Friday, April 8, 2016

Pick up Your Q: Costume Designer/Coordinator Joanna Schmink

Atlanta Opera Costume Coordinator Joanna Schmink spends most of her time in the costume shop sourcing, curating, altering, and piecing together costumes from other designers and productions. 
For Romeo and Juliet, she designed and created everything from scratch for this spectacular grand opera with an equally grand cast. We talked to her about the joys and challenges of the job.



The Atlanta Opera: Who or what influenced you to get into costume design?
Joanna Schmink: Growing up, my parents involved all of my siblings in the arts (orchestra, choir, dance, theatre) not as a potential career choice but to enlighten us on the importance of art in all forms in our daily lives. I think it was a friend in college that convinced me to take an internship in the university costume shop. I changed majors a semester later from engineering to costume design and have her to thank or blame.

AO: Who is your favorite artist or designer, living or dead?
JS: Léon Samoilovitch Bakst (1866-1924). He was a Russian painter, set, and costume designer known for his rich, exotic use of color, pattern, and texture. His work for Diaghilev Ballet Russes is some of his best work - a visual kaleidoscope of color brought to life on stage. Bakst’s brilliant control of color and line spilled over into fashion and interior design giving a new richness and looser flow to the drab look of the time. 

AO: Are there any misconceptions about costume designers that you’d like to clear up?
JS: I don't think people quite understand what costume designers do on the job. For starters, it’s not as glamorous as people would like to think. It’s a lot of long hours and hard work. You have to love research, working with fabric, collaborating with other creative people such as designers, directors, producers, and performers. The payoff is definitely not notoriety, but rather the satisfaction of creating part of a wonderful theatrical experience. 

AO: What does a typical day look like for you?
JS: There are no typical days, thank goodness. There are some non-negotiables that I always keep on the early morning daily roster like running, biking, or swimming. I like to start every day off on an active foot to help keep me in a great frame of mind and provide an additional bump of energy. There is nothing like a sun rise to inspire creativity. A work day is usually a 7:30 a.m. or 8:00 a.m. start with a 7:00 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. finish. All kinds of things could occupy a work day from organizational office work and fabric shopping to costume fittings and production meetings. There is a mix of practical and creative aspects to every day.

AO: What kind of preparation went into the period costumes for Romeo and Juliet?
JS: A large part of the development and preparation for this production is in research and creative problem solving. The body of the show is being set in the 1830’s, historically noted as part of “The Romantic Era” (1820’s-1840’s), or early Victorian. It is complemented by aspects and costume elements of the Elizabethan Era (1550’s-1600’s) which works well in the presentation of a Shakespearean story line. The challenge is to make the periods connect seamlessly so the costumes enhance the storytelling.

AO: Were there specific challenges to creating these costumes for such a large cast?
JS: This production is incorporating brand new built costumes, pre-existing costume stock, and rented costumes. It’s challenging to have all of these elements in place and create a cohesive design that will present a beautiful visual for the audience. The work involved to move the design forward takes additional creative thought and design flexibility so the best choices are made.

AO: Are there any productions (opera or other) for which you have always wanted to design the costumes?

JS: I would love to design a Die Fledermaus or a Tristan und Isolde. Both have great opera design elements that would challenge me as a designer. I would love to do research on both shows and have a great adventure seeing them come to life. They both have grand opera story appeal with love, drama, and suspense well crafted into their plots.





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Monday, March 14, 2016

Behind the Scenes: Curt Olds as Major-General Stanley

Bass Curt Olds is a world-renown singer and performer. He's covered many roles in Gilbert & Sullivan's greatest works, most recently in our mounting of The Pirates of Penzance. We went backstage with Curt to watch his transformation into the Major-General and to learn more about his process, pre-performance rituals and tips for getting into character.

I always hate the process of putting on heavy wigs and makeup for a production, but I love the look afterwards. The adhesive, spirit gum or mastix, is sticky like syrup and burns a bit upon application. I performed for a couple of years in the Broadway musical CATS, which was probably the heaviest make-up/wig show I've ever done. One trick I use as Major-General is to split the mustache into two pieces so it will allow my mouth to move without trouble. 




