I remember the first time that I brought my husband with me on an operatic job. He is a graphic designer (I refer to him as a civilian), we had only been married a month before, and he had only ever experienced opera from the audience. I was both excited and nervous to share with him the whole experience of building an opera; a rehearsal through performance process that takes, on average, a month to come to fruition. A month is a long time in anyone’s life to be away from home working on a project that in the end will have fleeting but very impactful results. For the uninitiated, it can be a heady and unique experience. I was very familiar with the company we were traveling to and I had performed the role I was going to sing three times before this engagement. I knew a significant portion of the cast and had been at this particular company several times before as well, so I felt like this production was a good safe opportunity for my unsuspecting new husband to enter into the rarified atmosphere that is the opera gestation period.
I am hoping that by bringing my husband’s journey into this I can illustrate through his eyes and anecdotally make some key points about the way most operas come to be on your local stage. I am assuming here that many of you reading this have also only witnessed opera in its final form from an audience. Maybe we should have entitled this Blog post “The Opera “birds and the bees” talk”.
Opera productions start as a gleam in an opera company’s eye one to five years from the date that the audience finally takes their seats and the lights go down. They require immense passion to conceive and the cradle of an organization and a community to secure. Had enough of this analogy yet? Seriously, though, regional opera requires avocational levels of dedication to imagine and generate support around any given production. Some of those administrators, fund raisers, board members, volunteers and community leaders are visible on opening night-some you might even see take a bow. Most are invisible, and quite literally unsung heroes of this process. They make every single note of an opera possible, so if you know someone who does this, give them some extra love. If all goes well, and this opera’s parents love it very, very, much, a season will be announced and you the audience will hopefully immediately mark that opera season on your calendar. Why is marking your calendar so important? It is, very simply, your integral part in the art form. No opera can be truly complete without your attendance. Without your eyes, ears and hearts opera is a brilliant rose blooming on an undiscovered ledge. If you absorb nothing else form this blog post, please understand that all of the preparation that goes into any opera coming into being will culminate in just a few nights of art, and then that unique production will be gone. Forever. We are not a movie, or a touring show, or even a pop concert. All of our moving parts will shift to a new position like an artistic combination lock with each production, and the sport of opera, like the sport of tennis for instance, is in the lineup, not the venue or even the game itself. The rarity of opera is in its temporality.
“What a silly product”, you might think, “what a long process for something I can’t own and put on my shelf or my wall”. Well, are you a wine enthusiast? Wine takes longer than opera to become art and arguably lasts a lot less time in your glass, and in your body. When it is time to drink the wine, you have to drink it or its bloom fades. A musical moment is like wine that must be opened and enjoyed at a precise time in order to retain it’s true value. Wine is a snapshot of nature in a bottle. Opera is a snapshot of human ability and cooperation at a finite time that is unique to a place and a group of musicians and audience members. A great opera performance can become part of the fabric of your life and, if we do our job right, can remain part of you forever. We know this now even more deeply because of Covid-19. We are all living on our memories of live events and one-of-a-kind experiences while they are unavailable to us. Personally, I say, enjoy some great wine, and THEN have some food for your soul in opera form! But I digress…
When operas are ready to be born, a group of people assembles at a company to begin that journey together: Solo cast, supporting cast, chorus, conducting staff, accompanists, orchestra members, stage management, stage crew, directing staff, production designers and lighting designers, costume designers, wigs and makeup designers, tech crew, security guards, theater administrators, opera company administrators, board members, volunteers, and host families. This living organism of talent, good intentions, and cooperation begins to form like a beautiful and fragile soap bubble around the production. Every person is helping to breathe life into that tenuous surface. It gets stronger with each passing day of good, collaborative and mutually respectful work. Things may threaten to pop the bubble along the way, but a force that I have come to call “the magic of theater’ always seems to heal us just in time. I believe that magic is the power of the collective vision we have all signed up for, our dream and our mutual desire to make it to the place where we can share this magical living structure we have created together with you the audience. We are all intensely aware that we have a date on the books with all of you, sometimes for years in advance, so marking your calendars for our singular intersection is how you, our community, uphold your end of that vision, that magical bubble, and this art form.
So, how did my husband emerge from his adventure into how the opera sausage gets made? Fortunately for me, he became an even more dedicated fan. He came home with such a different understanding of the marathon that is a month of rehearsals, events, staging, community building, worrying, celebrating, living in a new city as the guest of a family you might never meet otherwise, staying healthy at all costs, and peaking in your performance at just the right time. He even opted to travel with me again and even took on a supernumerary part when someone dropped out last minute! I will never forget him getting to experience his own stage calls, responsibilities and onstage moments. He was so brave to take that on! I will never forget the moments we shared onstage and in rehearsals. I don’t think he will either, and I think it’s safe to say he will be relaxing in the audience from now on. But he takes a production in differently now, and hears the music more deeply now as a result. There is really no place quite like an opera stage full of light, color, sweat, nerves and the pure power of acoustic human sound.
Opera singers are cultural ambassadors. Our job is so much more than just delivering high notes in glittering costumes for a few performances. Our jobs are a month or more long, and include community engagement, from the time we wake up and grab coffee at the local coffee bar on our way to rehearsal, to the dinners we have with donors, the interactions we have with local choristers and volunteers and their children, to the gyms we work out in and walks we take on our days off. What other business can you point to that has at its very heart the integration of every community represented in every cast with the community surrounding that company? What other product has the potential to include an indelible experience under a fleeting dome of mutual intention that enriches each person who encounters it? Every opera is its own Olympic Village, and to see opera as only a performance schedule is reductive where it could be understood as redemptive.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the holiday feeling that is every opening night. I love seeing my name on every dressing room door that has ever been vouchsafed me. But the part of making opera that you have to win at in order to make any opera a success is the synthesis. That cradle of synthesis when valued by the company as well as the community is a powerful asset and a vital force in the service of human unity and mutual understanding. That is what opera was made to do; bring people together.
Opera makes families out of strangers. Opera heals us; when we learn our parts, when we hone our instruments, when we gather in synthesis, when you mark your calendars, and we all let the music in.