Keith Cerny
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Preparing for Santa's Workshop

In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's General Director and CEO Keith Cerny describes the workshop process for three world premieres in 2015.

published Monday, January 5, 2015

Photo: Karen Almond
Keith Cerny, General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera

Dallas — As many readers already know, the next 12 months for The Dallas Opera are momentous, as the company prepares for, and presents, three world premieres: Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s Everest on Jan. 30, 2015; Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott on Oct. 30, 2015; and Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus on Dec. 4, 2015. Commissioning and producing three major world premieres in a single year requires TDO to be “on top of its game” in every way from arranging rehearsal schedules to the thousands of details involved in designing a new production. It also requires the company to accelerate its planning and preparation horizon far earlier than for a typical season; in fact, some of these projects have been planned as far back as the summer of 2011.

One of the most important preparatory elements for a world premiere is an opera workshop, held 6-12 months before the premiere. Unlike for a premiere on Broadway, where the playwright and director enjoy 2-4 weeks of previews during which they can make changes to the show—not to mention give the actors time to completely assimilate their roles—a new opera must be ready for audience and critical evaluation right “out of the gate”; i.e. on opening night. By contrast, we typically only have three full dress rehearsals before opening night: one with piano, and two with full orchestra. Many opera companies, TDO included, therefore use a preliminary workshop as a way to prepare for the intensive 4-6 weeks of rehearsal leading up to a world premiere.

Opera workshops take a variety of forms, but the essential goal is to bring together as many of the creative and artistic team as possible for a period of up to a week, or even longer. A typical workshop will include the composer and librettist, stage director and production designer, and general director and other artistic staff. The workshop will also include a conductor and one or more pianists, and singers for all of the major roles. In an ideal world, this latter group would include as many members of the original cast as possible, however, schedules do not always permit this luxury.

In preparation for the TDO’s “trio” of world premieres in calendar 2015, the company has already held several major workshops in recent months. In early September, the creative team assembled in New York to preview Act I of Great Scott; I’ll describe a subsequent workshop for this opera later in this article. In mid-September, TDO hosted a workshop for the Everest team in Dallas. For this workshop, we brought together composer Joby Talbot, librettist Gene Scheer and TDO’s Principal Guest Conductor, Nicole Paiement. We also engaged four singers for the primary roles in the opera. Since the chorus plays such an important role in Everest, we also engaged four choristers to sing most of the chorus parts (the actual part is for 16 choristers, with some divisi). We were also fortunate that the design team could be, including stage director Leonard Foglia, designer Robert Brill, costume designer David Woolard and video designer Elaine J. McCarthy. Everest is one half of a double bill with Act IV of Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally. For more information on this pairing, please see my previous Off the Cuff entitled Life and Death in the Mountains.

The Everest workshop period was a blend of rehearsals with all of the singers, accompanied by piano; smaller sectionals and vocal coachings; and partial run-throughs, culminating in a full run-through on the final Saturday morning. While all of us on the creative team had access to the piano-vocal score, and a MIDI sound file prior to the workshop, bringing this group together for an intensive week of activities in TDO’s Karayanis Rehearsal Center had important benefits for all participants. In any workshop, these benefits are typically as follows:

