Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Good Times

If you see the back of my left hand, you'll notice that there are two small wounds that are in a rather unattractive stage of healing at the moment. If I roll up my sleeve far enough, you'll see that I am sporting a bandage covering a much bigger (and slightly deeper) scrape on my elbow. Now, as much I wish I had some dramatic, violent, freakish stage accident story to tell, the truth is a fair bit more embarrassing. At our sitzprobe (our first orchestra rehearsal in the theater), I was chatting with some cast mates, and nearly missed my entrance for the Act I finale. I ran down the length of the theater and hopped up on the stage only to trip and skid spectacularly across half of the set.

What I find remarkable about this every time I look down at my very minor injuries is how relaxed I was when it happened. Rossini causes me stress. Full stop. I have never had an experience with Rossini in which I have not felt tremendous nerves and anxiety. As I have written time and time again here, it is some of the music that I find most challenging to sing. Part of that is the point of this music. In many of the Q and A sessions and interviews we've had here over the past few weeks in order to publicize the opera, a lot of what we have talked about is how virtuosic this music is. It is in the bel canto style, and it is meant to show off the virtuosic extremes of the voice. Virtuosity equals pressure – there is just no way around it. In the past, when I have performed Rossini, I've been anxious, on edge, nervous, and my way of dealing with it is to be hyper-prepared and have a humorless, razor-sharp focus in rehearsal. The idea that I was relaxed enough to be even a little distracted is mind-boggling to me and makes me smile.

My little injuries have gotten me thinking about how there has been a rather unique atmosphere in rehearsals here, though. While we have been working hard (and quite seriously - most of the time), everyone in the room has really seemed focused on the fun of what we do. In the various acting classes I took and theatrical experiences that I had at the theater departments at both Interlochen (back when I actually thought I wanted to be an actor) and the University of Michigan, I found there to be an incredibly conscious effort to maintain a positive energy in the room. It was constantly emphasized that the rehearsal room was a safe haven – a place to explore, take risks, and – most importantly - find the play (i.e. the fun) within the play. Most often in my experience, I've found that, while we are practicing a form of theater, there is little room for this kind of process-oriented, fun work in Opera. As singers, we have been taught during the course of most of our young artist programs the importance of showing up "prepared" on the first day of rehearsal. It has been drilled into us that we have to know every single note and rhythm, be memorized, and have fairly strong ideas about who the characters we portray are and how they should act. Many singers often refer to the first day of rehearsal as the "first day of school", but not with the excitement of students coming back to school after a summer of vacation. Instead, there are the sigh of having to deal with schoolmarms and the dread of preparing for an exam in their tone. From the minute that first rehearsal begins, the pressure is on. Every single "role preparation" discussion or session that I had in my training focused only on what and how much I needed to know for that first day of rehearsal, and, yes, those things are important – when a colleague isn't properly prepared, it can cripple a rehearsal process, making it excruciating. All the same, there are so many more layers to discover in order to make it a great run of performances, and there is a danger in the expectation to be so prepared for that first day – that we close ourselves off to exploring the myriad of possibilities and the fun that lie within the covers of our scores.

What has made this experience so unique is that theater-like emphasis on the positive that I felt when I was young has been really prevalent here in Portland. Our rehearsals have been filled with laughs, smiles, hugs, jokes, and just good fun. We've been blessed with a conductor and director who have both maintained a perfect balance between being being laid-back and focused and a cast full of incredibly supportive, positive, and very funny colleagues. All that has allowed us to find our ways through this piece and come together as a cast quite organically. Every rehearsal has felt like a building block, each run-through has felt like an opportunity, and every note that has been given has only been framed in the positive. It's always been, "why don't you try this instead and see how that works?" Never, "don't do that." It's been a very empowering and fun atmosphere, and I feel that our performances over the next ten days will be quite special as a result. Since our first day of school here, I have gone to rehearsal everyday feeling like the possibilities are limitless and safe enough to try different ones out each day, and it has felt like the pressure is somewhat off. At least, enough for me to feel relaxed and have fun with it – it is a comedy, after all, right?

Incidentally, I'll have you know that despite my sliding across the stage, I didn't miss a beat, and we made our way through the scene just fine, laughing at ourselves the entire time.

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