BEMF Chamber Opera Series
by Ethan Heard, Directing Intern
Watch our Behind-the-Scenes Rehearsal Video!
Get a first-hand account about the origins of BEMF's production of the original 1718 chamber version of Handel's Acis and Galatea with our Rehearsal Video! Interviews with Musical Director Paul O'Dette and Stage Director Gilbert Blin provide insight into their choice for the second annual BEMF Chamber Opera Series and their unique vision for Handel's intimate work, while offering an up-close look at some of the colorful costumes, beautiful singing, and ingenious staging from our unique production.
Today was the first day of rehearsal for BEMF’s “Acis and Galatea,” a semi-staged concert to be presented at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Saturday, November 28 at 8pm. My name is Ethan Heard, and I am the Directing Intern for this production. Gilbert Blin (Stage Director) and Kathleen Fay (Executive Director) have asked me to write a blog about our rehearsal process, and I am excited to share my observations with you.
Rehearsal began this morning in Marblehead with an illuminating presentation by Gilbert. He welcomed us, encouraging every member of the company to take risks and experiment over the next ten days. This is going to be a short but intense process, and we all want to collaborate with ambition, openness and trust. Gilbert went on to guide us through a detailed look at the historical context of Handel’s “Acis and Galatea.” We focused on Cannons, the grand estate where the opera was first performed in 1718 for the Duke of Chandos. Though I had read about Cannons, the images and information Gilbert shared with us amazed me. Chandos could afford to be unusually extravagant; his palace, gardens, art collection and library were awesome, and his coterie of musicians and poets was one of the best in Europe. Among the artists in residence at Cannons around 1718 were the English poets Alexander Pope and John Gay, the Italian soprano Margherite de L’Epine, and of course, Handel himself.
Gilbert has envisioned our “Acis and Galatea” as the final rehearsal for the opera’s premier as performed by members of the “court” of Cannons in 1718. The Duke of Chandos plays Acis (Aaron Sheehan), his wife Cassandra plays Galatea (Amanda Forsythe), the deformed Pope plays Polyphemus (Douglas Williams), the composer Handel plays Damon (Jason McStoots), and the librettist Gay plays Coridon (Zachary Wilder). Adding this layer to the piece is going to be a fascinating challenge. Many intriguing questions arise: How do the relationships between these historical figures affect their performances “on stage?” What is real and what is make-believe?
After Gilbert’s presentation, Melinda Sullivan (Assistant to the Stage Director) led us in physical character-building exercises. She focused on finding the posture and behavior of 18th-century courtiers. We practiced sitting, walking, bowing and keeping energy flowing through our whole bodies. Handel was a big eater; Pope had breathing problems and a hunchback – so how did they move?
In the afternoon and evening we began staging the opera. I don’t want to give too much away, but Doug and Amanda will appear in a Prologue, where the audience will learn a lot in a short amount of time. Gilbert rehearsed with Doug alone today and made some intriguing discoveries. I’m looking forward to watching the Prologue develop. After the Prologue, Paul O’Dette (Co-Music Director with Stephen Stubbs) arrived and we began work on Aaron’s first aria. It was my first time hearing the music live, and Aaron sounded wonderful – controlled and free, tender and powerful – and I can tell I am going to love hearing this opera again and again over the next ten days. Gilbert and Paul worked with Aaron to find the shape and variety of the aria. How does Acis behave? How does Chandos portray Acis? It quickly became clear that the layers of our “Acis and Galatea” are complicatedly interwoven, and we are all energized to explore the rich world of these connections and relationships over the next ten days.
Thanks for reading, and more tomorrow!
Today was another long, productive day of rehearsal. We began at 9:30am and ended at 8pm, with a morning coffee break, lunch break and afternoon tea break. Darren Brannon (Associate Producer and Production Stage Manager) keeps everything running smoothly. Before any of the cast members arrived yesterday, he set up our rehearsal space in the Parish Hall of the Marblehead Old North Church: tables, chairs, printer, music stands, props, snacks, groundplan. Today we got snazzy labels for our coffee mugs! Everyone loves a good Stage Manager.