The Major-General is unique because your biggest song is both your first moment on stage and extremely well known. When arias like this come right out of the gate for a character (like Figaro in The Barber of Seville) the performer has one shot to get things right. Patter songs (I do many of them in the repertoire I perform) are always demanding, but the Major-General's song is extra hard due to it's fame and it's location in the show. 

No matter what role I am performing, I like to take a little time in my dressing room before I get into costume and makeup and go through the whole show at a quick pace. I usually keep all my notes together that I have been given by directors, conductors, and coaches, and I go through that list, as well. With the Major General, I usually have time to run the lyrics to the song one more time before my entrance, which I always think is a smart idea. No matter how many times I do a role, I still review using this method to make sure I am not taking anything for granted. Every time I review, there is something that I catch that might have been missed in performance.

I'm a big coffee drinker, so I usually will grab a cup of coffee as I head to the theatre. I also like to stay social, so when time allows, I like to prop my dressing room door open so I can keep in the vibe of the show, visit with colleagues and wish them well. I started out as many performers do, working in cramped-quarter theatres and I like to keep in the group frame of mind with Gilbert & Sullivan, which requires a connection from the largest role to every ensemble member for success.

This is my 15th production of Pirates (8 Pirate Kings and 7 Major Generals). Next up I will do my 24th production of Ko-Ko in Mikado, which is my favorite role of all. I love this rep so much and I am happy to see opera and theatre companies include it in standard rep. Despite it being viewed as a guilty pleasure by so many opera patrons, it usually sells out and many times companies add performances because of demand. That speaks volumes. 

It's been such a pleasure to perform with Atlanta Opera and I have had a great time in this city. This cast includes some of my very close friends and I think Tomer Zvulun has assembled a brilliant group of singing actors perfectly suited for this type of show. I look forward to see what exciting things are coming for Atlanta Opera audiences and I hope I have the opportunity to return again soon.



All photos by Vicky Legaspi. 

Usage of any images on this blog is restricted to The Atlanta Opera and approved news websites. Any other usage, particularly for professional purposes, must have written permission. For additional information, please contact The Atlanta Opera at 404.881.8801.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Production Notes: The Pirates of Penzance (by Nicholas Beard)

All photos by Jeff Roffman
We’re forever fascinated by pirates. It’s a child’s fantasy to battle pirates – think Peter Pan vs. Captain Hook – but it’s also an adult metaphor elastic enough for a range of social commentary. By our romanticized view, pirates live off their wits, live a hedonist life. They have escaped the conventions of a society which, as every free-spirit knows, stifles creativity. As escapist fiction, literature (Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” from 1719) and opera (Bellini’s “Il Pirata,” 1827) are no less enthralling than swashbuckling films starring Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn and, today, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise.

So it was in the 1870s, when composer Arthur Sullivan and librettist William Schwenck Gilbert started collaborating on English-language comic operas, a cousin to sweetly sophisticated Parisian and Viennese operettas. The British duo had a commercial hit with the nautical-themed “HMS Pinafore” in 1878. But within months “Pinafore” was spreading across America through – ahem – pirated productions, earning the creators no income.

For their next collaboration, “The Pirates of Penzance” in 1879, they followed their familiar patterns by lampooning the police and the military, poking fun at empty patriotism and, above all, satirizing the stupidity of a literal devotion to duty. Our hero Frederic is “the slave of duty,” personifying the operetta’s subtitle. In Victorian England, with an Empire stretching around the globe, protected by the most powerful naval fleet that ever existed, “Pirates of Penzance” was social satire with a sharp edge. That Gilbert’s lyrics and Sullivan’s music does all this with such a light touch – tuneful, infinitely clever, unexpectedly warm – is the stuff of genius.

Early in their collaborations, Gilbert and Sullivan established a formal structure to their works: two acts, the first act concluding with a complicated finale in several sections and the second act reprising tunes heard earlier. Like other operettas, spoken dialogue (instead of operatic recitative) moves the action forward, although their best works, including “The Mikado,” have found a home in opera houses across the English-speaking world. Gilbert’s political iconoclasm matched perfectly with Sullivan’s gift for melody and his skills in orchestration, where he could parody music by a Handel, Donizetti or Verdi and twist it to his own comic needs. As with the best satire, the more you know the funnier it gets. 

