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Once Again, Onegin
by Tom Reed, chorus
Eugene Onegin! Another fabulous opera for the chorus! As always we start off as a bunch of exhausted, happy peasants coming in from the fields with a song of gratitude for our life of hard labor. Joined by several members of the ballet posing as haystacks we sing, dance, and then get sent away. Soon, however, the women return to do the laundry by the riverbank. There they manage the most marvelous melodies while hanging sheets between themselves and the conductor.
But later things start really looking up as the chorus ascends to the status of lower upper-class guests at Larina's country house ball. Scrambling over tables via rickety chairs we pose for a group photo in a variety of fun costumes, and then dance ourselves into a bad mood. But then comes the high point of the evening -- the Monsieur Triquet scene. The delighted chorus munches on cake and listens with rapt attention as Triquet, sung by tenor John Duykers, serenades Tatyana with a poem composed in her honor. It was absolutely wonderful! Striking just the right balance between sweet and mellow, the light texture of the tangy lemon bunt cake served as a perfect foil to the gooey sweetness of the frosting. Choristers are normally forbidden to eat in costume without first covering up with bulky choir robes at the insistence of the Wardrobe department whose only concern is the safety and comfort of the costumes. But here we were, dressed to the nines and stuffing our faces right in front of the audience, and the dressers couldn't do a thing about it! Rest assured that three huge bunt cakes had completely disappeared by the end of Triquet's second verse.
There's nothing like a tipsy dance to clear a stage full of hyperactive choristers. Joining hands they skip and hop away into the wings. Some are seen upstage carrying Japanese lanterns as they spin and twirl off through the vast northern forest looking heavenward into a lovely snowfall. What a delightful picture! Yes, set designer Peter Pabst has placed dozens of tall birch trees on stage. Ever twirl through a dense forest without looking where you're going? Don't!
But the chorus doesn't stay away for long. Back at the party it's the old tenor/baritone rivalry once again as Lensky and Onegin duke it out in front of the shocked guests. It's to be pistols at dawn. But that's nothing compared to the real battle yet to come.
While Lensky and Onegin duel, down in the basement dressing rooms the women prepare for the big hoopskirt ball. Yes, keeping with this season's "boats n' hoops" theme, the women are costumed in enormous eight-foot hoops -- even bigger than the Dutchman and Traviata hoops combined! Dressers, who have been warned to get all their affairs in order before arriving for work, heap piles of fabric upon their hapless victims who must also endure a makeup change, and don oversized headdresses that have been described as like wearing a potted plant on one's head. But the hoops can only be put on upstairs in the cramped wings because they are too wide for even the grand staircase that leads from the dressing rooms to the stage. So each woman must lug over twenty yards of
fabric up the steps draped over each arm. Then just offstage they meet with their dressers -- two dressers per woman -- who escort them to where their assigned hoops have been laid out on the floor in a tight pattern in the extremely limited space. Holding their dresses as high as possible they step into their hoops. One dresser in the back then attempts to lift the hoops into place, while the other struggles in the front to tie them around the waist. Of course at the same time huge parts of the set are rolling past for the scene change, and the chorus men are fighting their way through to their entrance positions as frantic dressers tug and shout "Tighter! Tighter!!"
Then out of nowhere someone shouts "Go!" and the elegantly dressed men (now upper class) file onto the stage and promenade in a kind of aristocratic goosestep, soon to be joined by their remarkably composed hooped companions. After a short stroll the men retire upstage for a breather, leaving the ladies spread out across the entire stage where they execute in unison a graceful twenty-second curtsey that takes them all the way down to the stage floor! This astounding feat is accomplished by placing one knee behind the other, locking the face into the smiling position, and then ever so slowly descending to the floor, inch by agonizing inch, while maintaining perfect poise and balance. Deep religious faith doesn't necessarily spring to mind when one thinks about choristers, but it was abundantly evident to those close enough to overhear so many entreaties to the Almighty! After leaving them lying there on the floor in that state for several minutes the men return to retrieve their companions. Of course recognizing one's partner isn't as easy as it sounds, considering that approaching from behind all one sees is fabric and feathers. It does make for a few terrifying seconds. And, oh yes, it also falls to the men to get the ladies back to their feet again.
But the curtain calls at the end of the evening make it all worthwhile... despite having to crush through the wings, relocate our partners and jockey for the most down-stage bowing position, all in just a matter of seconds. It's the applause -- that's what opera's all about. That, and the cake.
(Special thanks to Roberta Bowman and Kathy McKee for their terrifying accounts of the great hoopskirt wars.)