By the end of the day, we had staged, or at least ‘sketched,’ the first eleven numbers. (There are thirty numbers in total – recitatives, choruses, duets and arias.) Gilbert wants to provide a skeleton, so that everyone has a basic idea of what the opera will look like, and then we'll go back and fill in the details. Paul compared our approach to "sculpting;" we start with a big block of marble and carve away a little at a time.
It was great starting to see the characters come to life. Zachary and Jason already have a charming partnership going as John Gay/Coridon and Handel/Damon. They both play active roles in shaping the concert within the concert. Amanda and Aaron have sung together several times before, but this is the first time they have been cast as a romantic couple. Fortunately, they have wonderful chemistry together, and I can already tell their partnership onstage is going to be compelling.
I know a little about early music/opera because I directed Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” at Yale last year, but today I got a better handle on Handel, especially the “da capo” structure. Most of the songs in “Acis and Galatea” are ABA. In other words, they start with a verse (A), then there is a bridge or B section with a different tone, and then the song returns to the top or “da capo.” During the repeat of the A section, the singer usually adds ornamentation to the melody line, taking more liberty with the tempo and phrasing. I was fascinated watching and listening to Paul, Gilbert and the singers work out how the “da capo” would go. Unlike later opera scores where every musical decision is carefully written down by the composer, it was the custom of writers in Handel’s time to leave much up to the singer and the continuo players. It’s an intensely collaborative process figuring out how this particular “Acis and Galatea” will sound.
Robert Mealy (First Violin) and Avi Stein (Harpsichord) arrived in Marblehead this afternoon. It was great hearing (and seeing!) the orchestra begin to come to life. Since the instrumentalists are all on stage with the singers, Gilbert wants to incorporate them into the staging. Not only will the musicians be part of the story, but they will also be featured at particular moments, so that the structure of the music becomes clear. For example, the violin doubles Galatea’s vocal line during part of the “Wretched Lovers” chorus, so Galatea will place her hand on Robert’s chair during this moment. Similarly, The oboe solos prominently in one of Acis’s arias, so Aaron will relate to the oboist while he is singing.
The choruses in “Acis and Galatea” are extremely beautiful, and today they really started to gel. As Paul gradually refined the phrasing and dynamics, Gilbert asked the singers to connect with each other when their vocal lines are in parallel. Now, there is a really lovely moment in “Oh, the Pleasure of the Plains” when Galatea, Acis and Damon sing together and stand as a trio. It highlights the music here subtly and elegantly. Then Coridon and Polyphemus, standing on the opposite side of the stage, join them in an echoing duet.
I was struck today by the rapid musical and lyrical contrasts this piece asks of the singers. For instance, in working with Doug Williams on Polyphemus’ first aria, Gilbert and Paul wanted to illuminate the oscillation between hard and soft, loud and quiet, brusque and sweet. In the opening line, “O, Ruddier than the Cherry, O, Sweeter than the Berry,” Paul had Doug attack the first phrase with energy, and pull back slightly in the second phrase. As rehearsal continued, Doug explored the intricate back and forth Polyphemus (and Alexander Pope) experience as he sings about their beloved. Similarly, in Acis’ militaristic aria “Love sounds th’ Alarm,” Aaron worked on making the B section more varied. Acis sings, “In defence of my Treasure, I bleed at each Vein, Without her no Pleasure, for Life is a Pain.” Aaron played with asserting his manly bravura with the first and last phrase, and softened for a more vulnerable touch on the second and third phrases.
During today’s rehearsal we focused on the middle chunk of the opera, numbers 13-21. We didn’t have our Galatea with us, so I stood in. It was interesting being up ‘onstage’ with the singers and musicians. Even though I usually watch from behind a table only a few feet farther away, being directly next to the singers brought a wonderful new intensity to the music. In “Wretched Lovers,” I loved hearing the three tenor voices, so distinct as soloists, mingle in intricate harmonies. In Polyphemus’ “O Ruddier than the Cherry,” Doug’s resonant bass impressed me with its power and subtlety. In Gilbert’s stage design, the orchestra literally surrounds the singers, so it was also exciting hearing theorbo and harpsichord on one side, and violin on the other.
