Friday, November 23, 2007

Taking Risks Onstage

One of the most fascinating things about the theatre is that, because it is a live medium, things can and frequently do go wrong. Anna Russell mischievously recalls the performance when, as Santuzza, she leaned against the village church and it collapsed. Folks at City Opera still wince at the memory of the horse who unloaded a pile of shit, center stage, just moments prior to the Maypole Dance in Boito's Mefistofele (you can rest assured there was some pretty dainty footwork from the dancers during that performance). I'll never forget watching Patrice Munsel belt out Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" during a preview of Follies (at Houston's Theatre Under The Stars), throw her head back in triumph on the final note, and then gasp in horror as her wig fell off! That's life in the theatre.

The other side of life in the theatre is when things go gloriously well: nights when the artists are really cooking, the energy onstage is so hot that it sizzles and both the performers and audience leave the theatre on a cloud. Among my favorite memories in this category are last fall's opening night of Salome at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Peter Mark Schifter's production of Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio at the Houston Grand Opera, the world premiere of Stephen Paulus's The Postman Always Rings Twice at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Pearl Bailey's opening night on Broadway in the all-black version of Hello, Dolly! Add in numerous performances of Gypsy and Sweeney Todd with Angela Lansbury; Bette Midler and the Pointer Sisters performing at the Boarding House in San Francisco and you have a good idea of what I'm talking about.

Whenever performers confront severe risks of failure or success onstage, the atmosphere in a theatre becomes charged with electricity. When two productions by regional opera companies recently placed the risk factor under a curious microscope for purely theatrical purposes, the results were quite fascinating. Here's why:


Earlier this season, the Washington Opera revived its double bill of Mozart's The Impresario and Weber's Abu Hassan. In this version (devised by Hugh Wheeler with additions by Randolph Mauldin and Roman Terleckyj), The Impresario depicts an impossible backstage situation in which two rival prima donnas feud over who gets top billing and receives the largest salary for singing the lead role in Weber's Abu Hassan. When each diva threatens to cancel, the impresario struggles to coerce them back into the theatre by stroking their enormous egos. Both women attempt to capture the lead role and, when a compromise is finally reached and the second act curtain rises on Abu Hassan, the two prima donnas haul out every bit of theatrical ammunition available in order to steal the show from each other. Some moments are pure fun. Others get down and dirty. The curtain calls were a riot!

Under Roman Terleckyj's hilarious direction, the cast went about their work with venal delight. Evelyn de la Rosa's overly feminine portrayal of Renata Renati (the Italian diva who ends up singing the role of Zemrud in Abu Hassan) was a perfect comic foil to Sally Wolf's outrageously-accented portrayal of Paivi-Tuula Paasikiv (the Finnish diva who becomes Masruh, the Caliph's attendant, in Weber's opera). Sheryl Woods underwent a delicious transformation from Joanna Brinkman (the near-sighted rehearsal pianist) to Abu Hassan's wife, Fatima, and tenor David Kuebler made a rare American appearance as Horatio Tucker (the company tenor) and Abu Hassan. Veteran performer William Wildermann garnered plenty of laughs as the basso-buffo, Emmanuel Schrimpen (and later on, as Omar the Money-Lender) while dramatic support came from Ted McAdams as a frustrated playwright and Edward Fowler as the owner of the theatre. Actor Larry Lerer doubled as Maximilian the Impresario and the Caliph of Baghdad.

These performances of The Impresario and Abu Hassan were among the last to be conducted by Randolph Mauldin (Washington Opera's talented music administrator who died of a kidney-related illness in April).


Of all the performances I've seen in recent years, the most challenging by far for the singers and most fascinating for the audience would have to be Wesley Balk's The Newest Little Opera in the World. As performed by the Minnesota Opera's New Music-Theatre Ensemble, this is an improvisational opera which, by its very definition, changes every night. If you think stand-up comedy takes balls -- or that dramatic improv is loaded with risks -- just try making up the music to an opera as you go along. It's easier said than done.

Here's how it works. Balk's ensemble trains together for several weeks, learning how to take cues from each other's facial and body language, use words as the inspirational source for individual arias and, above all, develop trust in one another. Once the ensemble is ready to go public, it creates The Newest Little Opera in the World in front of a live audience each night as part of the Minnesota Opera's triple bill of one-act chamber operas.

Before each performance, four members of the ensemble are chosen to sing back-up. One singer is assigned the role of narrator; another assumes the romantic interest (these assignments change every night). Other than those guidelines, there are no rules. During the intermission preceding performances of The Newest Little Opera in the World, members of the audience write words on pieces of paper and drop them into a box on the stage. Although the singers didn't pick my word (hermaphrodite) at the first performance I attended, an unlucky member of the ensemble got my contribution (laxative) on the second night out. Most words are used, although I'm informed that one member of the ensemble chickened out the night he drew a slip of paper with "blow job" written on it.

As The Newest Little Opera in the World begins, a keyboard musician is stationed in front of the stage with a synthesizer in order to feed musical pitches and chordal cues to the ensemble. After an improvised vocal overture (reminiscent of the work once done by the Swingle Singers) and an explanation of how the improvisational element of the show works, the fun begins. Several members of the ensemble draw words from the box, announce them to the audience and then improvise arias on the sounds of each word, passing the dramatic energy down the line from one singer to another. A narrator then steps forward and, with the help of his colleagues, begins to improvise a plot.

Each performance of The Newest Little Opera in the World lasts about 30 minutes, with some incredible music-making taking place. Meanwhile, the improv's dramatic challenges are conquered with a great deal of wit and invention. One narrator turned to a soprano and hissed "Then she sings about how angry she is!" while another invoked the spirit of the intergalactic pig farmer to get himself out of a tight corner. My favorite moment occurred when a singer turned to his colleagues and said "Then, they all began to intone a traditional Norwegian chant of unfulfillment."

While the quick-wittedness of the performers in Balk's New Music-Theatre Ensemble leads to fascinating twists and turns in the evolving story, the musical skill of the soloists and the four singers performing back-up is absolutely staggering. If you want to see what opera -- as a form of musical and theatrical athletics -- can be like when taken to the max by a group of supremely talented and alert performers then, without any Doubt, The Newest Little Opera in the World is the show for you.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 1, 1989.

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