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PDX OPERAbeat | A Company Blog is the blog for all things Portland Opera, featuring a variety of guest contributors who will provide insider's tidbits on all we do to celebrate the beauty and breadth of opera.

On ballet, Philip Glass, and the difficulties of dancing

This week's blog starts exactly the same way last week's started:


Not opera (again)

Saturday night, I attended OBT's final performance of Giselle (with Jennifer Hammontree, our Production Stage Manager, as my always-fabulous date. Actually, I was her date. I DIGRESS). I love watching dance, but with the exception of that one time in kindergarten, I've never taken a dance class in my life.


That one time in kindergarten: my mom took me to one ballet class, ever, when I was five. She grew up dancing -- my aunt was a professional dancer and dance teacher -- and thought I'd follow in her footsteps. But I hated pink and preferred playing with worms in the backyard. Sorry, Mama.


I was really excited about Giselle. I'd read a few great reviews and everyone I knew who'd seen it said it was terrific. Hilariously, Jen and I kind of forgot that we weren't at an opera, and we didn't think to read the program beforehand, so for the first act we really had no idea what was going on. I found myself looking for the supertext screen just as the house lights dimmed, because I'm so accustomed to seeing "Please silence all electronic devices" flash up there. Meanwhile, she's next to me saying "house to half, go," because she can't sit in the theater without mentally calling the show.


This is how people in theater end up dating and/or marrying other people in theater. Because sometimes we might be a little insufferable?


As the dancing started, I spent the first few minutes engrossed in the visual of it all: the movements of the dancers, the sets, the costumes. I completely forgot there was a story, so I wasn't paying the slightest attention to what was going on dramatically. Then, when Duke Albrecht knocks for the first time on Giselle's door, I remembered with a start that there was a plot, and began to try and key into it. I figured out who Giselle was pretty quickly -- because everybody applauded when she entered -- and then I put together that there are these two dudes who maybe are fighting for her attention? And then a queen or something appears (in a totally amazing costume), and then there's a sword, and the dudes threaten each other, and then there's more dancing, and then Giselle's hair comes loose and she dies.


(Her hair!! I was really worried about her hair because I wasn't sure if it was loose on purpose or accidentally. Did she not get her bun tight enough? Then I got to thinking about all the weird skills you never think about when you think about performers -- like how it's a given that ballet dancers must be able to secure a really good bun on their heads. Better even than librarians.)


Anyway. I was enthusiastic about the performance but had very little understanding of what I was watching. I had read in more than one review that the dancing in Giselle is phenomenally difficult, and I felt a little bit sad during Act 1, because I couldn't begin to discern the difficult parts from the rest of it. Everything simultaneously looked impossible (because I couldn't begin to move like that) and miraculously easy (because those dancers are pros). Fortunately, we were seated near several people who clearly had ballet backgrounds; I heard one woman behind us whisper to her companion, "I used to hate that exercise -- my leg always locked up!" Those people were my ticket to understanding: occasionally they would gasp out loud, and that's how I'd know: that thing she just did must be really difficult.



My OBT experience made me realize what it must be like to watch opera as a first-time opera patron, or as a person with very little opera background. Although the popularization of supertext means that most opera audiences no longer sit in the house wondering what on earth is going on, there are, I'm sure, plenty of other opera customs that I've grown to take for granted. At the ballet I was suddenly very aware that I was an outsider to this art form (though not in a bad way), and I thought, "What could I say on the blog that would be informative to folks who are coming at this from square one?"


To be honest, blog readers, this is something I'm still mulling over and working on. Maybe there's a future post ahead: a compendium of standard opera conventions particularly tailored to new opera fans. If you have any ideas, let me know.


This situation also made me think again of our recent production of Madame Butterfly, and how we struggled to impart upon people the phenomenal performance they were seeing when they watched Kelly Kaduce. It was hard for us to explain how amazing her Butterfly was, in the same way that it was difficult for me to understand the dancing in Giselle. I don't dance, so I don't know what's hard and what isn't.


So let me tell you briefly a thing about Galileo Galilei. The work has been performed just four times before: once at its 2002 premiere at The Goodman Theater in Chicago; once, not long after, at Brooklyn Academy of Music; once, at The Barbican in London; and once, just a month or so ago, at Madison Opera. Now, us.


We believe we may be the first company to perform the work with the music of Maria Celeste (Galileo's daughter) sung as it appears on the page. This is absolutely not a dig on any of the three companies who've done the work before. The role of Maria Celeste is vocally demanding because it sits almost unreasonably high in the soprano's tessitura, making it difficult to simultaneously hit the notes and make the words understandable. In previous productions, the role has been revoiced to be more comfortable for the singer. In a class yesterday (with our resident historian, Bob Kingston, who you might know from all our pre-curtain lectures), we discussed Glass's writing for this role, and for the voice in particular. Our POSA soprano, Lindsay Ohse, who's singing Maria Celeste, said, "It's like he has this idea: soprano and tenor: high. Mezzo: somewhere in the middle. Baritone: low. And that's it."


We discussed. Does Glass not know how to write for the voice, or is it that he's writing for a particular voice -- he often writes for musicians he knows -- making it accidentally difficult for other singers to step into the roles? There's no real answer to that question. During Orphée, we did, in fact, drop down an octave or re-voice some moments in The Princess's music, because it too was relentlessly high, both for the singer (Lisa Saffer, who was fantastic) and for the ear. Heurtebise (the tenor role) did not have quite as grueling a sing, but there was at least one place in the score where Ryan MacPherson (our tenor) sang a section as written, up in the stratosphere, while the tenor in the previous production had opted to drop the octave.


Out of curiosity, I ran a little Google search on Philip Glass's vocal writing, and came across this funny but also insightful blog post, from Virginia Opera's blog: How Philip Glass Saved My Marriage. The crux of which is, essentially, that Glass's vocal writing in Satyagraha was so jarring (because of the tessitura) that the author and his wife drove home from the performance feeling very tense and cranky without immediately understanding why.


So when you come hear Galileo, imagine me sitting next to you during Scene 3, when Lindsay sings her way up into the clouds and hangs out there for awhile. That is some hard dancing.