Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Lately

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)

Opera 101: One-Hit Wonders

Despite his best efforts, Dvořák is primarily known for his symphonic works and not his operas. Not everyone can be Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, or Puccini—here are just a few examples of some other very familiar operatic one-hit wonders from surprising sources.

Most people know Dvořák as a great symphonic composer—his New World Symphony is one of the most recognizable pieces in classical music, and he wrote a wealth of other famous symphonic pieces and notable chamber works.  Here is Herbert von Karajan leading the Vienna Philharmonic in the complete New World Symphony:

 

And though Rusalka  contains a very famous aria, the "Song to the Moon" (pictured  in Lyric's new production below), not many people are even aware that Dvořák wrote one opera—let alone ten.  As Sir Andrew Davis notes in our video preview, Dvořák actually worked quite hard on composing operas and hoped that his operatic contributions would be his legacy. Though it is now firmly in the international repertoire, Rusalka didn't have its Metropolitan Opera premiere until 1993 and Lyric's current production is the Chicago premiere.

Rusalka

Dvořák is a member of a small club, composers who have had only one significant operatic hit. No matter how much fame they achieved, or didn't achieve, in other genres, they were only able to produce one great opera that has entered the standard performing repertoire today.

Not everyone can be Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, or Puccini—here are just a few examples of some very familiar operatic one-hit wonders from surprising sources.

Bizet - Carmen

Carmen

A classic story of passion, jealousy, and betrayal coupled with the eminently hummable tunes that run throughout have turned Carmen into one of the most popular operas of all time. Though Bizet wrote several previous operas, including The Pearl Fishers, none of his other operas has achieved the fame of Carmen. Premiered in Paris in March 1875, the opera was a failure that played to half-empty houses, and Bizet died suddenly near the end of its run without any inkling of the popularity that was just on the horizon. Subsequent revivals in Vienna (1875), London (1878), and New York (1879) cemented its reputation. 

Here is just one of the famous songs from the opera, "Votre toast," also known as the Toreador Song, performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 2010:

                     

Beethoven - Fidelio 

Beethoven worked for years on his only completed opera, a true labor of love that took him nearly ten years to complete. Telling the story of a wife (Leonore) who poses as a boy (Fidelio) to try to rescue her wrongfully imprisoned husband, the opera was first performed in Vienna in 1805 as an utter failure. Beethoven would continue to tinker with the score over the next several years. The overture went through four different versions, and over 300 pages of sketches exist for the entire work. It was at one point condensed to two acts before being restored to three. Finally in 1814, the work premiered to great success and has been regularly performed ever since.

Here is the "Mir, ist so wunderbar" quartet from the Theater an der Wien's 2013 production:

 

Gershwin - Porgy and Bess 

Porgy

By 1935, when Porgy and Bess premiered, George and Ira Gershwin had cemented their place in the Great American Songbook with countless hits like "I've Got Rhythm" and "Someone to Watch Over Me."  George Gershwin had written a short one-act jazz opera in 1922, Blue Monday, that was—you guessed it—a flop! However, that did not kill his desire to write what he called "an American folk opera," so he teamed up with his brother Ira and DuBose Heyward (author of the novel Porgy) to tell the story of the colorful characters Catfish Row, including the hero Porgy and his true love Bess. Once again, Gershwin appeared to have failed, so he moved to Hollywood to compose for films and died two years later.  However, a Houston Grand Opera production in 1976 brought this work back into the spotlight it rightly deserves.

Here's a look at the acclaimed Francesca Zambello production starring Eric Owens from Washington National Opera that is part of Lyric's 2014-15 season:

 

Leoncavallo - Pagliacci 

Pagliacci

Containing one of the most famous tenor arias ever written, "Vesti la giubba," Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci is an enduring masterwork to this day. Premiered in 1892 as the composer's first produced opera, Pagliacci was an instant success with the public (unlike some of our other one-hit wonders). Frequently performed with Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, the piece that actually inspired Leoncavallo to write this work, it's a gritty tale of members of an acting troupe caught up in a love triangle that leads to murder.  Despite many efforts, Leoncavallo was never able to recapture the magic of his first hit. He even wrote his own La bohème, which was vastly outshone by Puccini's opera from the same source material.

Here is the piece's famous aria, "Vesti la giubba," performed by the great Luciano Pavarotti in one of his signature roles:

 

Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel  

Hansel_and_Gretel

A Christmastime favorite since its premiere in December 1893 (conducted by none other than Richard Strauss!), Hansel and Gretel is based on the classic fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. German composer Englebert Humperdinck wrote the music and his sister Adelheid Wette wrote the libretto—fitting for an opera about a brother and sister. It is just one of several stage works he would compose, but it has far eclipsed anything else he ever did.  The famous "evening prayer" scene is one of the most recognizable operatic tunes.

Here are highlights from Lyric's recent acclaimed production from the 2012-13 season.

 

And here's the prayer scene from Act Two from the Welsh National Opera's 1998 production:

 

Delibes - Lakmé 

Set in India and capitalizing on the craze of all things Eastern at the time, Lakmé was an incredibly popular opera by Leo Delibes, who is also famous for the ballet Copéllia. Premiered in 1883, the opera was for many years known for its soprano showcase, the "Bell Aria" in Act Two. However, in recent years-thanks to its ubiquity in movies and TV commercials-"The Flower Duet" has become this opera's signature showpiece.

 Here are Joan Sutherland and Huguette Tourangeau performing the famous duet:

 

Photo credits (from the top):

  • Ana María Martínez stars in the company premiere Rusalka at Lyric Opera of Chicago, photo by Todd Rosenberg.
  • Nadia Krasteva and Brandon Jovanovich star in Carmen at Lyric Opera of Chicago in March 2011, photo by Dan Rest.
  • A scene from Lyric's 2008 production of Porgy and Bess, photo by Dan Rest.
  • Ana María Martínez and Vladimir Galouzine star in Pagliacci at Lyric in 2009, photo by Dan Rest.
  • Elizabeth De Shong, Jill Grove, and Maria Kanyova star in Hansel and Gretel at Lyric in December 2012, photo by Dan Rest.

(Except for the official Hansel and Gretel highlights, Lyric Opera of Chicago does not own copyrights to any of the above videos.) 

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