24 July 2011

L'Étoile and Little Women come to fruition

After four plus weeks of rehearsals at the Opera Academy of California, both L'Étoile and Little Women opened at the end of this week. L'Étoile, an opéra comique by Emmanuel Chabrier, has naturally been heavily on my mind, as its rehearsals have been an integral part of my daily routine. Yet as much time as I have spent with it, Thursday night's première, which I did not sing, offered me the first opportunity to watch the show in its entirety. I was able to realize how decadent and funny the opera is, in no small part thanks to our director Yefim Maizel's exuberant and detailed staging. His insistence on our doing gestures precisely resulted in a continuous and logical thread of motion; all of the starting and stopping in rehearsals came into focus when I was able to see the finished product. With simple props and furniture, the stage became lush. Our limited numbers (and budget!) did not impede his cohesive vision.

King Ouf in disguise in L'Étoile.

Maizel has been crucial in shepherding us into our larger-than-life characters (not least of all because he has the ungrateful job of taking charge of the summer program as a whole), but he was not alone. In rehearsals, our conductor David Sloss and pianist John Ballerino, had the patience to lead a wily troupe of singers through the treacherous phrases of French operetta, along with Marcie Stapp, our language and diction coach. As French is my mother tongue, I have an unfair advantage, but I do recognize how difficult it can be to navigate the clipped, wordy and extremely idiomatic texts, as well as the musical gestures that accompany them. And my cohorts largely have risen to the occasion, producing clear pronunciation and intent. I cannot speak for everyone else, but after the trials and tribulations of rehearsals, piecing together numbers and dialogues, I am excited to perform the show when I arrive at the theater, excited to bring this wonderfully weird world to life: a buffoon king, a young princess, a lovesick pedlar, etc... that manage, for all of their over-the-top hijinks to be earnest and likable characters. Watching the opera on Thursday night from the audience made me look forward to my own Saturday début all the more.

Act II opens with feather fans and the adulation of court ladies.

As we have been preparing L'Étoile in one side of the building, Mark Adamo's 1998 opera Little Women has been rehearsing in the other. I've not had any part in the creation process, so I watched the opening on Friday night, as well as last night's cast, purely as an audience member. As with last week's Idomeneo, I was amazed at the preparation and polish of the endeavor. The singers have tackled music that can be vocally challenging with gusto, no doubt aided by Maestro Jun Nakabayashi's supportive and encouraging conducting. The straightforward, human, element that Nakabayashi has culled in his treatment of the score, director David Cox has found in his approach to the staging. Once again, the means are meager, but he has created in a small, dark theater a warm setting for the March family. He has masterfully ensured that the scenes in which multiple conversations overlap are clear but connected. And he has charged his actors with bringing the characters to life without artifice, a challenge that my fellow singers have met beautifully.

Beth's moving death scene in Little Women.

I watched and took part in this weekend's shows with a sense of pride and accomplishment. The witty, uproarious Étoile and heartfelt Little Women were good complements to each other, and, judging from the enthusiastic applause, both appealed to the impressed audience. For those of you in the San Francisco area, I highly recommend catching both shows: Little Women closes tonight at Fort Mason Center's Southside Theatre at 7.30; L'Étoile plays in the Northside Theatre this afternoon at 2.30, as well as the next Friday (7.30), Saturday (7.30) and Sunday (2.30).

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