checked for improvements, with detailed notes on what needs to be repaired or retouched for when it is actually back on stage.

(On set repairs in progress)

Friday, August 1

Goodbye Trovatore, hello Tannhäuser. The sets were completely dismantled to make room for the next opera, and the cycle starts again. 

Where does it all go?

 After tech week,Il Trovatore's sets were divided up for storage. Some pieces are still here at Lyric in the cavernous space underneath the theater. Other pieces of the set were loaded into trucks and taken to Lyric's storage yard on the south side. Some portions of what went offsite were set aside in rehearsal trucks so that they can come back for the start of rehearsals and be assembled in Room 200, Lyric's main rehearsal space. The rest will come back about a week before onstage rehearsals begin.

Photo credits:

  • Il Trovatore production still credit Dan Rest / Lyric Opera of Chicago
  • Il Trovatore show curtain photo credit Robert Kusel / Lyric Opera of Chicago
  • Backstage photos by Carrie Krol / Lyric Opera of Chicago

Opera 101: The mystery of the white marks

One of our readers noticed some white notations on the side of Lyric's stage when he was at The Second City Guide to the Opera. What do those names and numbers mean? Opera 101 is on the case!

If you came to the cabaret performances of The Second City Guide to the Opera in June 2013, you got a view of Lyric that few ever see. The performances happened on stage, with the audience looking out into the theater. While attending a cabaret performance, Marty R. (one of our eagle-eyed readers) noticed these markings on the side of stage of the opera house and asked what they meant:

These white marks depict names of operas, the years they were performed, and dimensions that detail how wide the proscenium opening will be for that production. The stagehands bring in the hard side of the stage based on the set design for a particular opera.

The marks go back years because a production always has the possibility of being revived. Plus, these notations provide a quick guide for stagehands who have to assemble sets quickly. Since Lyric has several different operas in the repertory at any one time or other special events going on within any week—there's something different happening almost every morning—these notations are a way for our stagehands to quickly reset to those dimensions. 

Do you have a question about something you've seen at Lyric or opera in general? Drop us a line at opera101@lyricopera.org and you might see the answer in this space!

  • Photo credit: Carrie Krol / Lyric Opera of Chicago

 

Opera 101: Who’s in that box? The life of an opera prompter

If you come to see a production at Lyric, you might notice a small, unobtrusive black box that sticks up slightly from the stage, positioned just behind the orchestra pit. Would you believe that a person actually spends an entire opera in that small space? It's the prompter's box!

If you come to see a production at Lyric, you might notice a small, unobtrusive black box that sticks up slightly from the stage, positioned just behind the orchestra pit.

Would you believe that a person actually spends an entire opera in that small space? It's the prompter's box! While the prompter might be hidden from view, it is an incredibly important job. A prompter is the liaison between the conductor in the pit and the singers on stage. Having a prompter is a safety net for singers who have to remember several hours of material, usually in foreign languages.

A prompter's job begins during rehearsals. The prompter works with the conductor and cast of singers throughout the process and, most of the time, in all of the performances. (There is occasionally an opera that will not use a prompter!) A prompter must practice constant vigilance—never diverting their attention from what's on stage just in case a singer needs extra help or attention. And they must know the entire score better than almost anyone else performing, able to provide a few lines, a pitch, or help singers stay in tempo. And they do it all while dodging costumes and errant props like fake blood!

Susan Miller Hult, an assistant conductor and prompter here at Lyric since 1993, takes us inside the box!

What is the rehearsal process like? How do you collaborate with the singers and conductor?

Even though they arrive with their roles fully memorized, at the beginning of the staging process the singers (with possible jet lag) are receiving a lot of new information and input and I often am asked for some help with words, especially if a role is being for performed for the first time, or with a lot of different repertoire in between operas. It's an opportunity for me to find out how I can be of assistance. I often hear "watch me in this section, I tend to forget here" and "please let me know if you notice anything that I can improve," or "you're my best friend, I'm going to need a lot of help in the first few days." I also take notes of musical requests by conductor to pass along to the singers.

Can you take us through a typical performance?

I arrive a half hour before the performance starts to double check my video and sound monitors, lights, and place my music. Then I greet the singers with "in bocca al lupo" (the equivalent of "good luck" in Italian) and see if there are any concerns. I spend some time doing my own vocal warm ups, then a few minutes of quiet to center myself, breathe, and calm my nerves. I, thankfully, have a chair for most performances, occasionally a less-comfortable higher stool. 

I see the conductor via two video monitors, one on each side, and have a sound monitor with which I can hear the orchestra. I know if I have to turn up the volume (usually in sections where the strings are playing very quietly) the singers will have trouble hearing them onstage as well and may need extra assistance. 

During the performances I help the singers stay in sync with the conductor. I'm constantly watching their eyes for a signal that they might have a memory lapse, always ready to help in any way necessary to achieve best possible performance. If requested, I speak the first few words of each phrase in the traditional Italian style of prompting, or I am ready to give a word at the first moment of forgetting so the flow is not interrupted. I try to provide a constant sense of safety and encouragement to the artists onstage.

Exactly how big is the space you're in? Is claustrophobia an issue?