In the section we rehearsed today, Polyphemus attempts to seduce Galatea, she rejects him, he bemoans his tortured state, Coridon suggests that Polyphemus should woo her “softly, gently,” Acis declares his firey resolve to defend Galatea, and Damon calms Acis back down. Besides a few lines of recitative, Galatea sings very little here, as the men around her try to sort out what to do. I love the contrast between the lovers’ and the advisors’ arias. Polyphemus and Acis get carried away, singing of their passion for Galatea, whereas Coridon and Damon attempt to soothe them, and bring them back to reality. With each song, Handel creates a completely different atmosphere: “Cease to Beauty to Be Suing” is angry and wound up; “Would you Gain the Tender Creature” is sweet and mild; “Love Sounds th’ Alarm” is heroic and stirring; and “Consider, Fond Shepherd” is thoughtful and subduing. Paul joked, “I’m writing ‘Relax!’ after ‘Love Sounds th’ Alarm’ in my score,” because the following song is so much slower and gentler.
At the end of the day, we ran through the whole chunk for Stephen Stubbs, who had just arrived from out of town. Afterward, everyone was exhausted, but pleased with the great work we had done. One week before the performance, and we’re in good shape. I’m excited to see how we can refine and clarify the performance before we take a break on Thanksgiving.
As rehearsal went on downstairs today, I visited Anna Watkins (Costume Designer) and Becky Hylton (Wardrobe Supervisor) in the Costume Shop. They are hard at work building, altering and organizing clothes, shoes and hats for the six performers. While five of the characters will have one beautifully made period costume each, Acis has two. When Galatea transforms him into a River God at the end of the opera, Acis will appear in a fantastic blue-green look. During a break from rehearsal this morning, Aaron joined Anna upstairs to try on his newly-altered godly robes.
Acis’ final look presents Anna with a special challenge because Aaron must change into this costume gracefully on stage. Another singer will help him. To make the transition as smooth as possible, Anna has slit the costume up the back, so that Aaron can simply slide into it. Then, with a few hooks and a snap, he’ll be all set to go. Admiring the colorful costume, Gilbert and Anna discussed how the voluminous cloak will drape down Acis’ back. They agreed that it will be permanently attached to the left hand side, and once Aaron steps into it, will be hooked/snapped to his right shoulder.
On my way out of the costume shop, Anna gave me three tri-corner hats for the men to rehearse with downstairs. The singers are already wearing rehearsal shoes so that they can get used to moving in heels – men and women. Acis has been wearing his big cloak for several days, and Galatea and Margherita started using rehearsal petticoats in our run through of the first part this evening. It’s amazing how these basic clothing items can do so much to help a singer shape his or her performance.
The opera is now “up on its feet,” with the staging of the work really taking shape. As we worked through the entire piece this afternoon, Gilbert was darting around the room, making blocking more specific, answering questions and adding new ideas. Meanwhile, Paul and Steve were constantly refining the music with both the singers and instrumentalists. Often, Steve would be giving a singer a suggestion about phrasing, while Paul was working with the string section on dynamics, and Gilbert was adjusting the timing of a performer’s move across the stage.
I really applaud the five singers because they are working so hard and absorbing so much. They often have three or four people offering them advice at once - on their singing, acting and moving. I marvel that they are able to keep so many instructions in their heads at any one time. I don't know how they do it! It just goes to show that this ensemble is particularly committed, focused and diligent.
This morning, Gilbert worked with Teresa Wakim (Galatea/Lady Cassandra) on a couple of her recitatives in Part II. He explained that in the Baroque style, gestures come from one of three sources: the mind, the heart or the sex. Gilbert encouraged Tess to strengthen and extend her movements during these two recits. “Energy should be flowing out of your fingernails,” he coached. Indeed, refining the gestures of all the singers has been a special concern throughout the rehearsal process. There is careful balance to be struck between power and gentility, too much and too little. Just as opera demands detailed mastery of the music, Gilbert reminded the singers that it requires precise mastery of movement as well.
