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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.

Galileo Galilei- Scene 10

Galileo

For the past week, I've rearranged much of my work schedule in order to sit in on the Galileo Galilei rehearsals going on downstairs. It isn't often that you get to watch a production built from the ground up, and even more seldomly do you get to experience a show that has so rarely been performed. There are no stage directions in the score (as it turns out, this is a publisher's oversight), which means that everything happening on stage comes straight out of the head of Kevin Newbury, our director, last here for our 2006 production of Adams' Nixon in China. Kevin has been emphatic from the beginning that the production is a collaborative one, and indeed, the spirit in the room is cheerful and energetic; ideas are thrown back and forth as the opera comes together, scene by scene.

During one rehearsal last week, I sat in the corner of the staging studio, watching Kevin and our cast experimentally move chairs around the set, trying to build the look of Scene 4, the trial scene.

"What if we put the boards on top of the backs of the chairs?" asks Richard Troxell, who, as the older Galileo, sits on the "Galileo chair" downstage right at the top of the scene. They try it; Kevin says, "Awesome -- I love it. Thanks, Richard!"  and then thinks on it some more. "Ooh, or maybe … what if the board was in between these two chairs, like this?" The room is a constant shuffle of lanterns, chairs and wooden planks. There are two wooden ladders, one taller than the other.

Lindsay comes over to say hi. "Isn't this great?" she says. "The whole stage is covered in toys!" It's true: in addition to the ladders and chairs, the boards and lanterns, there's a sun figurine, a basket of wooden balls, an archery bow, and a beautiful inclined plane, made of wood and padded at the bottom, for the time being, with a spare knee pad.

Galileo Galilei is an opera in ten scenes, which take a retrospective look at the great scientist's life. The opera begins with Galileo as an old blind man, progressing backwards in time on a rough chronological arc: one scene depicts his famous trial (and subsequent sentencing); another highlights his relationship with his oldest daughter, who entered the convent at the age of 16. The opera explores several of his most famous scientific experiments, and closes with a scene depicting the man as a young boy. In our artist meet & greet last week, Kevin called this structure "a reverse telescope," which I loved.

I've found myself totally consumed, not only by this opera, but by the story of the life of Galileo. Between now and opening night, I'd like to take you scene by scene through the show, to give you a better understanding of what you'll see onstage. But rather than traveling backwards, as the opera does, I'd like to start at the end, which is, of course, the beginning.

Scene 10: Opera within the Opera
(taking place sometime between 1574 and 1591)

Duchess Christina: "Your father, the musician -- he invented things too. He began the thing called opera. Do you remember, Galileo? I saw you when they played here at court. I was young then, and you a little boy. You came with your father. I was a little girl."
Galileo: "Madame, how kind of you to remember -- we were young. They sang of heaven and the stars, the sky, the earth, the sun."

The final scene of the opera depicts Galileo as a boy, watching a performance of his father's company as they played at the Court of the Christina of Lorraine, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany. The opera concerns the myth of Orion, the archer, and Eos, goddess of the dawn.

Galileo's father, Vincenzo Galilei (ca 1525-1591), was a professional musician by trade, making his living as an accomplished lutenist, singer, composer, and teacher. Although then as now, music was not the most lucrative business, Vincenzo's skill on the lute attracted the attention of powerful and well-connected patrons, with whom Galilei occasionally lived. He married into nobility, and Galileo, the oldest of his children, was born in 1564.

Vincenzo became associated with the Florentine Camerata, a group of poets, musicians, and scholars who concerned themselves with current trends in the arts and in drama. The Camerata operated under the idea that music, having become corrupt, needed to return to the form and style of that of the ancient Greeks; the belief at the time was that the Greeks, in their dramas, had employed a style somewhere between speech and song. The Camerata's experiments with such a style eventually became what we know today as recitative; Galilei himself is often credited with inventing it. More generally, the Florentine Camerata are often considered the inventors of opera.

In addition to being a performer, Vincenzo Galilei was also incredibly interested in exploring the theories of music of the age. In true Aristotelian fashion, music theory in Galilei's time was confined to mathematical discussion, purely academic in nature. Questions included: what are the ratios of the lengths of strings producing consonances? How does one divide the octave? Yet such theories were limited to discourse only; Galilei was among the first to combine theory and practice. His experiments on these subjects produced substantial discoveries in acoustics, and his tendency to try and answer theoretical questions by experimentation is often credited as the force that directed his son away from abstract mathematics and towards what we now know as the scientific method.

Brief excerpts from the rehearsal notes:
-- You could have the telescope Weds/Thurs/Friday/Sat/Sun of this week. We can use a stand-in dowel.
-- In spite of previous notes to the contrary, the wheel squeaking on the short A-frame ladder is quite obnoxious. I'm going to spray it with WD-40 tonight on my way out -- would you take a look at it in the morning?

Overheard in rehearsal:
"So, Caitlin's costume will have to be fireproofed."