Key points of “The Pirates of Penzance” plot are so daffy that audiences can’t help but groan and giggle. And there’s no irony: all the characters are “naïve” to their world, with no winks from the stage at their increasingly ridiculous situations. For starters, the work’s title is funny: British audiences would have known Penzance as a mild and slightly boring beach town on the English Channel, the last place you’d expect to find blood-thirsty bandits of the high seas. The characters are introduced by a series of wacky missteps. The nursery maid Ruth had misheard “pirate” (instead of “pilot”) and had mistakenly apprenticed the boy Frederic to the Pirate King – as if one trained into piracy as into any other respectable trade. Gilbert’s lyrics emphasize the not-so-subtle difference in pronunciation with over-the-top rhymes: “my lot/pilot” and “gyrate/pirate.”

Now 21, bidding farewell to his masters, Frederic had accepted his duty (despite Ruth’s mistake) and reveals his literal mindset: “It was through an error – no matter, the mistake was ours, not yours, and I was in honor bound to it.” When we meet the pirate band, we soon learn they are uncommonly polite and empathetic, and word has spread that they will release all victims who claim to be orphans.

As in grand opera, the work thrives on its songs, and this is what makes “Pirates” among the greatest of any operetta in the language. Mabel’s coloratura showpiece, “Poor wand’ring one,” is set as a graceful, French-style waltz. In the ensemble number “How beautifully blue the sky,” Sullivan sets the love duet between Frederic and Mabel as a fresh, lilting waltz, dovetailing it into the chitter-chatter of the women’s chorus in 2/4 time. It’s as silly, tender and brilliant as anything in the G&S canon.

Perhaps the most famous number of the score is the Major-General’s charming, clueless patter-song “I am the very model of a modern Major-General.” At top speed, he spits out ghastly rhymes with the high-falutin’ language of educated men – “mathematical/quadratical” and “a lot ‘o news/hypotenuse” – all delivered in a mock-pompous style. (As a comedy technique, it was adopted by generations of British satirists, including Monty Python in our own time.) The Major-General’s song in the second act, “Sighing softly to the river,” features a rippling watery accompaniment that wouldn’t be out of place in Schubert lieder. But the context is hilarious, with the men’s choruses mocking him unseen in the background, parodying a similar scene from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.” As with almost every detail in “The Pirates of Penzance,” it’s easy to forget about the richness of invention because the lyrics-music fusion seems so effortless.

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Friday, February 5, 2016

Pick Up Your Q: Bass Kevin Burdette

      Bass Kevin Burdette is currently appearing as Stobrod/Blindman in Cold Mountain at Opera Philadelphia, but he'll be with us soon to start rehearsing his role as The Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance, opening March 5th. We sat down with the "Robin Williams of opera" to pick his brain about preparing for the role, Gilbert and Sullivan's influence, and his thoughts on Queen Victoria. 
                                                     Did you grow up going to the opera?
     I grew up around classical music and went to a lot of orchestra concerts and musical theater (in fact, I played viola in the Knoxville Youth Symphony Orchestra starting in 7th grade and performed in school and church musical theater earlier than that), but I didn’t go to the opera until I was in high school – a performance of Don Giovanni, and I’m embarrassed to say that I fell asleep in the second act! One of the singers in that show was the wonderful Phil Cokorinos, with whom I have since sung, in The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera (I never told about my dozing off…). 
     Do you remember the moment that captured your interest in music and singing? Was there a particular artist that influenced you?
I am not certain there was a specific moment that captured my interest – it was more like the confluence of a lot a separate moments: sitting backstage, while in the chorus of The Marriage of Figaro, listening to the Countess singing “Dove sono,” and being struck by opera’s unique ability and power to move a listener in moments of a character’s vertical development and looking within; sitting in rehearsal of La traviata and getting overwhelmed by the beauty and sorrow of the final act (especially from “Addio del passato” to the end). Everyone in the room that afternoon, from the director, conductor, diction coach, on down, was bawling at the final chord, moved by a transcendent moment only opera can provide. 
As for artists who influenced me, I was extremely fortunate to have cut my teeth in opera at the New York City Opera – I started there while still in grad school and performed over 100 times with the company over the subsequent decade or so. The roster of New York City Opera when I was there was full of the great American singing actors of that time. I performed with, and learned from, singers like Bob Orth, Joyce Castle, Lauren Flanigan, Mark Delevan, David Daniels, Bill Burden, Elizabeth Futral, the list goes on and on. 
Also, I would be remiss not to mention one other singer who shaped my career profoundly: Paolo Montarsolo. When I was a young artist in Paris, I had the honor of working with Paolo on a production of The Elixir of Love. Dulcamara was one of Paolo’s great roles, and we worked extensively for weeks on my interpretation of that role. That work was invaluable and laid the foundation for the work I do now as a singing actor.
     How have you prepared for the Pirate King, both as a vocalist and an actor?
I have had the good fortune of being in The Pirates of Penzance multiple times now, so I am very familiar with the piece, having been around so many rehearsals and performances of it. My preparation, therefore, has been relatively straight forward: diving first into the words to make sure I am comfortable with them and where they are going, and then adding in the music. The lyrics are extremely clever, and the musical setting varies among funny, beautiful, moving, and rousing moments. The best thing to do, for me, is simply to honor the source material by learning it, repeating it, trying to find every bit of wisdom Gilbert and Sullivan added, and then doing it again.
It helps, of course, to know that Seán Curran will be waiting when we arrive in Atlanta. Seán is one of the funniest and cleverest people in opera, and it is extremely comforting to know that we, and the operetta, are in his incredibly capable hands. Basically, I am just looking forward to having fun!

