January finds the Opera McGill students spending most of their time in staging rehearsals, preparing for the "mainstage" production which typically opens the last weekend of January.
The fall prep for the students involves learning their music, understanding the meaning of their texts, thinking about character choices, and putting their individual parts together with the other roles during musical rehearsals. My fall prep varies depending on the opera production. For instance last year, La Boheme was being produced and I'd directed it before so there was less to think about where the details of the staging were concerned. This year, Don Giovanni is the opera - an opera I've known and worked on since the mid '80s. Normally that would mean very little "prep", but this production is SO different from any other I've ever done that the prep time has been enormous!
First off, the designers and I had come to an initial idea about the production way back in May of 2011 (that's typically when we design the January production). However, those plans were put on hold due to the McGill strike -- since it was impossible to produce the planned production without stage management. When it looked like the strike would continue through January and perhaps even longer, we re-designed the production top to bottom and came up with the idea of doing a staged concert version; i.e. the orchestra onstage with the cast acting their roles in costume but without theatrical lighting. For a "set" we thought of the idea of creating artistic "installations" that would frame the orchestra and provide an interesting look for the show.
THEN, the strike was suddenly over -- however not until December rolled around -- and by then it was way too late to design a full set and get it built (these things don't happen in a week!) So, the designers and I once again got together and re-designed the re-design trying to keep to the initial idea/inspiration from the original design. I found it interesting that many people I spoke with in mid-December thought that we'd simply just have a full production. It showed me just how few understand that in order to get a production fully realized and designed and then built, takes an enormous amount of time, planning, and frankly, thought.
So in my role as producer, that was a lot of work to focus on when generally I'm out and about on my Brevard audition trips down in the states with David Gately (and of course, during the holiday break one isn't normally putting in 60+ hours of work unless you are in retail.) However, in my role as the stage director for Don Giovanni this meant I really couldn't "block" the opera until I had an actual ground plan and set design. That happened a few days before Christmas.
Blocking an opera happens in many ways. Sometimes the director lets the cast create their blocking with very little intervention or guidance. Ask most people in the business and they'll tell you that this sort of process - an "organic" process - is interesting for the first few days but quickly becomes infuriating because no one is minding the store and many become frustrated with the "lack of plan". With students, this sort of process is not helpful. Many, if not most, are creating these characters for the first time. All are inexperienced, and very few have had acting training that might allow them to be self-motivated -- or better put, self-directed. With a new production (and all of the productions presented by Opera McGill are brand new productions!), it is vital for the director to know a show inside and out, have very clear ideas about where the singers are going to be in space, and be able to tell the casts (and most of our operas have TWO casts) quickly and efficiently how to move about in space.
Additionally, I'm there training young singers how to balance the many challenges that come with singing an operatic role: collaborating with the other cast members, remembering blocking, creating physical characterizations that work in the context of the production and period, learning how to focus on a conductor, helping to synthesize all the various production elements (handling props, walking in heels with a long dress on, stage combative elements like slapping someone onstage, moving set pieces while in character, keeping the Italian text's meaning clear both from a vocal standpoint and a visual standpoint, acting the meaning of the text, acting the meaning of the subtext, etc. -- the list goes on and on.) Because of this, I tend to block in GREAT detail how everyone is going to move onstage, most of the time down to specific measure numbers, words, or rests in the vocal score. This really helps give the singers something concrete to hold onto. I call it the structure of the show.
Structure is something that Opera needs in order to work. First off, the score is structured, as is the libretto. Obviously there are structures onstage, structures of light and dark, and physical structures on the singers' bodies called costumes. It is really necessary for the singers' physical and kinesthetic choices onstage to also have structure. From within this structure, artistic choices can be made and from those choices, actual art can come into being for an audience to witness.
I blocked Don Giovanni during the period between Christmas and New Year's Eve, something that was challenging because of ill health as well. But with that said, I'm very pleased with the results thus far. Creating a show in your head is something akin to composing a symphony, or choreographing a ballet in your head. You have to write stuff down in order to create it, but then it really doesn't live until you get live human beings in a room to rehearse what was once in your head. For me, the process of writing down the "stuff" that's in my head is "blocking".
Of course, it isn't always what I want and when I get to the process of staging in the rehearsal room I often times find myself changing the blocking that's written down in my score. That's when the real process of staging happens - when better ideas happen either on the spur of the moment, or because someone else in the room (from the pianist to the conductor to the stage manager to any of the singers) has a different idea. I've always thought the best directors were the ones that could totally dump their initial plan when a better one showed up, or at least try out someone else's ideas to see if they worked better.
Right now (moving into the 2nd week of January), the cast and I are still in the process of building the structure of staging, creating characters through physical, vocal, and musical choices (these are made in collaboration with the singer, the director, and the conductor), and getting to know the "show" -- what works and what the challenges are. The set is also being built as we speak (it's due to be delivered next week), and the costumes are getting finished (these were started back in early December and are INCREDIBLE!)
The process for the next week is to finish staging the opera in Wirth Opera Studio (we're half-way through), start running the opera in larger sections so that the students can get experience singing their roles from beginning to end, hold initial orchestra rehearsals with the MGSO, and get the program to printing as well as the poster.
Lots to do, gotta go!