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PeriEuridicePrologo

Opera 101: What IS Opera, Doc? An Art Form Is Born

Warner Brothers Cartoon, What's Opera, Doc? - 1957
Warner Brothers Cartoon, What’s Opera, Doc? – 1957

What kid doesn’t remember the great Bugs Bunny? We all grew up with good ol’ Looney Tunes, and I used to love how music was used as a vehicle to set up whatever crazy story Bugs was a part of. I can still hear the words “Kill the wabbit” sung to the famous melody from the “Ride of the Valkyries” from Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle”. As a child, however, I had no clue that the music in this cartoon was from an actual opera. I was spellbound by the way the cartoon fused music and drama, and who can forget Bugs always dressing as the heroine, with the wig and the horns? For those of you who haven’t seen these cartoons, read no further until you have watched these clips. I promise you will not be sorry.

These two cartoons are based on two of opera’s most famous pieces: Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Giachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. It is amazing how deeply rooted certain operatic motifs are ingrained in our memories. While not a part of these cartoons, I am sure we have all heard the words “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro” that also come from The Barber of Seville. These cartoons are so well known that some operatic productions use carrot jokes as a nod to the beloved Bugs Bunny.  

So, what is opera, really? Opera is a difficult word to define in a larger context, as many things fall under its umbrella, but in simplest form, opera is a theatrical work told through music and singing. Often people will add “without dialogue” to this definition but that opens a door to be discussed in a later post. You may also be wondering, “Isn’t musical theater also a theatrical work told through music and singing?” Well, you are correct. There are many similarities between opera and musical theatre, and the latter would not exist without the former. There is much nuance to discuss about the differences of these two amazing art forms but that, again, will deserve its own post to really do it justice.

Opera has its origin in Europe, most specifically in Florence, Italy. In the 1500s, a group of men gathered in Florence called the Florentine Camerata. These men were poets, musicians, humanists, and intellectuals in the late Renaissance period. Their gatherings began a revival of Greek dramas and their musical experiments led to the development of “stile recitativo”. This singing style adopted the flow of normal speech and allowed for a story to be told, basically speaking on pitch. This became further developed and eventually led to the creation of opera. The first Opera was Dafne written by Jacopo Peri and produced in Florence around 1597. That is over 400 years ago! The libretto (the play, essentially) for this opera still survives, however, much of the musical score (the music) is, unfortunately, lost. The first “complete” opera score that we have dates to 1600 again by Peri and called Euridice. This first opera included dramatically sung moments, and more “half spoken” parts in the “recitativo” style developed by the Camerata.

PeriEuridicePrologo
An excerpt from the 1600 score of Euridice.

Since the writing of Dafne, countless operas have been composed by composers from many countries and in many languages, and many operas are still being written today! Popular composers you may know include: Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Gounod, Heggie, and many others.

So that bring us to the end of our first  Opera 101 post. In the future we will explore a few of the topics mentioned previously as well as addressing questions about opera as an art form and/or career. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments section, if you have any!

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Tony_Award_Medallion

Tony Awards Night 2017

Tony_Award_MedallionIt’s that time again for the Broadway Super Bowl — otherwise know as the Tony Awards! I have friends getting ready all over the country for viewing parties, and I know a few folks involved with the actual show. I’m going a little more low key this year, but will try to do some live tweeting for StageAgent, so maybe I’ll see some of you on the Twitterverse!

I think I can safely predict two names we will hear A LOT tonight (at least in the musicals categories) — Evan and Dolly. We’ll be treated to performances from current and recent nominated musicals including Bandstand, Come From Away, Dear Evan Hansen, Falsettos, Groundhog Day The Musical, Hello, Dolly!, Miss Saigon, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, and War Paint. And who knows what host Kevin Spacey has up his sleeve?

So here’s your official ballot. The live show starts at 8:00PM Eastern on CBS (also streaming, or 7:00 PM Central and tape delay for the West Coast). We’ll check in later in the week for a recap. Who are your favorites?

 

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Dolly staircase

Secretary Hamilton, Have You Met Mrs. Dolly Levi?

Photo Credit Julieta Cervantes
Photo Credit Julieta Cervantes

I hit the Broadway ticket jackpot recently — well, two of my friends did and I was lucky enough to reap the benefits. In one week’s time, I got to see two of the hottest shows on Broadway in 2017: Hamilton, still one of the most in-demand tickets as it approaches two years on Broadway, and the revival of Hello, Dolly! starring Bette Midler, which broke all first-day Broadway ticket sales records last September. Hamilton and Hello, Dolly!–complete opposites of the musical theatre spectrum, one would think. A month or two back, I wouldn’t have thought that I would find correlations in such different shows and relevance in our current political climate, nor would I see how much we need both of them today in the growth and influence of musical theatre itself.

