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<em>Show Boat</em>&nbsp;at the Dallas Opera

Show Boast

In his latest Off the Cuff column, Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Cerny is thrilled that a Broadway legend became a 21st century hit at the opera.



published Sunday, May 8, 2016

 

 

Dallas — On Sunday, May 1, The Dallas Opera gave its final performance of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s classic American musical, Show Boat. As I described in a previous column, programming this work was something of a gamble for The Dallas Opera, but was one that has turned out extremely well. I was particularly delighted that the production enjoyed outstanding ticket sales, and extremely positive audience and critical reaction.

Working with my Executive committee, I had several reasons for programming this work. These included Show Boat’s superb music and compelling storyline; new opportunities for community outreach and audience development (including the 5,000 people that attended the free simulcast at AT&T Stadium in Arlington); a unique chance to partner with Dallas Black Dance Theatre and the AT&T Performing Arts Center; and a vehicle to stretch The Dallas Opera artistically in a number of important ways. In programming Show Boat, I was also drawn to the unique opportunity to bring together two very different types of singers and performers on the Winspear stage: Opera and Broadway. As with many distinctions in life, these two characterizations have some overlap, especially now that many opera singers are experimenting with popular styles, and many Broadway-oriented singers are venturing into the realm of “serious” classical music.

In TDO’s production of Show Boat, we engaged acclaimed artists exhibiting a wide range of talent and performing backgrounds, including some performers who are predominantly actors (e.g. Lara Teeter as Cap’n Andy and Mary-Pat Green as his wife Parthy Ann Hawks), some whose careers have been focused on Broadway and Off-Broadway (e.g. Frank and Ellie ably played by Jeffry Denman and Kate Loprest), and some whose careers have been more centered around opera (e.g. Morris Robinson as Joe, Andriana Chuchman as Magnolia Hawks, and Michael Todd Simpson as Gaylord Ravenal). Alyson Cambridge, who played Julie La Verne, has had a career in both and recently released a CD of jazz and crossover hits, entitled Until Now. Angela Renée Simpson has performed the role of Queenie in seven productions since 2012, and has made numerous appearances on both the opera and concert stage. David Matranga, who plays both Julie’s husband, Steve Baker, and Max Greene in the production, has wide experience in both opera and theater.

Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
Show Boat at Dallas Opera

It was a personal thrill for me to observe the professional interactions, and fascinating to compare artist expectations about the rehearsal process itself and the length of the performance run. One key difference between an opera production and a Broadway show is the structure of the rehearsal and performance period. In opera, we typically rehearse intensively for at least several weeks, culminating in an orchestral run-through, piano dress, and two full dress rehearsals with orchestra. A revival will generally have less rehearsal than a new production or world premiere, as the cast will already know the performing requirements. (As an aside, in TDO’s world premiere of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott, we had an unprecedented three workshops to prepare the work, and more than a month between the first rehearsal and opening night). Generally speaking, between the final dress rehearsal and opening night, the cast gets one (or ideally two) days off, and then the production opens to the public (and a host of reviewers). Except to resolve any safety issues, which is very rare, no changes are made to an opera production in either of the final dress rehearsals, although notes are provided to the performers on areas that could be improved.

From the perspective of an opera company, the opening process for a Broadway show seems positively luxurious. Typically, Broadway shows have between two to four weeks of previews, in which the cast performs in front of a paying audience, but without any critics in the house. In these performances, the director can continue to make daily enhancements, large and small, for each subsequent performance, in anticipation of the official opening. Part of the reason for this intensive preparation is that the opening night reviews can spur on, or cripple, a new production. Terrence McNally’s Broadway revival of It’s Only a Play, which was directed by Jack O’Brien (you may observe a certain overlap of creative talent with the premiere of Great Scott in Dallas last fall), elaborates, and satirizes, the power of a leading New York Times critic to doom a new play. (The professional Uptown Players is also doing It’s Only a Play this summer.) With opera, the length of the run of performances is set years in advance to accommodate singers’ schedules (with the possibility of maybe adding a performance or two), so while reviews can be extremely important in driving single ticket sales, an occasional bad review doesn’t “kill” an entire production.

