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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.

Week seven: “Putting it Together: Prepare it!”

Logan is taking our Summer Opera Education Class: "Putting it Together."  We asked her to share her experiences throughout this 8-week interactive class.  Updates will be posted weekly.  Enjoy!

Week seven: “Putting it Together: Prepare it!”

This class taught us how the singers and back stage crew prepare for an opera. We were revisited tonight by singers Hannah Penn and Caitlin Mathes along with voice coach/collaborative pianist Rodney Menn. Our two singers sang a duet between the characters Cornelia and Sesto from Giulio Cesare by G.F. Handel, while accompanied and coached by Mr. Menn to better shape the music to fit the baroque style. We were also visited by Production Stage Manager Jennifer Hammontree. Her lecture on what happens behind the scenes during a performance was both awe-inspiring and harrowing; it takes a lot of guts and smarts to do what she does, and she loves it.

We began class by welcoming back Hannah Penn and Caitlin Mathes, and introducing Rodney Menn. Mr. Menn hails from the lone star state of Texas, is a golfer, a wine maker, a collaborative pianist, and a voice coach (former voice coach of our own Alexis Hamilton, in fact). Mr. Menn first explained to us the difference between a voice coach and a voice teacher: voice teachers train the instrument itself by teaching their pupils proper singing technique and how to consistently create beautiful sound. A voice coach on the other hand, helps the singer learn proper language diction (typically Italian, German, and French, but there are others as well), the interpretation of the music, incorporating the elements of a style of music, etc. A voice coach also helps the singer within the context of the performance itself. For example, a voice coach will help the singer identify the cues to begin singing. While rehearsing, a singer does not usually have the luxury of an on-demand orchestra, but rather a piano. It can get confusing when each part of an orchestra is played on the same instrument, so sometimes entrances get lost within a barrage of notes. A good voice coach, as demonstrated by Mr. Menn, will play parts that will stand out to the singer and will be easily recognizable in the orchestra.

Next, Mr. Menn, Ms. Penn, and Ms. Mathes demonstrated a coaching for us with a duet from Giulio Cesare. In this demonstration, I saw four steps taken:

1) The singers demonstrate that they know what they are singing, and can translate the libretto.

2) The singers and voice coach discuss the context of the piece and agree on an appropriate interpretation of the music.

3) A run-through of the piece, or in this case, one section at a time (baroque music follows an A-B-A’ pattern where the first section of the piece is repeated with ornaments and flourishes after a contrasting section of music with a different idea).

4) The voice coach provides notes on how to improve the piece, and has the singers sing again, stopping them now and again to elaborate on his/her suggestions.

Most of the suggestions for this coaching were about ornaments for the A’ section, such as cadential trills, appoggiaturas, turns, etc. There was also a suggestion of slightly emphasizing strong beats to create a better flow. Mr. Menn elaborated that this particular duet follows a rhythmic pulse of a dance, and the strong beats of that dance would better reflect the baroque style of this duet. It was a very small alteration, but it had a great effect.

After a quick break, we turned our attention to Production Stage Manager Jennifer Hammontree. The job for the Production Stage Manager is to make sure everything runs smoothly, especially in stressful times. Ms. Hammontree described what goes into making sure the opera is coming together efficiently: stage and prop preparation, creative scheduling for chorus, orchestra, stage hands, and crew to make sure breaks are taken, and translating artsy instructions from the director into technical terms (“When the director stops yelling, you’ve succeeded”). Ms. Hammontree provided us packets of information used for stage preparation, lists of costumes and quick changes, and much more. There was so much to think about, I don’t know how she keeps everything straight!

One of the most important jobs of the Production Stage Manager is to give cues during each and every performance. Ms. Hammontree provided copies of entire scores of operas with symbols written in. She told us what each symbol meant, for example a green dot represented a light cue, and then she put us to the test. We all had a sample of sheet music from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide with stage directions written in, and we were to follow along and call out cues while watching a recording of the performance. I couldn’t really follow along it was all happening so fast! And we didn’t even have the pressure of a live performance! I cannot imagine going through all of that for every performance, however Ms. Hammontree finds it enthralling.

Of course, we had to ask if there are any stories where something went wrong. Ms. Hammontree was kind enough to share with us a story from a past production of Humperdink’s Hansel and Gretel. During one of the scene changes (while the orchestra was still playing) Ms. Hammontree received a call saying that one of the trees has fainted. There was not much time to act! The woman who had overheated in her tree costume fainted and had to be carried off stage. Thankfully she was alright, but she was not well enough to go back on stage. Time was running short, and Ms. Hammontree still had to let the singers know that they would need to change their staging slightly to work with three trees instead of four. She went on stage, spoke quickly, made sure the singers understood, and quickly ran off stage just before the curtain rose with the audience unaware of the small incident between scenes.

Tonight’s class was very fun and very insightful. Preparing for an opera may seem daunting, but it is most definitely rewarding. And if you have the right people, such as Rodney Menn and Jennifer Hammontree to help you, you have nothing to worry about.

Truly yours,

Logan Stewart

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