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News! Opera in Ohio is just as much fun as it was in San Francisco
on a smaller scale. The budget is not nearly as large here, so the company
is forced to actually consider the cost of its productions, and to stay
within its income. That means no “star” principals, but it
gives a lot of very good young singers an opportunity to establish their
careers. Two of those young singers (Michele Capalbo as Tosca, and Scott
Piper as Mario) have quite become popular with the Dayton audience in
the last few years, and their performances justify that popularity.
The performing arts community in Dayton recently began sharing a lot
of the overhead costs (like a web site, box office and back stage staff),
so each theater and dance group is able to focus more on the actual productions.
That cooperation also allowed the construction of a new multi-purpose theater
(and rehearsal space), with just over 2,000 seats.
On the other hand, there is less money available for things we took for
granted in San Francisco, like a full-time chorus, or a lot of roles for
supers. It is even common for supers to be expected to bring their own
shoes (and t-shirt) to complete a costume, and make-up assistance is provided
only for the most visible roles. Many long-time supers here even bring
their own make-up kits. And while a dresser is available out in the hallway,
supers are generally expected to get themselves into costume. However,
since the supers are more self-reliant, that also means that the call times
are usually more like 30 minutes prior to curtain.
Early rehearsals are much like they probably are in every company, with
a lot of standing around while the director gets the traffic patterns settled,
and provides advice on how everyone should be reacting to the events on
stage. Michael McConnell has directed several operas in Dayton, and he
seems to be very detail-oriented, which encourages the chorus and supers
to be an active part of the production.
The chorus is an ad hoc group of generally young singers from the Dayton
and Cincinnati area. They all must be very committed to the opera, since
my impression is that they are paid barely more than the supers in San
Francisco, with no union to help them. Many of them drive long distances,
and must work around their day jobs to participate in the opera. And they
are given name tags during rehearsals, so it is easier to learn their names.
More importantly, they generate a large and wonderful sound on stage.
The super roster seems to include about a dozen men (I have not yet heard
of any roles for women) who have been active for a number of years, and
who can be depended on to show up consistently, and to follow stage directions.
Since most productions do not require a lot of supers, that small group
is usually sufficient for the company’s need for extra bodies. When
they need more people (as they did for Tosca, and Aida last year), they
have to fall back on a list of previous supers, or recruit new people.
Supering is a volunteer activity here, and it seems to be more difficult
to attract people who are willing and able to fit the rehearsal schedule
into their normal routines.
While supers do not get an actual pay check, we do get two passes to final
dress, and we also get two tickets to any of the three performances. And
since street parking is free in the evenings and on weekends, there is
generally no cost other than the commute into downtown.
Other differences that I noticed include the greater variety of tasks performed
by the ASMs. They change all the sets during rehearsals (with assistance
from both chorus and supers), and I have seen them making coffee and stocking
the paper products in the performers’ lounge during performances.
Eating in costume is still discouraged, but that appears to be a very loose
guideline, as there were rice crispy snacks in the wardrobe room on opening
night. There were even chocolates on opening night, although not identified
as “super” treats.
Since our rehearsal space shares the back stage area with the actual theater,
we are always competing with the cast of whatever production is being performed.
In this case, that meant that Peter Pan, Captain Hook and a variety of
pirates were often seen in the halls. Cathy Rigby even stopped in one day
to observe our rehearsal. She and Ms. Capalbo traded envious thoughts about
the other’s role, until each pointed out that the other would have
to learn to fly or leap from a tower.
As to the production itself, I was not able to see much of the opera, since
there is no standing room to sneak into during long breaks, and the wings
have less space to hide in, but I have nothing but high accolades for the
performance. The sets are not included in the cost-saving measures, so
the production looks opulent. We use the Dayton Symphony as our orchestra,
so the music from the pit is excellent.
All of the young singers have great voices, and they have not yet grown
into the standard opera physique, so they are energetic and convincing
in their roles. Mario has a believable combination of resigned expectation
and surprise when he is shot, and Tosca’s dive from the ramparts
is one of the best I’ve seen. Grant Youngblood (as Scarpia) was thoroughly
enjoying his role as an absolute villain. Christopher O’Conner was
easily the tallest Spoletta I’ve ever seen, so it was difficult for
Scarpia to intimidate him in Act II.
As for me personally, I was happy to get involved this quickly in any production,
but the fact that it was Tosca (which they knew I had done a zillion times)
probably helped get me a better role than I expected. I was one of three
Swiss Guards in Act I, but we were so far upstage, and behind so many chorus,
and in such poor lighting, that we could probably have cast as the holes
in Swiss Cheese.
I was disappointed not to be one of Scarpia’s agents in Act II again,
but I also knew that the more visible roles would probably go to the long-time
supers here. I was thus surprised when they told me that I was going to
be the Captain of the Firing Squad. That
gave me an opportunity to discover that Scott Piper is a very open and
friendly principal, in addition to
having a great voice. It also made my first experience with the Dayton
Opera much more entertaining, since it gave me a lot more responsibility
than I expected. And many thanks to Joe Giammarco for
all the coaching he gave me as his cover in San Francisco, since I was
with all the musical cues.
There was only one potential “hammy” moment for me, and it
involved what appears to have become my primary foil, as it were. Fortunately
it took place during one of the many overtime rehearsals the firing squad
needed (more than half of the squad was not available until rehearsals
began on stage, just a few days before opening night).
The crew had just brought in new swords and scabbards for all of us (very
nice blades, by the way), and I had carefully examined each sword for one
that did not stick too much when I drew it out to cue the squad. But I
soon discovered why it was sticking – there was a piece of Styrofoam
glued inside the scabbard (probably as a safety measure).
On this occasion, the Styrofoam came unglued, but also jammed in the scabbard,
and prevented me from getting the blade out in time for the cue. I was
SOOOO happy that it happened during a rehearsal (even though the director
chastised me for stopping the scene). Once the Styrofoam was gone, the
blade was much easier to draw. Maybe I should just stay away from roles
that require me to use a sword.
Our next production in Dayton will be Little Women, directed by our own
Sandy Bernhard, who already advised me that there will not likely be any
super roles (at least for men). However, Sandy is also directing La
Boheme in Cincinnati this June, so maybe I will be able to get involved with that
company. I don’t remember any swords in that opera. In any event,
I will send periodic reports on the local opera world.
For those who are interested, I am adjusting well so far to the new life
style. The easiest adjustment was not having to go to work every day. I
can’t believe how great it is not to be tied to a clock. I often
forget to even wear a watch, since it no longer makes a difference when
I do things during the day. I decided that staying in reasonably good health
(give my tarnished starting point) is now my “job” so I try
to spend a couple hours at the township recreation center on most days
($55 for the annual membership
fee by the way). I usually go over there after a leisurely morning with
coffee and the local paper, so half the day is gone by the time I finish
I am now licensed to drive and vote, but I still need to learn the local
customs and rules. I recently drove to the downtown university for an evening
play, and came away with a parking ticket. Who knew that parking would
be reserved that late at night? Seems like the box office could have warned
me when I called to ask for directions.
Anyway, I still have some work to do before I feel completely settled,
but perhaps I’ll be ready to get outdoors more by spring (not too
far away, and a season that I always missed in San Francisco). I am already
planning one or two trips back to SF, so I hope to see many of you later
-- Bruce McNaughton, your Midwest correspondent.