You’ve performed so many kinds of opera. How does Gilbert & Sullivan differ from the traditional works and contemporary pieces you’ve sung?
In some sense, Gilbert & Sullivan does not differ much from the traditional works and contemporary opera I have performed. Opera, to me, is all about telling the story – and G&S write as good of a story as anyone. There are twists and turns, to be sure, but part of telling the story is not anticipating those turns and simply being in the moment when they occur.
Of course, Pirates is a comedy, so in that sense, it is different from Everest or Cold Mountain or La bohème. It’s not too far removed, though, from a Daughter of the Regiment or an Elixir of Love, as far as I am concerned. Donizetti was a genius at writing music that allows for the humor of a text or of a situation to come to the fore, and Sullivan was much the same. Dulcamara’s opening patter aria in Elixir has a lot in common, I think, with the Major General’s opening aria in Pirates. And just like with Marie and Tonio in Daughter of the Regiment, the audience connects with Frederic and Mabel and is genuinely delighted when they find a way to be together. 
     What is your favorite moment in The Pirates of Penzance?
Oh, it’s so difficult to name one. Thinking of that silliness I referenced, the “ ‘often, frequently’ only once” exchange is epic – so funny. And the Major General’s opening aria is one of the funniest pieces of music ever written.
Perhaps best of all, though, are the moments of pure beauty that emerge from the topsy-turvy world. I cannot imagine a more beautiful moment than the duet between Frederic and Mabel in the middle of “Stay, Frederic, stay”: “”Ah, leave me not to pine alone and desolate…he loves thee, he is here,” followed by Frederic’s “Ah, must I leave thee here in endless night to dream…he loves thee, he is gone.” It is a heartfelt text, gorgeously set: in 3/4, with a hemiola midphrase and a stunning top G on “loves” – as beautiful as anything in the repertoire.

And finally: Queen Victoria, overrated or underrated?
     The Pirate King MUST answer that the Queen is underrated – for all our faults, I love the Queen! 





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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Pick Up Your Q: GLMMR

The last time we spoke with David Adam Moore (Light and Sound: David Adam Moore has Something to Say) and Vita Tzykun (Pick Up your Q: Costume Designer Vita Tzykun), the minds behind GLMMR were working tirelessly on previous productions with us. We're lucky to have them back again for Soldier Songs, where they've designed stunning and carefully crafted projections and imagery for this gripping, contemporary opera. 

The Atlanta Opera: You’re back in Atlanta! Any new finds since you were last here in September?

Vita and David: We've been working on the show 12-16 hours a day most days, so we haven't had much time to explore Atlanta, but when we got the chance, we'd sneak off to K1 Speed and race electric karts! Other favorites are Octane Coffee, Moe's Original Bar B Que, Bone Garden Cantina, and a memorable dinner at the Piedmont Driving Club.

David - You sang the world premiere of Soldier Songs and some of your vocals are used in this production. What’s it like to hear yourself in this production? And to work with your own voice?


