Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Opera 101 Summer Series: Visa Applications with Jason Byer (Rehearsal Department)

What happens at Lyric during the summer? Quite a lot! We kick off this new series with an interview with rehearsal assistant Jason Byer from Lyric's Rehearsal Department, who is obtaining visas for the 40 or so international artists who will be appearing on stage next season. 

Lyric's 2015/16 mainstage opera season might not start until September 26, with opening night of a brand-new production of The Marriage of Figaro, but that doesn't mean the company is at a standstill. Quite the opposite! The staff behind the scenes is busy preparing for all of the aspects that go into creating a new opera season.

Here's a look behind the curtain at what happens during the summer. We kick off this new series with an interview with rehearsal assistant Jason Byer from Lyric's Rehearsal Department. He is spending his summer working on visas for the 40 or so international artists who will be appearing on stage next season. Read on to find out more about how he makes sure everyone's travel documents are arranged and how he takes special care of every artist that comes through Lyric's doors. 

What are you doing this summer?

I'm finishing all the visas for the 2015/16 season, which means getting in contact with all of our artists' agents, helping them set up consular interviews—anything that will get them into the country.

Is this mostly done over the phone or email or a combination?

Most of it's done over email. I've never had to call a consulate. I do occasionally have to call agents, mostly European agents who maybe need things explained to them about the process. It's complicated. There's a lot of red tape and bureaucracy. I also collaborate with other companies, like San Francisco, the Metropolitan Opera, or Houston Grand Opera; if we share any artists over the season, we try to make it so they only have to get one visa. We combine the applications and make sure that we are authorized to petition on behalf of the other companies.

Why is this work essential?

If I didn't do this, then nobody would be here! We couldn't do any shows!

How does your job evolve once the opera season starts?

In addition to continuing the visa work for 2016/17 (hopefully 2015/16 will be done!), I go back to the rehearsal department where I help with scheduling, booking appointments for artists,  fulfilling the "I'm hungry, can someone go get me lunch" requests, and all of the assorted tasks that we deal with on a daily basis. It's the care and maintenance of our artists.

 
Byer backstage with Karen Slack, who portrayed Serena in Porgy and Bess in the 2014/15 season

What are you most looking forward to during the 2015/16 season?

I have never seen a full Rosenkavalier. I'm really, really excited for this cast. I've been copied on a bit of the correspondence from the director, and hearing some of the plans that are in the works is really exciting.

So that's another interesting aspect of your job, that you learn a little bit about what's going to happen on stage before it becomes reality?

I am privy to this wealth of information that I need to do my job, but it's funny for me as an opera fan to step back and think, "I'm working on Sophie Koch's visa!!"

What made you want to work at an opera company?

I graduated from Northwestern last year with my degree in voice. I knew that I wanted to sing as my career, but I felt like I had a really terrible sense of the business and that I didn't know anybody. So I said, "You can always go back to school, but here's a job that you should go and do now." I started interning at Lyric last year doing visas, and it was a really natural transition to go to the rehearsal department. And now suddenly I'm Facebook friends with Laura Osnes, which is pretty cool!

Why do you love working at Lyric?

I love working in a theater. I love that my job involves sitting at a desk for part of a day, but then I get to go and run around backstage or I get to run up and see rehearsal. I like being around creative people; even if I'm not creating art myself, it's important for me to be around people who love theater or at the very least have an appreciation for the creative process.

What's your favorite opera?

Thinking about the 2014/15 season, I loved Tannhäuser because it's one of my favorite scores, but my favorite overall production would absolutely have to be The Passenger.

What is your favorite Lyric moment so far?

My favorite moment is really just how wonderful it is to work with opera singers. In the rehearsal department, we're always going the extra mile to make sure that the artists have a wonderful experience when they are at Lyric, but I didn't expect them to notice. On one of my first days here, Marina Rebeka, our Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. stopped by the office to thank me for everything I'd done to ensure her arrival in Chicago was absolutely seamless. It was a great introduction to working with and helping opera singers. They're grateful people!

 
Byer with Marina Rebeka at the Diamond Ball

When you're not at your desk, we'll find you…

Practicing or cooking. I love to cook. I also actually just did a cabaret at Davenport's, where I accompanied a friend on piano. 