A friend texted me a few weeks back to see if I was busy one evening, telling me he won a ticket lottery for Hamilton. I thought he was kidding. I bailed out on a board meeting that night (though my co-members were all for it — come on, Hamilton!) so I could go. Our seats were in the front row, all the way down to the right. I could hear the actors singing both live and through the monitors; I was almost hit with flying beads of sweat several times, I was that close. Now I am not a Hamilton obsessive. I’ve listened a few times to the Original Cast Recording, watched some YouTube clips, and I have looked through quite a bit of the big HamilTome (look it up). But I haven’t actively memorized any of it. But it didn’t change the fact that that night, I was excited — the spontaneity of getting to go; the proximity to the virtually bare stage; the ground-breaking elements of this musical presenting American history; and finally being in the room, yes, the room where it happened.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

And the show didn’t disappoint. Even though there were at least three understudies on for major roles, and I don’t know how many were even left from the original cast, it didn’t matter. The cast was uniformly excellent, powerhouse performers communicating in fast rap, jazz riffs, and hip hop-infused choreography. The audience members were on the edges of their seats, resisting the urge to snap their fingers along with the opening number, but roused to thunderous applause time and time again as the biting lyrics coincidentally hit points reflected in today’s news, delivered with precision by the cast. The clean simple lines of the off-white knickers and corsets/vests that the ensemble members wore, the bare brick walls and wooden staircases and platform, and the way in which the central turntable kept the scenes transitioning seamlessly let the sung-through music and lyrics tell the story with minimal distraction. The show was an ensemble piece for the most part telling the story of Hamilton AND Burr, often with all actors on stage, many in multiple roles, weaving this story of the founders of our nation. It was a period piece in a most modern fashion.

For Hello, Dolly! a week later, the story was a little different. A friend went (at 4:00 AM) to queue up for standing room tickets for the Wednesday matinee. And she managed to get a pair for us. This time we were in the far back left of the orchestra–most theaters actually have numbered tags along the back wall where you can lean–almost the exact opposite of where I had been seated for Hamilton. A grand red drape with the simple show logo hung across the proscenium arch. Now I’ve listened to both the Broadway and film recordings of the show and have seen Dolly several times since childhood. It’s one of my favorites, and I know pretty much every word. As the more than 50-year-old overture started to play, I could see heads swaying in front of me as familiar strains washed over the excited crowd. Finally the grand drape opened on colorful, vaudevillian backdrops with sets dressed in the cheerful clutter of a hay and feed store or the purples and pinks of a ladies hat shop. Singers and dancers whirled across the stage in bright suits and dresses, or literally galloped around a staircase as actors farcically popped in and out from behind curtained restaurant booths. Subtle and modern, it was not. But it was glorious, and in the center of it all was a mega-watt force of Bette Midler, a leading lady of the highest caliber in a show designed for a star. Standing in the back, I was hard-pressed not to sway and dance myself bouncing on my heels during my favorite number, the brightly hued “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” and regretting a little that I was already standing as the audience leapt to their feet in a mid-show standing ovation after the title number. It was magical.

Photo Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Photo Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

But here’s what I realized in the audience that day. We need both the Hamiltons and the Dollys in this world. We need the gems like Hello, Dolly! that stand up through the wear and tear of decades and shine that much brighter when brought into the light and are given glittering new productions, and we need the spare and edgy, forward-thinking modern musicals like Hamilton, because without one, the other cannot exist. Listen to Hamilton and you hear allusions not just to rap artists, but to Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics from South Pacific. And it’s not just a matter of building upon what came before, it’s letting the air come back into the older shows and hearing the script and lyrics in the context of today, while celebrating the traditional structure and staging of a Golden Age show. Besides the title tune and Bette Midler’s initial entrance, the most vocal audience response at Hello, Dolly! was to the line, “Money… pardon the expression… is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow!” Cheers, applause, and woots! The reaction was as visceral as if it had been one of the pointed cabinet rap battles in Hamilton, with its witty revolutionary barbs that reflect in today’s politics.

Do I have a type of show I prefer? Sure, I’m a classic Broadway girl all the way, but there is a direct line from classics like Hello, Dolly! or Fiddler on the Roof to the mega musicals of the 80s like Miss Saigon or Les Miz to Hamilton or the current Broadway darling, Dear Evan Hansen. I think the big question is where will that line next loop around and where will it lead next? And how will today’s theatre students and future actors, composers/lyricists, and directors look to the past worlds of Jerry Herman, Rodgers & Hammerstein, or Cole Porter to become the next Pasek & Paul or Lin-Manuel Miranda? There’s room, and the need, for all of them. We don’t have to choose–and we shouldn’t.