Photo Ben Raftermen
David: In "Steel Rain," my speaking voice is used in the live performance track, along with the voice of David T. Little and a combat veteran who is being interviewed. The piece is about the shock and disorientation a soldier experiences when under fire from incoming ordnance, so the three voices are layered in and out of one another while speaking the same text. It's a wonderful example of how pre-recorded electronics can serve as an integral component in a live drama. Soldier Songs is such a powerful piece, and I feel honored to participate in it in whatever way I can.

GLMMR designed Winter Journey with the Opera in September. How has your design and production approach differed or remained the same with Soldier Songs?

Vita: The main difference in our process for the two productions is that David and I directed and designed Winterreise, then David performed it, whereas in Soldier Songs, we collaborated with Tomer Zvulun (director) and Matthew Worth (baritone) to create the piece. From a design stand point, we always start with the core - the story - and develop the production from there using whichever resources are available to us for that project. During Winterreise, David stepped away from the technical side of things during the final week in order to concentrate on rehearsing and performing, while Maxwell Bowman, our lighting designer and video tech, took over both lighting and video.

You are working many elements into Soldier Songs that are atypical to opera productions, like projections and pre-recorded audio. Can you tell us more about that?
Photo: Ben Raftermen


Opera has historically been one of the richest, most versatile, and most technologically advanced performance mediums in Western culture, so it's important that we continue the tradition of enhancing this venerable art form with the newest technology available. As with many of GLMMR's other shows, we're using a video projection technique called "3D projection mapping," in which the video projector's output is conformed precisely to the scenery, as opposed to being restricted to a flat screen. For Soldier Songs, though, we decided to incorporate a new, more complex 3D projection mapping technique that we're not even sure has been used in opera before. In this method, the set is modeled in 3D architectural software, then a "skin" of video is placed over that model in 3D video software - this allows us to introduce elements such as virtual lighting/shadow effects and geometrically precise mapping effects before the video files even reach the projector. We also used a new technique of scenic projection surfacing that allowed us to coat the set with a dark grey paint mixture that is almost as reflective as a white surface, but with superior contrast. This required a lot of research and experimentation on our part, but we found a formula that works, and we look forward to keeping it in our bag of tricks for future productions.
Photo: Ben Raftermen

The pre-recorded audio is a component of the published score for Soldier Songs, and is used in all of its productions. Aside from David's narration, we didn't have a hand in creating the soundscapes - they were created by David T. Little, but we created video sequences to go along with them and developed a way for the audio clips to be synchronized with the video clips during live performance.

One part of the performance includes actual footage shot from an Abrams tank. How do you curate this (mountain of) content to add to the story being shared on stage?

We work a lot in the filmmaking and photography worlds, so we prefer to shoot as much of our content as we can. However, this wasn't an option with military and wartime footage, so we spent months sourcing imagery, carefully going through it, curating and editing it, then distilling what will be shown on stage to only the most essential elements that will drive the story forward. It's not easy, as we go to great lengths to avoid using copyrighted material or altering and presenting it to abide by Fair Use guidelines. The pre-show photo sequence in Soldier Songs is comprised of photos submitted by Atlanta area Vietnam veterans. This was Tomer's idea, and we were honored and thrilled that the veterans were willing to participate in that way.

David T. Little (composer) was inspired by the compositions of Danny Elfman. Who or What inspires your work?

In this case, our biggest inspiration came from the combat veterans of all nations who have risked, offered, or gave their lives in service to their country. www.woundedwarriorproject.org


Are you able to improvise in these types of productions?


Not in opera, for the most part - there are too many elements that must be in lock-step with one another so that the drama can move forward. The use of video is more flexible than conventional scenery, as it can be manipulated to a great degree during technical rehearsals. However, complex video sequences take a lot of time to plan, produce, and render, so while the flexibility is there, it isn't infinite. While the creative process includes some improvisation, everything you see in the performance has been created, organized, programmed, timed, and logged well in advance of opening night. For some of GLMMR's other projects, such as live concert visuals, dance, or performance art installations, we've used video and audio as a performative element - manipulating and triggering content live.

Usage of any images on this blog is restricted to The Atlanta Opera and approved news websites. Any other usage, particularly for professional purposes, must have written permission. For additional information, please contact The Atlanta Opera at 404.881.8801.