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Monday, April 17, 2017

Opera B!NGE Fest 2017!

"I've had a great idea." -- PJH about a year ago

This past March, Opera McGill celebrated its 60th anniversary by presenting an entire season of opera - seven operas - in just 24 hours. In order to truly celebrate Montreal's 375th anniversary, Opera McGill set off to present opera not just on our campus, but in Montreal proper. Our first foray actually happened this past January with our production of Die Fledermaus at the wonderful historic theatre Monument National located in the heart of the Quartier des Spectacles. During the 24 hours, in addition to putting on three operas at on-campus venues (Pollack Hall, Redpath Hall, and Wirth Opera Studio), Opera McGill presented a double-bill of French opera at the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur and a double-bill of operas by Garner and Bartok at the Theâtre Paradoxe. It stretched us, literally, to be able to figure out the logistics of this project, but wow was it worth doing!

This was an idea that popped into my head while binge watching on Netflix over a year ago. Binge watching - for those who may not know what that is, or who may not do it - is sitting down in front of the telly and watching a season (or two, or three) or a TV series on Netflix in one stretch. Because we live in the country and don't have cable tv channels, only wifi limited internet, our use of the tv is different than many other families. Lots of DVDs and lots of Netflix. Usually we start on a Friday night choosing some show (my wife and I heartily recommend: "Grace and Frankie", "Last Tango in Halifax", and any BBC murder mystery from "Midsomer Murders" to "Death in Paradise") and then getting comfortable and watching show after show after show until we can't take any more of it.

So I thought, could this be a way to take in opera? Create a whole season of opera - in this case 7 one-acts - and then present it in 24 hours in such a way as to bring in audiences. New and old audiences, from across a wider range of Montreal perhaps? Would people take to the idea and join us on an operatic binge of sorts?

The planning phase was huge. Picking operas that would compliment the pool of students usually involved in opera; picking operas that represented something important was also very important to me. It was important for me to show audiences the Past, Present, and Future of opera. I also wanted a variety of production styles - historic, traditional, non-traditional, venue-based, and abstract styles that audiences see nowadays. This Binge Fest was going to try to show our audiences different ways to present operas in 2017.

I chose Dido and Aeneas as the first opera for Friday night because it was the first opera presented 60 years ago in 1957 by Opera McGill. That seemed appropriate, as was the venue: Redpath Hall. We decided to present it with a small baroque orchestra and with beautiful period costumes, sort of a nod to the history of Opera McGill. Stephen Hargreaves conducted and it was directed by Jessica Derventzis, one of two guest directors for the B!NGE. The second opera was to be presented in the morning of the following day. I picked my adaptation of Mozart's The Impresario mostly because it was updated to a NYC "audition space" and Wirth Opera Studio is a perfect audition space as is. In order to entice people to come in early, we offered complimentary Tim's coffee and Timbits with the price of admission. (Huge success, btw). This one was tricky to cast because the two sopranos needed have to have exciting extensions beyond the staff (going up to high F!), and I added two extra sopranos to the show in the adaptation.  Plus the pianist is also an onstage character who has lines, has to act, has to sing, and play the entire Mozart score brilliantly. Boy did we get lucky with Jack O! Both Dido and Impresario sold out days before, (there were actually people posting on FB trying to Dido tix!)

The early afternoon opera I wanted to be for kids. I had tons of great experiences performing for kids on various tours down in the US and one of the great operas written for kids is called "Sid the Serpent Who Wanted to Sing". We presented it in Pollack Hall with a rock-style lighting design and a very colourful set and costume design. I played the piano for this one (I'd played it hundreds of times on tour back in the 90s) and the cast of four delivered the 45 minute piece with tons of energy. At the end, when I invited the kids down to the edge of the stage, we had a rush of hundreds of kids eager to meet the Juggler, Clown, Strongman, and Sid as well as get their pics taken with them. One of the singers said she "felt like a Disney Princess". It was nice to collaborate on the show with my wife, Elizabeth Koch, who helped direct it. (She had performed the role of the clown about a hundred times back in the early 90s on a different tour.) Hopefully, Sid will live again sometime soon for more Montreal children.

The late afternoon show was a double-bill of two lovely French one-acts: Massenet's Le portrait de Manon and Ravel's L'heure espagnole. We presented these two very different pieces in two very different areas of the same venue at the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur east of McGill's campus. The Massenet was performed in the regular recital hall venue and then at the intermission the audience was invited to move to the other side, get a complimentary glass of wine (another big hit) and watch the second show in a pseudo-immersive style area. The audience had to stand, sit on the floor, move up to the balcony gallery overlooking the space, or sit in the two dozen or so chairs that were provided. It created a whole different atmosphere to take in an opera. Both were brilliantly performed to sold out audiences, with the amazing Olivier Godin as guest music director and pianist. The inspired direction was by another guest, Jonathan Patterson, who really had a challenge directing the Ravel in the Art Gallery space (check out the video below to see why!)