Another key difference between opera and Broadway shows is the number of performances per week. Broadway shows are usually performed eight times a week, and some plays may be performed as many as ten times a week. Opera performances are much more spaced out, generally because of the tremendous physical demands placed on singers and their voices. When the Dallas Opera performs six performances of an opera, which we do for popular titles, we present them over a 16-day period, giving the singers time to pace their voices over the entire run. One major driver of this difference in performance frequency is the role of amplification. Broadway-style shows, whether touring or based in New York, rely heavily upon amplification. This allows the singers to preserve their voices, performance after performance, week after week, and also enables actors and singers with smaller voices to have their vocal work “boosted” to a level similar to their peers.

For the Dallas Opera production of Show Boat, we put a great deal of thought and preparation into the role of amplification. TDO’s Music Director Emmanuel Villaume and I adopted a philosophy of “less is more” with regards to amplification. We wanted the minimum possible level of amplification, moment by moment—just enough to enable every performing artist to be shown to his or her best advantage, and understood clearly by the audience, whether they were speaking lines with no musical accompaniment, speaking lines over music, or singing full-out with the Dallas Opera Orchestra. Fortunately for us, we were able to engage Mark Grey as Sound Designer, who adjusted the amplification level and frequency balance for each performer so that the audience—and even some critics—were unaware that the show was amplified. While a well-established opera singer with a powerful voice (Morris Robinson, for example) did not require any amplification, we included just enough so that his or her sound blended naturally with that of the other artists onstage.

One of the starkest differences between Broadway and opera is the anticipated length of the run. We had scheduled six performances of Show Boat at TDO, which is the greatest number of performances we plan for any opera in the Winspear Opera House. On Broadway, six performances would be considered an abject failure (Show Boat’s original run in 1927 was 572 performances). These differences have a major impact on the psychology of the performers. For a musical performed in an opera house, with just six performances, and no preview period, it is impossible for any performer to get “stale”, or even over-confident. In my experience, the “peak” performance is often the fourth or the fifth performance of a six-performance run. (For Show Boat in Dallas, I think the production started very strong on opening night, and the fifth and six performances were the most consistently accomplished, with different relative rankings across the twenty scenes of the musical between the two performances).

Broadway performers, by contrast, are working to develop consistency across dozens of performances, and get into a sustained groove of consecutive, top-quality appearances. It’s obviously a great gig to play an important part on Broadway, but performing eight or more times a week leaves little time for anything else, and one of the risks is that those onstage can begin to lose their emotional connection to their role after a hundred performances, or so. As one of my friends once said, “The problem is that you know your part so well, you can be in the middle of a passionate love scene, and be planning your grocery shopping list.” Show Boat even includes a send-up of the pitfalls, and boredom, of the life of a performing artist entitled “Life upon the Wicked Stage”—performed so engagingly and skillfully by Kate Loprest.

Producing Show Boat at The Dallas Opera has had many joys and satisfactions for me, but probably the most lasting is the artistic collaborations, large and small, of Dallas Opera regulars and new-found friends. The Dallas Opera Chorus worked with a number of new singers in the African-American chorus (naturally, some of our regular choristers sang with this chorus, too); our regular dancers relished working with the dancers from Dallas Black Dance Theater II; and the actors and diverse range of vocal artists enjoyed getting to know one another, and developing an even greater appreciation for one another’s art forms. Not least, The Dallas Opera Orchestra, under the supremely able direction of Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, had the opportunity to play a musical with a large 51-piece orchestra, exposing them to a new musical idiom, and allowing them to revel in the precise playing and articulation that can make, or break, a Broadway show.

 

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

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Show Boast
In his latest Off the Cuff column, Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Cerny is thrilled that a Broadway legend became a 21st century hit at the opera.
by Keith Cerny

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