2011 Opera America Magazine: Supporting First Time Directors in Opera

Opera America Magazine WINTER 2011 Edition

Supporting First Time Directors in Opera by Chuck Hudson

Read the article online.

Published January 13, 2012

A stage director’s job is basically the same in both the theater and the opera. But there are also subtle differences between the opera and theater worlds, which may not be apparent at first glance, and which can either help or hinder the producer’s goals. What might a new opera director — either fresh out of school or “crossing over” from another discipline — benefit from knowing, and how can producers best communicate this information? Last spring, in preparation for a panel at Opera Conference 2011, I spoke with a number of colleagues about challenges they faced in their early opera experience and what they wished they’d known in advance.

In the theater, the director is involved in every aspect of casting, whereas in the opera the cast is often “given” to the director. A first time opera director may need to dedicate a few days of rehearsal to discovering the cast — their strengths and weaknesses, their personalities and affinities. An opera company can help by putting the director and principal singers in touch before rehearsals begin.

Staging Rehearsals
A typical theater rehearsal schedule is four to five weeks long followed by a week or more of preview performances before paying audiences. Opera production schedules are typically much more condensed, and previews are unheard of. In addition, there are many differences between the operating procedures of Equity and AGMA — even as to how notes may be given to the performers — and it is truly only the stage manager who is on top of these many differences! A first-time opera director can benefit from the collaboration of a seasoned opera stage manager in developing a rehearsal schedule.

Opera singers arrive to the first day of rehearsal off-book; actors work with their scripts in hand for a time, discovering the text during table work and fleshing out the actions in initial blocking rehearsals. Helping a director to discover how long it will take to block a particular scene or sequence can be challenging if that director’s most creative work comes from improvising with the actors’ creativity early in the process. If a director “plays with blocking” for several days, the singers might begin to believe that the director is “changing his mind all the time” or “arrived unprepared” when he is simply committing to his usual creative process and being respectful of the singers’ creative input. A director can create a more collaborative environment by sketching his or her approach and schedule for the singers at the start of the process.

First time opera directors are often surprised to learn that they must allow time for the conductor’s work with the singers during blocking rehearsals. Helping the director to understand he is not “losing time” from blocking but collaborating with the conductor is a healthy approach. As with all theatrical endeavors, timing is essential, and the conductor can support the director’s vision by making adjustments in tempo. Conversely, the staging of ensembles may need to be adapted based on which voice is cuing which in an ensemble.

Sometimes performance schedules dictate that roles are double-cast. Directors understand this practice better hearing that opera is “the Olympics of singing” and that the full body performance singers utilize can become a health and safety issue for their voices. A decision must be made whether the second cast will observe the first in staging, or whether they are rehearsed separately. Due to individual differences between singers cast in the same role, small adjustments in the staging might need to be made.

Music and Languages:
The ability to work from the score, rather than the libretto, gives a director a better understanding of timing of each scene, as well as the emotional cues in the music. If the director does not read music, having someone from the music staff go through the score to indicate some of the key elements can be very helpful. If the director is not fluent in the language of the opera, it is helpful to supply both a word-by-word and idiomatic translation.

While it can be helpful for first-time directors to be assisted by someone with a musical background, most agree that directing experience remains an essential qualification for an assistant director. Because of time constraints in opera, the director needs to be able to rely on his or her assistant to balance the picture, or work with a scene that needs more dramatic tension, to specify the behavioral life of the chorus characters, or even to prepare the second cast.

Relationship to Stage Management:
In any production, the stage manager takes a large responsibility for maintaining consistency throughout the run. In opera, conventions for documentation vary from those in the theater. Directors and stage management may require some additional planning time to be sure they are “on the same page” before rehearsals begin.

Directing the Chorus
For directors who are not used to working with large groups of people, the chorus can seem like an overwhelming number of people on stage. Individual chorus members have a wide range of experience, from the member who has been in every show for twenty years to young voices still training whose eyes are glued to the conductor. Creating a behavioral life for this large amount of people is similar to working with “background characters” in a movie, where movements through the space are mapped out and timed. Often, though, the opera chorus is more of a character in the action.

Sometimes it is important to keep voice-types close to one another for balance, and the director can be encouraged to discuss this with the chorus master in advance or during the blocking rehearsal.

An AGMA Chorus has very specific regulations that stage directors coming from an Equity world may not know, and it is important to communicate these in advance. Unaware of these specifics, a director can inadvertently take the production over-budget because of his particular vision for the chorus: rules for moving furniture on and off the stage as well as the percentage of choristers asked to perform specific “stage movement” which might be perceived choreography are some of these.

In the Theater
If the hall is rented, in-house scheduling is based around the economics of the hall itself. A director will want to maximize all the time available, so helping him to understand that the end of rehearsal time is actually the lock out time, the stage manager can end a rehearsal, clean up and be out of the hall on time.

To maximize time in the theater without overtaxing singers, scene shift rehearsals may be called during the day so that they are running smoothly by the time the singers get to the stage. Some companies may use volunteer light walkers for lighting sessions, who may or may not be familiar with terminology like “stage right” or “downstage.”

Any on-stage work with the director must happen during rehearsals accompanied by piano: once the orchestra is in the house, rehearsals are scheduled around the rules of the musician’s union. In orchestra rehearsals, a stage director rarely calls HOLD unless there is danger involved — rarer still to work a moment that might take away time from the conductor’s work with the orchestra.

Theater directors can become fearful during the first technical rehearsals because “the acting disappears.” The conductor and the singers have precious little rehearsal time with the orchestra, and preparing directors for the messiness of these rehearsals is vital. Singers will be adjusting to a new acoustic and working out their visual connection to the conductor.

There is a day-off before the opening performance of the opera so that the singers may rest their voices before Opening. Stage directors are usually looking for something to DO on that day, and this is a great time for something social or donor related to happen in their schedule.

In Closing
Each new director brings a different set of experiences to the opera stage. A visual artist may bring a keen eye for the larger picture but need assistance in collaborating with singers. A former singer brings a deep understanding of what performers need to do their best work, but may lack experience in working with designers. Even seasoned opera directors have their strengths and weaknesses, and through experience they have learned how to create a scenario that allows them to do their best work. Opera companies can help new directors succeed by having a clear picture of what the director brings to the production, as well as where he or she might require some additional support.

Chuck Hudson is a stage director who works in opera and theater.