Performer perspective by Jeremy Kleeman; introductory text by VttM researcher Joe Browning.
In his second blog post about Voyage to the Moon, Jeremy Kleeman, who plays the Magus in the opera, describes his experiences in the latest phase of the production process: the staging rehearsals.
In many ways, this phase is about transforming texts – namely the libretto and score – into a performance. At first the focus is on shaping the sounds, gestures and movements within the stage space, and ultimately it means creating a full production, including props, lighting and costumes. Yet, as Jeremy explains, this movement from ‘score’ to ‘show’ is not one-way: the process of staging and rehearsing prompts new questions about the libretto and music – for a whole host of reasons from clarity to expressiveness to practicality – and small amendments are then fed back into the original texts, which re-inflect the staging, and so on.
Such fluidity is one focus of the CHE research surrounding this opera, which aims to investigate how the Voyage creative team reinvents baroque practices and re-imagines Baroque emotional worlds for contemporary audiences. As ongoing observation of the Voyage rehearsals is demonstrating, this imaginative work extends across all dimensions of the production, from the broad arc of the story to details of the soundworld and costumes. From the beginning, though, the flexibility of words and music inherent in the pasticcio form has been one of the major challenges for the creative team, and a distinctive feature of the process behind this production.
Responding to such challenges requires a supportive and open atmosphere; this is where the sentimental world evoked in an operatic production intersects with the emotional world of the rehearsal process. And so Jeremy’s account also highlights some of the interpersonal dynamics of the rehearsal room. Much of his emphasis is on fun, both in terms of good-humoured relationships between cast members and the process by which difficult music becomes familiar and pleasurable to sing. As he suggests, feeling able to experiment without fear is also crucial for letting performers test out different gestural vocabularies and musical interpretations. By cultivating this atmosphere, and spending many hours together, the creative team together forge a variety of relationships: the communication between director and cast; the responsive interactions between singers and instrumentalists; the bonds or tensions between imaginary characters; and the (still to come, but always in mind) connections between performers and audiences. Documenting the emergence of these relationships, both professional and dramatic, is one important route into understanding the production as a social and cultural, as well as an artistic, endeavour.
For those who read my last blog entry – I don’t have a crossword puzzle for you this time, but I can assure you that the word conundrums haven’t stopped in the rehearsal room! On the day I wrote this it was decided that one particular word was occurring a bit pre-emptively in the narrative, so we put on our thinking caps and slightly re-jigged the text in my second aria. This sort of tweaking has been happening quite regularly over the past couple of weeks, and it’s certainly kept all of our eyes on the ball. As you might imagine, it can be challenging to change a line when you have been drilling it in a certain way for weeks!
Of course late changes aren’t uncommon in new works – Mozart apparently composed the overture to Don Giovanni on the day of its première! But being involved in a new opera is certainly not the norm these days. I had a look at the statistics taken from 2009/10 to 2013/14 on http://www.operabase.com, and calculated that roughly one in every 62 opera productions is a world première. In contrast, Victorian Opera has on average presented a world première once every season since launching in 2006, about one in five! I am so proud of the company’s commitment to regularly producing new Australian work. I believe it is very important for the ongoing relevance of the art form in this country, and more often than not I find it very entertaining.
We are now into the staging rehearsals for Voyage to the Moon, of which we have exactly three weeks in total. I am really enjoying working with Michael Gow, and can see why he is a sought after director of opera. He gives us a very clear dramatic structure to work within, and is constantly researching ideas for all of our characters. He treats everyone on the rehearsal floor with a great deal of respect, which in turn has left me feeling free to improvise and create without the fear of judgement or stuffing up. And he is very accommodating during the most difficult musical moments, which require paying greater attention to vocal matters.
I am also enjoying working with Sally-Anne Russell and Emma Matthews, who both bring a wealth of professional experience, beautiful singing and a lot of fun into the rehearsal room. Sally-Anne and I are finding our character’s companionship as we journey to the Moon very entertaining, and Emma is relishing the chance to scare us both once we get there… And I love that every so often I get to just sit back and enjoy their world-class singing.
What’s more, I am learning a great deal about myself in rehearsing this role. It’s the ideal role to be my first lead as I have had a say in shaping it to fit my voice, but I still have to be careful that I don’t get too excited in these early rehearsals. When I staged my first aria, I threw myself wholeheartedly into the drama of the situation, and temporarily neglected some of the technical vocal elements I was striving to achieve in the piece. As you might imagine, after seven repeats I was paying the price! But since then I have been discovering the balance between inward vocal technical awareness and outward dramatic performance that I need in order to perform this role. Interestingly, it is different to the balance I found when preparing minor roles in the past, but I can see that in time, and even within this rehearsal period, the scales will tip to allow me more dramatic freedom.
I couldn’t leave without mentioning our conductor leading from the harpsichord, Phoebe Briggs. Phoebe’s incredibly on the ball with the music in this production, and I really enjoy her presence in the room. She anticipates any tempo or dynamic requests I may have, and she somehow knows what is going on when I wink at her across the room after making a tiny mistake. Just recently, she wove her magic to turn a trio we were unsure about into a fun piece to sing. And she did all this despite playing an instrument whose tuning is so sensitive to temperature change that we have had to keep all but one door to the rehearsal room closed! Jokes aside, it has been a privilege to get to rehearse with such a beautiful harpsichord, and we’ve just been joined by Molly Kadarauch on the cello, providing a stunning accompaniment to our rehearsals.
Everything’s on track for opening night on 15 February 2016, and I will write again a few days after to let you know how I feel it all went!
The Voyage to the Moon researchers are Jane Davidson, Joe Browning and Frederic Kiernan, based at the University of Melbourne. Jane Davidson is Professor of Creative and Performing Arts (Music) at the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, The University of Melbourne, and Deputy Director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE). Joseph Browning is a ethnomusicologist and postdoctoral research fellow at CHE specialising in the shakuhachi, central Javanese gamelan, and ethnographic approaches to Western art music. Frederic Kiernan is a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and research assistant at CHE.