Photo credits:

  • Jason Byer portrait by Lyric Opera of Chicago
  • Backstage photos courtesy Jason Byer

 

Opera 101: Behind the scenes of TANNHÄUSER with August Tye

Wagner's Tannhäuser, which runs through March 6 at Lyric, has been earning rave reviews, especially for its epic opening dance sequence. August Tye, Lyric’s ballet mistress for more than 10 years, takes us through the process from auditions to rehearsals to opening night.

Wagner's Tannhäuser, which runs until March 6 at Lyric has been earning rave reviews, not the least for its epic opening dance sequence, choreographed to the overture and set in the sensual realm of Venusberg. It depicts the kind of libidinous lifestyle that anyone who succumbs to the goddess Venus's charms embraces. The Chicago Sun-Times said, "A high point of the production is the beginning bacchanal, which features a swirling, electrifying dance, smartly choreographed by Jasmin Vardimon" and the Chicago Tribune called it a "sexy and striking coup de theatre."

How does this amazing sequence become reality? August Tye, Lyric's ballet mistress for more than 10 years, takes us through the process from auditions to rehearsals to opening night—and reveals that her work at Lyric is truly a family affair!

Describe your role as ballet mistress. What does that mean and what are your general duties and responsibilities?

As mallet mistress at Lyric, I work closely with the choreographer and dancers to create movement or dance sequences for opera. I record all movement into personal notes and often bits and pieces into the musical score. I give the dancers a warm up class before rehearsals and performances begin. Once the choreographer leaves, often after the opening night, I am in charge of maintaining their work and making sure that the understudies are ready to jump in at any moment. 

What has been your specific role on Tannhäuser as both ballet mistress and movement director?

In Tannhäuser I have worked with the associate choreographer Mafalda Deville to restage earlier production of the Tannhäuser "ballet" choreographed by Jasmin Vardimon. When you see the ballet you notice it is intensely physical. We started working on it in early December in order to give the dancers the strength training and adequate rehearsals they would need to execute the movement. We worked 30 hours a week. We gave the dancers both ballet and pilates classes to prepare them for rehearsal. I spent much of rehearsal time taking notes on the movement and putting landmark movements into the score.

The U.K. Guardian's review of the production called out the "terrifically sexy" choreography. Why should someone come and see it?

From a dancer's perspective you should come see it because it is amazingly athletic, physical and sexy. The dance sequence is 15 minutes long and full of surprises that I am quite sure have not been seen before.


 Scenes from the opening dance of Tannhäuser 

Can you take us through the audition process? What were you specifically looking for in dancers for Tannhäuser? Was it the same as what you do for any other opera or did this opera in particular have special requests/requirements?

Every audition is unique to the work that the dancers have to do within the opera. Due to the physicality of this particular work the audition was two days long and extremely demanding.  We started with over 75 dancers the first day and narrowed it down to about 30 for the second day.  In the end we needed 12 dancers and two understudy dancers.  For the men we were looking for strong partnering skills and complete athleticism. For the women we were looking for very fluid and sensual movement along with excellent stamina. Both Jasmin Vardimon (pictured right) and Mafalda Deville were there to choose the dancers. 

Can you talk about the rehearsal process for Tannhäuser? How long have you been working with the dancers and what have been some of the joys and challenges of this very exhausting and complicated sequence?

We started working with the dancers December 1. We worked for three weeks before the rest of the production team arrived in January. After the holiday break we came back for another 4 weeks of rehearsal. The first three weeks were the most challenging simply because the work is so physically demanding.  It was a bit like dance boot camp getting everyone in shape to execute this movement. We had to work through several injuries during the first three weeks but I am happy to say everyone is healthy and fit to perform. When we resumed in January it went very smoothly because dancers had a chance to rest over the holiday and they knew exactly what they were coming back to do. They were all very excited to meet Ms. Vardimon when she arrived on January 27. At that point the piece was finished and the dancers had built up the stamina to run it two times a day. Ms. Vardimon took a couple days to work with the dancers on clarifying the movement and making a few minor adjustments to dancer placement and spacing.

How do you take the original choreography and translate it into the dancers? Can you describe the collaboration you have with them and with Jasmin Vardimon and Mafalda Deville?