It is about the size of a phone booth, with a ceiling level that can change according to the production. Ergonomics are a constant challenge, as it can be difficult to maintain the healthy posture, movement, and breath support required to project my voice and keep alert and pain free. It's a very tight squeeze to climb into the prompt box from the orchestra pit—that part can feel quite a bit claustrophobic! Lyric's setup is very luxurious, however, compared to the terrifyingly narrow three-story ladder I climbed to the prompt box from the Bayreuth Festival's orchestra pit!

From a prompting perspective, what is your favorite opera? And the most dreaded or difficult to prompt?

Actually, the opera I currently work on is usually my favorite! The three that terrify me the most are Wagner's Die Meistersinger and Siegfried, and Janáček's Makropulos Case.

What is your most memorable moment during a performance?

The day of a performance of Die Walküre I was called to extensive rehearsals for the understudy of Sieglinde who had taken ill, and her understudy from the Chorus who would go on as one of the Valkyries. Then when I came back that night for the performance I found out that Wotan was also ill. It was very exciting and highly nerve-wracking at the same time—a very long 5 hours—prompting is not for the faint of heart!

Have any props ever come close to invading your prompter's space? 

Actually, I leave the box when they throw knives or fire. I've almost been hit by knives, sword blades, a falling chair, broken glass, fake blood (which left a distressingly permanent red streak in my Barber of Seville score), a stray foot when someone "died" to close to the box and couldn't remove it until the curtain fell, diaphanous costume trains, shards and dust from 200 plates smashed at the Götterdämmerung wedding celebration in a Bayreuth production, and I even ejected my glasses from the box once onto the stage in a frenetic moment, which were thankfully perfectly punted back to me by former soccer star, Sir Thomas Allen. 

What is your musical background? Did you have a circuitous route to your role here at Lyric?

I have a Bachelor's degree from Southern Methodist University in Piano Peformance with minors in organ and French and a Master's degree from the Eastman School of Music in Piano Performance. I furthered in Manhattan my studies of languages, diction, and other operatic necessities while coaching, accompanying, and working for regional opera houses. Then followed more study at the San Francisco Opera's Merola Program and a fellowship to learn prompting, which is highly specialized, passed from prompter to prompter. I had the great good fortune to study with the highly esteemed Susan Webb, formerly of Lyric Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, who had learned from the great Vasco Naldini of La Scala (of whom Renata Scotto has the highest praise and many great stories). After working at the San Francisco Opera for 5 years I was invited to Lyric in 1993 to prompt Wagner's Ring with Zubin Mehta conducting. I loved working here so much that I was delighted to accept a full time position and have been here ever since.

What is the most unexpected or surprising thing about your job?

The extreme amount of study and preparation it takes. I have to know the operas well enough to sing everyone's part with perfect pronunciation, understand every word, whether it be in English, Italian, French, German or Czech, and conduct an occasional rehearsal if needed. Of course, the rewards of total immersion in the most beautiful music, working with superb artists at this level are greater than I could have possibly imagined. 

Have questions about what you see on stage or what happens behind the scenes at Lyric? Email opera101@lyricopera.org, and you just might see an answer here on Lyric Lately!

Photo credits:

  • A view from Lyric's stage (credit Dan Rest)
  • Susan Miller Hult (courtesy Susan Miller Hult)
  • Susan Miller Hult peeks out from the prompter's box (courtesy Chicagomusic.org)

Opera 101: How to plan a season

At Lyric, each opera season has eight different productions. So how do you choose just eight from the whole history of opera, plus new operas that are being written each year? Lyric's General Director Anthony Freud and Music Director Sir Andrew Davis take you through the basics of planning a season, which is part science and part subjectivity. 

At Lyric, each opera season has just eight different productions. So how do you choose just eight from the whole history of opera, plus new operas that are being written each year?

In the video below, Lyric's General Director Anthony Freud and Music Director Sir Andrew Davis take you through the basics of planning a season. The process is somewhat like putting together an elaborate puzzle, but one that they both enjoy very much!

The main factors they consider are:

  • Variety - Making sure that the opera season represents the wealth of musical styles (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, or Modern) plus a breadth of dramatic possibilities (comedy, tragedy, fantasy, etc.) and languages (French, Italian, German, Russian, etc.)
  • Passion - Freud and Davis also seek to program operas and productions that they both are truly excited about presenting to the public.
  • Longevity - Lyric is celebrating its 60th anniversary in the 2014/15 season, so it's imperative to take a look at what has been programmed within the last 10 years and what will be programmed in the years to come!

 

What's your fantasy opera season? Tell us on Facebook or Twitter with #dreamseason. Or email us with your picks and any other questions you want to see answered at opera101@lyricopera.org!

Photo credits:

  • Mariusz Kwiecien as Don Giovanni (credit Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera)
  • Renée Fleming in Capriccio (credit Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera)
  • Stephanie Blythe in Il Trovatore (credit Terrence McCarthy / San Francisco Opera)
  • A scene from Tosca (credit Robert Millard / LA Opera)
  • Michaela Schuster as Venus in Tannhäuser (credit Clive Barda / Royal Opera House / Arena Pal)
  • Eric Owens as Porgy in Porgy and Bess with cast members (credit Terrence McCarthy / San Francisco Opera)
  • Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena (credit Cade Martin / Washington National Opera)
  • A scene from The Passenger (credit Karl Forster)

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