  • For the composer and librettist, arguably the most important “customers” of the workshop, the process provides a unique opportunity to get a sense of both the macro and the micro aspects of their new work. At the macro level, they can evaluate the flow of the work from start to finish, and whether it supports the musical and dramatic “arc” they intended. At the more micro level, they can observe how each singer responds to his or her role, both vocally and dramatically. While the composer knows in their own mind how the work should sound, the process of working with actual singers, who bring their own talents and experience, always brings new insights. Typically, following the workshop, the composer will make any desired adjustments to the basic piano-vocal score, before he or she begins the task of full orchestration
  • For the commissioning opera company, the workshop offers a full sense of the vocal, musical and technical demands of the new work, as well as its dramatic profile. The Everest workshop allowed TDO’s production team to discern the unique challenges of the work, and validate the production schedule, within the context of the draft set and costume designs. I also invited TDO’s marketing, box office and development team to the run-through, which has allowed us to fine-tune our marketing and fund-raising messages
  • For the conductor, the workshop gives him or her a chance to prepare the work in detail; to experience a highly compressed rehearsal and performance period; and to identify particularly important or technically challenging areas in the score. In my own work as a pianist and conductor, I know that I always come back to a new work with fresh insights the second time I perform it, and the workshop guarantees this “resting period” for the conductor between the initial preparation for the workshop, and the final preparation for the premiere (based on the full orchestral score, naturally)
  • For the stage director, the workshop gives him or her an initial opportunity to see, hear, and assess the work; making sure that the planned rehearsal schedule fits the requirements (e.g. time spent on the stage set versus time in the rehearsal hall). Even through the primary focus of the workshop is typically the musical aspect, the workshop also provides a chance for the director to begin to work with the singers on character development—vitally important, since the stage director will assist all of the artists in creating their new roles for the premiere. In the case of Everest, actual climbing by both some of the principals and “climbing supers” is required, so the workshop also allowed the director to begin designing this aspect as well (supported in the premiere preparation by professional climbing staff to ensure safety for all participants)
  • For the set designer and costume designer, as well as the lighting designer and video designer, the workshop also gives them a sense of dramatic requirements of the work, and validates—or occasionally challenges—their initial design concepts. In the case of the Everest designs, the concept presented in the workshop included a highly three-dimensional, abstract design that incorporated physical climbing. The set will also be used as a projection surface, and it was important for the costume designer to see how the chorus will be deployed on the physical set so that presence of the 16 choristers complements the projection design. Having this design presentation early in the process also gives the general director and production team time to secure bids for set construction and complete a “value engineering” process if required (i.e. redesigning elements of the set to give the same physical, dramatic and visual effects at a lower cost). In this case, Robert Brill’s sets were both dramatic and cost-efficient from the start, and did not require additional “value engineering” (How’s that for polite terminology?)
  • For the singers, the workshop is an excellent opportunity to not only sing the music and hear the accompaniment performed by a skilled pianist, but also start to create their roles, from a dramatic point of view. In the Everest workshop, both the conductor Nicole Paiement and stage director Leonard Foglia worked with the singers in the rehearsal process; this collaboration was especially important for the two cast members who will also appear in the premiere (Andrew Bidlack and Craig Verm). Sasha Cooke, although she did not sing in the workshop, was able to attend the run-through, which was invaluable for her preparation for the premiere in January

In November, the College Conservatory of Music (CCM) at the University of Cincinnati, working in cooperation with the Cincinnati Opera, held a workshop of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott, culminating in a public event that incorporated excerpts from the work, as well as a panel discussion. This workshop was part of an ongoing series entitled Opera Fusion: New Works, funded by the Mellon Foundation. Although not yet fully complete, it gave participants a superb opportunity to hear the emerging work, and savor both its more serious and light-hearted moments. In attendance at the workshop were composer Jake Heggie, librettist Terrence McNally, director Jack O’Brien, and singers performing all of the major roles. The work had already had a preliminary workshop in early September in New York, as noted above. As with the Everest workshop, each day was a blend of rehearsals with all of the singers, accompanied by piano, smaller sectionals and vocal coachings, and partial run-throughs, culminating in a couple of full run-throughs.

The Dallas Opera is preparing for yet another workshop, this time in April, 2015, of Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus—affectionately named by the TDO staff “Santa’s Workshop!” For this workshop, we will include the composer/librettist Mark Adamo, TDO’s Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, who will be conducting the premiere, director Paul Curran and designer Gary McCann, as well as singers for the seven primary roles (including four sardonic elves).

In conclusion, opera workshops are an extremely important behind-the-scenes component of a world premiere. Premieres bring their own thrills and challenges, apart from the commissioning and composing process, but a world premiere is always also a new production, too. This detail is significant, because in today’s cost-conscious opera world, new productions are generally rarer than they used to be. Workshops provide a unique opportunity for the entire creative, artistic and production team to come together to hear the work in process, make adjustments, brainstorm new ideas, and fine-tune production schedules. Having a number of different singers learn any new work (i.e. some for the workshop and other performers for the premiere) creates a group of reserve singers in case one of the principals falls ill during the performances and also makes it easier for subsequent productions to cast the opera since several singers already know each role in the opera. I was personally thrilled with the success of the Everest workshop, and hope that readers will be able to join us for the world premiere on January 30, 2015, or one of the subsequent performances on February 1, 4 or 7, 2015. Everest promises to be a powerful and memorable work, capturing a wide range of human emotions: ambition, elation, fear, love, noble self-sacrifice, and the triumph of at least one character against truly impossible odds.

What more does any opera need?


◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in Below is a list of previous columns:

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Preparing for Santa's Workshop
In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's General Director and CEO Keith Cerny describes the workshop process for three world premieres in 2015.
by Keith Cerny

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