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road curves

Hard to Say Goodbye: Leaving a Show on Good Terms

Hello, true believers (any of you that get that reference are awesome. And probably my age). As actors, we are taught to be humble and grateful for the work opportunities we are given. Though we will all likely encounter situations where humility and gratitude aren’t the first emotions that come to mind, for the most part, it’s a good idea to stay that way.

There’s no linear path to your career as an actor. You may be a college theatre student, perform in summer stock (Equity or non-Equity), graduate, work in regional theatre, go on tour, book a Broadway show, then lather/rinse/repeat the last three if you’re lucky. Or you may leave college before graduation for a Broadway show. Or you may work on Wall Street with your finance degree and decide at age 40, “Hey, I always liked acting, I think I’ll give that a try.” One person’s experience will not necessarily be someone else’s, a point I try to remember each time I sit down to write.

road curves

When actors are given a contract for most theatre jobs, they usually have finite terms, an “end date.” I would imagine that most contracts are honored by the actor, as work is hard enough to come by. But occasionally, we are lucky enough to have another company offer an opportunity before we have completed the terms of the current employer. Assuming we want to accept the offer, what do we do?

The first step is look at your current contract. What is the “out clause”? An out clause refers to the terms of terminating your employment. Sometimes these are as simple as providing ample notice of your intention to leave, it can be as little as two or four weeks. Be careful though, as there will occasionally be clauses in contracts that prohibit leaving during certain periods of the contract, such as during previews. Many regional theatre contracts are structured in such a way as to severely limit the opportunity for an actor to break their commitment. This may seem a bit unfair, but from a producer’s perspective, you are their choice for the job, and you agreed to the terms of the contract, so replacing you is certainly inconvenient and could possibly diminish the show, i.e., their product.

There are also contracts known as “run of show” agreements, whereupon the actor agrees to perform in the “run of the show” with no specific end date. These may sound restrictive, but can also be quite a benefit to an actor. My recent position as the standby for El Gallo/the Fathers in The Fantasticks was a run of show agreement, I could stay as long as I wanted, provided I was capable of doing the job I was hired to do and a good member of the company (meaning basically, not doing anything stupid to get myself fired).

Let’s say you’ve identified the out clause, and you are within your legal rights to terminate your contract. Now what? This can get sticky, but you have a few options. The first is the direct and professional route. You contact the producer (and you can do this verbally but I would always suggest a written follow-up, so there is a record of what was said) and let them know your intentions. The timing can be flexible, of course it must be per the rules within your contract, but let’s look at this scenario. Let’s say you are doing a show that runs for two more months, but you have an offer that will require you to be gone before the last two weeks. The out clause is four weeks notice. Do you tell the producer as soon as you can, or do you wait for the last legal minute?

nevermind

The answer sadly is, “it depends.” If you have a good relationship with the company and want to give them as much time to prepare as possible, then this is your path. If you have an adversarial relationship with them, and fear potential retaliation (such as, they replace you sooner than you wish, leaving you with a gap in employment), then perhaps you wait until you reach your legal obligation. I’m not advocating or advising this option, but the truth is, the business can be really tough at times, and you may find yourself in this position, so there’s the information.

Now, let’s come back from the dark side of the force…

life is short

Any time you choose to leave a job, be it in theatre or “civilian life,” it’s optimal to leave on the best of terms. Your decision to move on has created more work for your employers and your coworkers, as they will likely have to participate in more rehearsal for your replacement. So try and make this easy on them. If you are being housed, make sure you leave that housing in AT LEAST the condition you found it in, and maybe even a little better. Your replacement may arrive before you leave, welcome them into the company and offer what you can—you may be refused for any number of reasons, but still make the offer.

Finally, remember that although this may be a tough decision and process, these are the kinds of problems you want to have, so don’t be too hard on yourself. At the same time, I wouldn’t make a habit of breaking contracts, whether you are legally capable or not, it’s not the reputation you want. Leaving a show, long-running or otherwise, is one thing, breaking a finite contract is another.

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packed suitcase-feat image

Life on the Road: A Few Thoughts on Touring

If you’re an actor who’s been reading Rob’s wonderful series on National Tours, you’re probably well-primed for getting out there and booking one. Once you have, congratulations! But whether you have five days or five months before you leave, there is a lot to think about.

Having just gotten off the road with my fourth big tour, I have some advice:

Photo Credit: anaa yoo
Photo Credit: anaa yoo

You will not need all those clothes.