I think there are challenges to re-creating any dance on another group of dancers.  All dancers have their strengths and weaknesses and those are rarely replicated when you move on to another group of dancers. Ms. Deville and Ms. Vardimon were very clear that they wanted our dancers to have their own version and that they should not worry about copying the original. They should feel as though they are part of a new creation for them. If one were to compare the performances they may not notice those subtle differences that made it unique to our Chicago dancers.  It is very much the same choreography as in previous production.  


Athleticism on display in Tannhäuser

Tannhäuser is a long opera, but is it a long night for the dancers?

People equate the name Wagner with long operas, and with Tannhäuser, they're correct; with 2 intermissions, it clocks in at roughly 4.5 hours! But every now and then in opera, there are roles which may occupy only a small length of time, and for the dancers, this is one of them! Our dance happens during the overture, and 30 minutes after the opera begins, our job will be over! Except for opening night (when everyone stays for the company bow at the opera's end), the dancers and I will be headed for home while the opera still has another four hours to go.

How long have you worked at Lyric? And what do you love most about working with the company?

I began working for Lyric when I was a dancer in the 93/94 season.  I danced on and off for several seasons. In 2004, I was asked to assist Pat Birch with the movement for Robert Altman's A Wedding.  I have been here ever since as a ballet mistress, movement director, or choreographer for the past 10 years. I really love working at Lyric because it is a place for me to learn and grow artistically by working with other fantastic artists whether it be choreographers—such as Jasmin Vardimon, Wayne McGregor, Philippe Giraudeau, Lucinda Childs, and Pat Birch—or directors like Robert Altman, Robert Carsen, Sir David McVicar, Francesca Zambello, and Bob Falls. 

Also, the support staff at Lyric is also the best in the business as far as I am concerned; from the administration, assistant directors, music staff to the rehearsal department, they are truly passionate about their work and their support of artists.  It is truly a gift to be so supported; it allows you to really focus on the creative aspects of the work.

What has your favorite experience or production been so far? 

It's really hard to pick a favorite production or experience after so many great ones.  I had the privilege to travel to Madrid in order to learn the movement for a Chicago production of Dialogues of the Carmelites. It was there that I met director Robert Carsen and choreographer Philippe Giraudeau which began a long term professional relationship in which I was trusted to assist and remount Mr. Giraudeau's work in operas in Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, and London. I was also asked to remount the dance for the Zambello production of Salome at the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto, Japan.  These were very memorable experiences! 

 
Dialogues of the Carmelites at Lyric

I should also mention that I met my husband, Wilbur Pauley, while dancing in Lyric's production of Candide.  We have been married for 17 years and have three children together. Opera has definitely had a profound effect on my life!

 
The Pauley-Tye family at Soldier Field before Wilbur Pauley's performance of the National Anthem at a Bears game in fall 2014.

When you're not at Lyric, what are some of your other professional passions, such as Hyde Park School of Dance?

When I am not at Lyric I am very busy directing the Hyde Park School of Dance which I founded in 1993.  It is a not for profit dance school committed to making sure that dance is accessible to anyone who wants to dance.  I firmly believe that dance can have a profound effect on one's life.   Through the artistry, discipline, sense of self-confidence and teamwork a dancer experiences you gain a foundation for life skills that will stay with you no matter what field you chose as a career. 

Most people may not know that your son was in Madama Butterfly last season. Was that a fun experience for you as a family? Has he gotten the opera bug?

Having our son perform in Madama Butterfly was an amazing experience for him and of course we were very proud of our little guy.  He is always asking when he can work at the opera again.  Everyone treated him like royalty, he had a first floor private dressing room and he was paged to the stage as "Master Pauley." We also rode in a limousine to the opening-night party. Of course he got the opera bug! I'm afraid he will need to work on his singing voice to get that kind of treatment again!  He does like to sing…only time will tell.

 
Tye Oren Pauley as Sorrow, Butterfly's child, in Madama Butterfly with
Mary Ann McCormick (L) and Amanda Echalaz (C)

Photo credits:

  • August Tye portrait courtesy August Tye
  • Tannhäuser production photos credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago
  • Jasmin Vardimon portrait courtesy Jasmin Vardimon
  • Dialogues of the Carmelites production photo credit Robert Kusel / Lyric Opera of Chicago
  • Tye-Pauley family photo courtesy Wilbur Pauley
  • Madama Butterfly production photo credit Dan Rest / Lyric Opera of Chicago

 

Opera 101: Q&A with TOSCA Assistant Director Shawna Lucey

It takes a village to put together an opera, and one of the most important roles is the assistant director. Shawna Lucey, who is assistant director for Lyric's production of Puccini's Tosca  (on stage now through March 14) gives a quick overview of her linchpin role as keeper of the "opera playbook."