After a great dinner with some VIP guests at the Pullman (what a wine list!), I traveled to the last venue and got there in the nick of time to do my somewhat lengthy thank-you speech before the start of the last two operas: James Garner's East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon and Bela Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle (sung in the original Hungarian!). I chose these pieces for a couple of reasons. James Garner is a young English composer (24 years old) and I'd been looking for new "voices" in the opera world for quite some time. I've often thought that too many opera composers are a bit long in the tooth by the time they get to writing an opera and I was thrilled to find out that James was already writing numerous operas in his early twenties, plus he's a singer himself so his pieces really showcase voices in a way I've not heard in awhile. He understands voices and that is rare in a composer of opera nowadays. I thought his piece would make a sort of bookend to the Purcell - who wrote the earliest opera we have in the repertoire, Dido. The Bartok is simply my favourite opera written in the 20th century and I've been waiting to do it at Opera McGill until the right singers came along. Luckily, two graduating masters students were a perfect fit and the opera was a great project for both; certainly demanding vocally and musically, but also it's a very dark opera that demands a lot from the singers dramatically. The end result for both pieces was fantastic. The students gave terrific performances, Stephen conducted both with aplomb, the venue itself became part of the set and lighting designs, and I have never been more happy as a stage director.  The venue also came with a bar in the back, beer on draught, and we had the audiences seated "cabaret style" at rounded tables where they could enjoy their drinks and the opera at the same time.

To get a feel for the Festival, simply watch the following wondrous 15 minute documentary made by our videographer, Anne Kostalas. I think the audience interviews are really insightful and there is a palpable excitement about the 24 hours that she captured.

Here's the link: BingeFest Documentary

Anne also did a really cool "trailer" video for the Binge that she and I concocted one afternoon. The idea was to follow Bluebeard and Judith from venue to venue as if they were going to the Binge Festival as a date; in costume, with a soundtrack provided by the two singers and Stephen Hargreaves at the piano. Some people were confused by what it was all about. Perhaps now would be a good time to look back at it and see if we did a good job showing what to expect.

Here' the link: BingeFest Trailer

A huge project like this B!NGE Festival doesn't happen by itself. First off, you have to have the idea and convince others that it is a viable idea. My previous blog touches upon that kind of challenge.

Here's the link: Blog: Creative Conversions!

Then you have to put the right people into place, specifically the one person charged with getting everyone to the right place at the right time. That would be Russell Wustenberg, Opera McGill's production stage manager. He and I have now done over a dozen shows together (12 in the last year) and he has tremendous skills at organizing people. We couldn't have survived without him! The design team had to collaborate with four different directors and find a way to get to 14 tech and dress rehearsals over two days leading up to the Binge. Florence's makeup designs for Bluebeard -- wow! Serge's lighting in the Paradoxe -- wow! Vincent's numerous sets and set pieces that popped up all over Montreal -- wow! Ginette's costumes that ran the gamut from Trojan Aeneas to Steampunk Bluebeard -- wow! Then there were the multiple teams of students recording the operas led by Martha de Francisco (the unsung heroes of Schulich's research and performance departments -- recording hundreds and hundreds of concerts, recitals, and operas every season), the genius George Massenburg who did the video archiving of the actual performances you see on Anne's documentary, and the tireless Maureen Leaman Matulina who coordinated all of the various box offices and ticket requests as well as showing up to the shows themselves. All of these amazing professionals went above and beyond the norm and were the reason the festival succeeded so "effortlessly".

But the biggest kudos have to go to the students themselves. This wasn't your ordinary opera production schedule. We started the week after Fledermaus closed - no rest for the weary. Each show was given only a handful of staging rehearsals and coachings. Because there were seven shows, most of which had separate unique casts with just a few overlaps, we had to start stagings a month and a half before the B!NGE itself. That meant that some shows (like Impresario) got staged in February and weren't looked at again until the week of the Binge. This meant that many students took it upon themselves to continue rehearsing without a creative team -- which frankly is a terrific way to learn and work on your own ideas about character and physicality. They also were singing music written in a wide variety of styles and historical periods as well as in four different languages (English, French, German, and Hungarian).

Creating that schedule was a labor of love and could not have happened without my years of work at Glimmerglass Opera where we rehearsed four operas concurrently as well as running a young artist program with hundreds of added private coachings on top of the MainStage production schedules. When people ask me how the Binge happened, I have a hard time answering them. I smile and say something like "planning is everything." Well, the truth is is that planning actually is everything. But planning takes time and experience and willing participants.

Another question I get asked is "will you be doing it again next year?!" Well, the answer is yes! I've decided that binging on opera is a good thing and a cool way to create a buzz, find new audiences, and gain performance opportunities for the Opera McGill students. So next year, in March of 2018, we will be Binging on Bernstein! To celebrate the 100th birthday of Lennie, Opera McGill will be presenting three performances of Candide in collaboration with Boris Brott and his McGill Chamber Orchestra. Additionally, we will be presenting an afternoon titled "Arias and Barcarolles" which will be scenes from his many theatrical pieces - both opera and musical. It'll be a lovely weekend of Bernstein and I hope all will join us!

By the way, Opera McGill has a Youtube channel. Check out all of our numerous other videos here: Opera McGill YouTube .
As well, Anne Kostalas, videographer, has a blog. Check her out here: DivaFilms