Most actors on tour find themselves “trunk-shopping” or “suitcase-shopping,” when they stumble upon a shirt or a dress that’s spent the last four months wadded up hidden in the back, forgotten. On tour, you spend a lot of time in rehearsal or at the gym or traveling, and those clothes do get used a ton. But you do not need sixteen dresses or twelve pairs of pants. NO ONE WILL NOTICE you’re wearing the same thing you did last week. SERIOUSLY. You’ll be sending home a box of extra stuff before you know it, but then you’ll make room for something more essential, to wit:

A Nutribullet can be your best friend.

If you have room in your suitcase or trunk, (which you will, because you won’t overstuff it with clothes) bring something like this. You may not have a fridge and a microwave in every hotel room, but you can pick up ingredients to make protein smoothies without a lot of fuss, and it will save you time, money, and calories to whip up a shake for breakfast or before rehearsal. I also know people who traveled a George Forman grill, or a hot plate and a few pots and pans, but those are a lot easier to blow off. This one gets USED.

Your relationship will survive. Or it won’t.

Being on tour is a very difficult thing for people in relationships with someone at home. Your schedules may be opposite, you may be three time zones apart, you may only be able to schedule one visit in six months, and so on. You both will have to WORK on the relationship, much harder than usual. But it will survive, if it’s meant to. If not – it wasn’t TOUR that broke you up. It was an underlying issue: the demands of your career, fears of infidelity, wanting different things.

So have a frank discussion with your partner before you leave, and understand that both of you need to be extra communicative and considerate of this bizarre situation. And remember, you won’t be on tour forever.

Be wary of showmances.

For those who arrive on tour single and ready to mingle (or those whose relationships really weren’t meant to survive), there are often many opportunities to get a little lovin’ with someone at work. Full disclosure: I know a NUMBER of couples who have gotten married following their showmances!

But you must be very careful. If it does work out, you’re developing a relationship under scrutiny of a hundred pairs of eyes. And if things don’t work out, you have to see this person EVERY SINGLE DAY. A bad break up is not only your problem, it’s the entire company’s problem. If you do embark on an irresistible hookup, do so thoughtfully and with clear boundaries. Understand that tour life is lived under a microscope and is much more intense than “regular” life.

Explore!

Your schedule on tour can be grueling. I can’t tell you how many times we basically had 10-show weeks, with a full understudy run-through and a put-in rehearsal scheduled on top of our regular 8 shows. If you stay up late winding down after the show, and sleep in to get your rest, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for exploring. BUT DO IT ANYWAY. You’ve been given a gift of a paid trip around the country or the world. Make time to find a cool museum or brewery tour or farmer’s market or whale watch trip or baseball game or Buddhist Temple. Those excursions will be the biggest memories you’ll recollect down the line.

At the Sinso-ji Temple in Tokyo. Photo Credit: Annie Edgerton.
At the Sinso-ji Temple in Tokyo. Photo Credit: Annie Edgerton.

The importance of TEAM.

Make no bones about it, touring is HARD. You’re in a different city every week (or more, frequently)! You have to deal with allergies, and horrific travel days, and theatres with six flights of stairs to the dressing room, and the person IN the dressing room who is bugging you, and being away from family and friends, and the list goes on. The ONE thing that makes this all bearable is that you’re on a team of people all going through the same thing. So honor that.

Learn the names of your crew members. (I can’t believe I have to say that, but, sadly, I do.) Respect other people’s boundaries. Be kind. Be thoughtful. Make “dates” for a meal or excursion with someone you don’t know very well. Don’t give in to “bitch sessions.” (While venting is necessary, do it with someone you trust, outside of work, and to get over an issue, not to drag other people into your muck.) Try and stay positive when things go wrong. Your tour family is a family – you’re not going to love everybody, but treat them with respect.

If you lift up those around you, they’ll respond in kind. So help create an environment of TEAM.

Finally…

Get those points!

On many contracts, you are able to receive airline and hotel points, even if the company has paid for the ticket or the room. (Not all, so you’ll have to ask around.) Sign up for ALL those reward programs! When you check in for your flight, ask them to link your number. When you check in to your hotel, ditto. And it’s worth it getting a rewards credit card. There are numerous websites that compare rewards cards, so it’s easy to find one that fits your touring lifestyle.

Touring can be a magical and wonderful experience, whether you’re a replacement in the road company of Wicked, or launching a new tour like Bright Star. Be excited about it! And do what you can to make the most out of your road journey. Break legs!

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News, thoughts, opinions and advice for the performing arts community.