It takes a village to put together an opera, and one of the most important roles is the assistant director. Shawna Lucey, who is assistant director for Lyric's production of Puccini's Tosca (on stage now through March 14) gives a quick overview of her linchpin role—essentially acting as the translator for the director's desires to the rest of the company and the keeper of the "opera playbook."

Can you give a basic description of what an assistant director does? What is your role in the opera creation process?

An assistant director on an opera has many responsibilities—both assisting the director of the show as well as communicating the desires of the director to many departments of the opera company. The AD creates and maintains the blocking book—this has the entire score as well as pages with diagrams of the set to document the movement and motivation of every character onstage. This book is used as a reference tool when rehearsing understudies or when a production is shown at multiple theaters. It's almost like an NFL playbook!

 
The blocking book and production photo from Act 2 of Tosca with Tatiana Serjan (Tosca) and Evgeny Nikitin (Scarpia)

The AD is responsible for helping the director coordinate the schedule—making sure the correct people are called to rehearsal at the correct times. The AD communicates the director's desires to the chorus as well as to any supernumeraries in the show, making sure that they understand any notes given by the director. The AD also works closely with stage management and the technical staff to execute the necessary technical elements so crucial to the production.

 
The blocking book and production photo for the opening bars of Tosca with
Richard Ollarsaba as Angelotti

How does the assistant director collaborate with the director, in this case John Caird, before and during the rehearsal process?

It's been absolutely wonderful to work with John (pictured right). I think we've both enjoyed the collaboration on this show. John Caird was directing Bohème in San Francisco this fall, where I was assisting on productions of Norma and La Cenerentola, so we went out to dinner and had a great conversation—both about the production and his vision behind it as well as theater, politics, and football (we're both Packers fans). Before and after rehearsals we've discussed major ideas as well as truths about the characters. His patience, kindness, and cleverness have led to a delightful rehearsal process.

What do you find most exciting or thrilling about this production of Tosca?

John's directing is so detailed and so precise; this is a thrilling production of Tosca. He has put his heart and his mind to the text as well as the music, and what's resulted is a Tosca that hits deep in the audience's hearts and minds. I think the design is brilliant as well and welcomes us in. Each act is full of subtlety and excellent storytelling, so that when the opera reaches its tragic conclusion—which most people already know coming into the theater—John's directing creates the tragedy anew, having so delicately built the story to that irreversible point.

 
Scenes from Tosca starring Tatiana Serjan (Tosca), Brian Jagde (Cavaradossi), and Evgeny Nikitin (Scarpia)

What has drawn you to opera more generally? What is your educational background?

I majored in Italian at the University of Texas at Austin. I followed graduation with a post-baccalaureate semester at the Moscow Art Theater. After working in New York theater for two years, I decided to pursue an MFA (Master of Fine Arts). Not satisfied with the choices here in the U.S., I decided to move to Moscow and study there. I had heard that learning a third language is easier than learning your second. I didn't realize that didn't apply if the third language was Russian! While I was completing my MFA in directing at the Boris Schukin Theater Institute of the Vakhtangov Theater, my directing mentor said I should look into directing opera, since languages and music are two of my passions. I went to Santa Fe as a technical apprentice and fell deeply in love with opera. I haven't looked back since! 

Did your fluency in Russian help with this particular production of Tosca, which has several Russian artists? 

Yes—my Russian background did come in handy with this cast. Ms. Serjan speaks Russian & Italian, but not English. I was originally contacted by Lyric to work on this show because they knew they needed an assistant director who spoke Russian. I translated for Tatiana throughout the process. Evgeny Nikitin and Mo. [Dmitri] Jurowski both speak English, but it's been great to have an almost "secret" language that we can joke with each other in.

What's your favorite opera or what opera do you dream of directing one day?

My favorite opera changes all the time! It's so difficult to say because there are so many great operas to choose from.

This is your Lyric debutdo you have any observations about working with the company or being in Chicago so far?