This evening was our first Dress Rehearsal with full BEMF Chamber Ensemble of ten. The costumes look wonderful, and they help inspire great poise in the singers: the men stand a little taller, and the women float a little more gracefully. I could tell the cast was enjoying getting deeper into character with their tights, bodices, gloves and wigs. Meanwhile, the presence and playing of the chamber ensemble was exciting for everyone. The complete string and wind sections add such warmth, texture and majesty to the sound. Watching the run through, I realized that the chamber ensemble is the seventh character in our story. Gilbert has been planning on showcasing the instrumentalists visually all along, but I didn’t appreciate until today how beautiful it is simply to watch the singers and orchestra make music beside one another.
Today was our last day of rehearsal in Marblehead; tomorrow we celebrate Thanksgiving, and Friday we load in to Jordan Hall!
The singers are settling into their characters beautifully. In fact, every time I start to write “singers,” I hesitate for a moment, because these six performers are indeed wonderful actors as well (and Melinda is primarily a dancer). It is lovely to watch them listen to their fellow castmates. When Lady Cassandra is center stage “rehearsing” her first aria as Galatea, her husband, the Duke of Chandos, watches her with pride and affection. On the other side of the stage, Handel and John Gay listen admiringly while scribbling down more poetry and music. Later, Margherite de L’Epine (thought to be the first soprano to sing Galatea, and in this production an onstage acting/movement coach played by Melinda) calms down Alexander Pope during Acis’ rousing “Loves Sounds th’ Alarm.” Pope wants to confront the Duke of Chandos just as much as Polyphemus wants to attack Acis.
Gilbert, Paul and Steve continue to clarify the staging and musical performances. Since arias often come back to back in this piece with no musical connective tissue, it is important to work out the transitions. The orchestra needs to know who is starting the next piece and how. Usually Robert Mealy conducts the beginning of each aria by inhaling and nodding his head, but sometimes Steve starts the piece on the other side of the stage, and occasionaly a singer conducts. The orchestra is split into two sections – the violins and wind instruments on stage right and the harpsichord, bass, cello, theorbo, lute and guitar stage left. They are not very far apart, but a lot of the singers’ movement happens in the space in between, so it is essential that at particular moments in the opera, the singers allow the orchestra members to see each other. Over the past couple of days, Gilbert has tweaked the blocking so that Paul and Steve have sightlines through the action to Robert and vice versa.
We have been rehearsing with many of the props we are going to use for the show, but we are also waiting on some final orders and purchases to arrive. Everyone is excited to have full costumes, wigs, props and set on Friday. Once we are in the hall, the singers will have to adjust quickly to the platform, stairs, doors, and new props. Moreover, they will be reacquainting themselves with the acoustics in the space. All of them have performed in Jordan Hall before, but they have been rehearsing in a smaller space for eight days, so it will be interesting to watch them grow into the grandeur of our venue.
During tonight’s run through for a few special guests, I got goosebumps more than once. I can’t wait to see and hear the full glory of Handel’s music and this sumptuous production on Saturday night. I am very grateful for this opportunity to assist Gilbert and observe BEMF in action. Thank YOU for reading!
This morning we caravanned down to Boston from Marblehead, and this afternoon we assembled in Jordan Hall. What a gorgeous space! I had heard about the architecture, the sloping seats, the golden organ and the incredible acoustics, but I was still overwhelmed by the splendor and harmony of the hall. From 1:45-3:45 the singers walked through the show with Gilbert on stage, while Steve and Paul held a separate orchestra rehearsal nearby. The singers modified their performances to the bigger space with grace and ingenuity. After a coffee break, they got into full costume, make up and wigs for the first time, the orchestra members settled into their positions on stage, and at 5:15 we began our Final Dress Rehearsal. Gilbert, Anna, Becky and I sat in the sixth and seventh rows, and watched as “Acis and Galatea” unfolded beautifully before us. The orchestra’s masterly playing soared through the hall, mingling elegantly with the sensational singing. The a cappella ending to “Mourn All Ye Muses” was especially heavenly. Throughout the run, Gilbert whispered a few notes to me about spacing, props, visibility and other issues, but overall, the rehearsal was superb. Tomorrow afternoon we will focus some lights, incorporate some new props, take care of some minor fixes, and then...it’s showtime! See you there!