This is my Lyric debut and I'm having a wonderful time. The staging staff, many of whom I knew from other houses, are some of the best in the country. That and the excellent crews here make for a fantastic first experience. The strength of these departments is reflected in the excellence of the productions here at Lyric. It's an honor to be here.

And what about when you're not workinghow do you enjoy Chicago?

I'm really enjoying the city! It seems like a lively place. I saw a puppet show by Blind Summit at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which was excellent, and I am looking forward to checking out the jazz scene here! 

Photo credits:

  • Shawney Lucey portrait courtesy Shawna Lucey
  • Blocking book photos courtesy Shawna Lucey
  • Production photos from Tosca at Lyric Opera of Chicago credit Michael Brosilow (first photo) and Todd Rosenberg (remaining photos)
  • John Caird portrait courtesy John Caird

 

Lyric U: Sopranos – how high can you go?

Get to know the soprano voice type with Renée Fleming, Anthony Freud, and Sir Andrew Davis in our latest Lyric U voice series installment. Plus hear examples of great soprano arias from some of the operas still on deck for this season: Anna Bolena, Tosca, Porgy and Bess, and Tannhäuser.

The soprano voice is one of the most recognizable in opera, with many famous arias and indelible images (Brünnhilde in a Viking hat, anyone?) that are immediately recognizable.

But what exactly is a soprano? And what kind of roles does that voice usually portray in opera? In our latest Lyric U video, Lyric's own Anthony Freud, Sir Andrew Davis, and Renée Fleming discuss the soprano with a few key musical excerpts sprinkled throughout.

 

Looking for some outstanding soprano roles at Lyric?  Here are just a few of the great arias featured this season.

Anna Bolena - "Coppia iniqua"

Donizetti's bel canto gem tells the story of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour. Though it takes some historical license, all is forgiven when the singers' vocal fireworks are unleashed. Sondra Radanovsky takes on the role here at Lyric from December 6 through January 16. Here is Anna Netrebko performing "Coppia iniqua" from the Metropolitan Opera's 2011 production:

 

Tosca - "Vissi d'arte"

This season features one of the greatest soprano roles, the diva to end all divas: Tosca. Puccini's gut-wrenching story features a number of incredible musical moments, but none is quite so magical as "Vissi d'arte," Tosca's beautiful aria describing how she's lived for art and love, only to have fate turn against her. This season, you have two chances to hear this wonderful piece interpreted with Tatiana Serjan and Hui He both starring in the new-to-Lyric production from January 24 to March 14.

Here's Sondra Radvanovsky performing the aria in the Metropolitan Opera's production from 2011:

 

Porgy and Bess - "Summertime"

"Summertime" is arguably the most famous aria from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess—and it has become a popular tune outside the opera (here's ample evidence!). The great Kathleen Battle performs the opera's opening aria with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, led by Charles Dutoit:

 

Tannhäuser - "Dich, teure Halle"

Ryan Opera Center alumna Amber Wagner does double-duty this season; in addition to portraying Leonora in Il Trovatore, she comes back in February for Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser, which features some of the composer's most majestic music. If you missed Amber Wagner performing this at Lyric's 60th Anniversary Concert,  here is a historic recording of the incomparable Birgit Nilsson performing Elisabeth's greeting, "Dich, teure Halle":

 

Il Trovatore - "Tacea la notte placida"

Verdi's Il Trovatore is filled with show-stopping numbers, including the Anvil Chorus, but the character of Leonora has a beautiful aria in Act 2 describing the first time she heard the serenade of the troubadour Manrico. Amber Wagner took on the role at Lyric in October and November, and here is Barbara Frittoli in a production from La Scala in 2001:

 

Photo credits:

  • Sondra Radvanovsky in Anna Bolena (credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago)
  • Adina Aaron in Porgy and Bess (credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago)
  • Tatiana Serjan (credit Todd Rosenberg)
  • Hui He (courtesy Zemsky/Green Artist Managment)
  • Amber Wagner at Lyric's 60th Anniversary Concert (credit Michael Brosilow / Lyric Opera of Chicago)
  • Amber Wagner in Verdi's Il Trovatore (credit Michael Brosilow / Lyric Opera of Chicago)

(Lyric Opera of Chicago does not own copyrights to any of the above videos.)

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