My blog writing has been slowed mightily by my administrative responsibilities with Pro Coro—it seems that most writing energy is used up by writing far too many memos and emails about this, that, and the other. But . . . here’s the next installment on conducting Monteverdi’s Orfeo.
How did this all begin?
Miki Andrejevic was Executive Director of Pro Coro from 2000-2004, and I would say we had as perfect a relationship as one can have between the chief artistic and administrative people in an arts organization. In all ways we thought similarly about important issues and had similar goals for the organization. It was truly a collaborative effort. We quickly became friends as much as colleagues and have remained friends ever since.
After Miki left Pro Coro, he did some consulting for a period, organized LitFest in Edmonton, and was then hired to be Executive Director for a part of the University of Alberta’s centenary celebration, Festival of Ideas.
Miki has never been known to think small! If you look at the link to the Festival, you’ll get an idea of the breadth of activities and presentations, opening with a talk by Salman Rushdie.
So Miki approached me with an idea. He’d noted that Orfeo had lots of performances in 2007, the 400th anniversary of its premiere, but not in Edmonton, watched a DVD of a performance and was fascinated by the opera. He also knew there wasn’t a lot of activity in Edmonton with period instruments. Here was the first opera that has stayed in the active repertoire and it’d never been done here. So he asked me if I thought we could put together a production of Orfeo for the festival.
It didn’t take me long to say I thought we should try, but that the first thing was to bring Ray Nurse into the picture. Ray is a fixture in the Vancouver early music scene—I’d known about him for some time and he then put together the orchestra when I did the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers in 2001 (our Orfeo, Colin Balzer, sang the 2nd tenor solos in that performance, just before he was moving to Germany). To put it simply, Ray knows an amazing amount about an amazing number of things. For example, we knew that Ray had connections with instrumentalists and singers in the early music world, but didn’t know that he had a long history in opera as well. I knew he’d been a member of the Vancouver Chamber Choir for 10 years or so, but didn’t know he’d done a lot of singing small roles with various companies, including Edmonton’s, at a particular point in time. This meant he had enormous experience with the backstage and production aspects of staging an opera. And he’d been heavily involved in the Festival Vancouver production of Orfeo in 2001 (directed by Stephen Stubbs).
So Ray was brought in as Music Production Coordinator, but in fact he did much more than that (he spent an enormous amount of time early on, for example, in making budgets). We began discussions of what kinds of things and people we’d need. One of the first, of course, was a stage director. Ray recommended Ellen Hargis, with whom he’d worked for a good period of time in the Baroque Vocal Programme as part of the Vancouver Early Music summer workshops. Ellen has a fantastic career as singer, but had also done a little directing and has been assistant director for a number of productions at the Boston Early Music Festival—and she was interested in doing more. This was her first big production as full stage director and she was an inspired choice.
The four of us met in Vancouver in August of 2007 to begin discussions of what we’d need to do, production issues and needs, scheduling, possible performance venues (primarily Miki’s and my responsibility to vet, since we were in Edmonton), casting, etc.
We had a great meeting and tasks were set. Finding the right venue took a lot of time and held us up for quite a while. Many options were discussed and we finally ended up at the Citadel Theatre (Edmonton’s equity theatre) in their McLab Theatre—a thrust stage with no pit—more about that when I discuss rehearsals!
We’d made preliminary contact with a number of cast members at our meeting, since Colin Balzer and Suzie LeBlanc, among others, were at the festival singing, but most contacts were made later. Ray and Ellen, given their experience, know most of the people in the early music vocal world, and their knowledge was invaluable, as in so many other ways. I have to say that we were lucky to ultimately get our first choices in terms of casting—it was a terrific cast.
We’d considered rehearsing in Banff and doing a performance at the arts centre there, but it proved too expensive for the budget and it would have been difficult to commit my local singers to the chorus. So, attractive an idea as that seemed initially, it was dropped.
We’d originally planned to do a fully costumed version, renting the costumes that were created for the Vancouver production (now residing in Toronto). They are gorgeous, but for many reasons that idea was dropped for some relatively simple, modern dress variations. We also thought we might have to do a semi-staged version with the chorus in one place, but that idea was (thankfully!) dropped in favor of a staged production with all music memorized (my chorus members were worried about this!), but with minimal props and no real set. Ultimately it worked incredibly well—more about this later.
Gradually elements and people were set in place, including finding a local person with the skills and knowledge to set up all the elements necessary on-site: James Robert Boudreau, or Jim Bob, who took care of an enormous number of details, from finding a lighting director, stage manager, assistant, working with the Citadel (which doesn’t normally have guest productions), and dealing with moving instruments into the church where we first rehearsed, into McLab, and then out.
All principal singers were gradually cast (with some anxious moments as we thought we’d lose one or another due to schedule conflicts) and Ray put together a fantastic group of instrumentalists. I did some vetting of instruments available locally (organ, two harpsichords), but we also had long discussions of the possible need to rent a truck and haul instruments from Vancouver. I auditioned a 15-voice chorus.
I don’t know how many emails went back and forth between us, but I know that I had hundreds in my Orfeo file, even after deleting many shorter or less substantive ones.
Ray, Ellen, Jim Bob, and I all got together again in Vancouver this past August to discuss in person as many of the remaining details that we could. Ellen had thought she’d get out to Edmonton to see the stage and talk with the lighting designer, but that proved impossible. Jim Bob prepared video of the stage and we had lots of discussions about exactly where/how the orchestra would be placed, where singers could make entrances, etc., but Ellen was still quite nervous about the thrust stage and how it would work, dramatically and acoustically (we were, too)—it’s one thing to look at video and diagrams, but quite another to know how such a space will work in reality.
Finally, everyone gathered in Edmonton on Friday, November 7, 8 days before the opening performance, to begin work together—amazing!
As I noted in my first post, opera is the most collaborative of arts. Certainly this couldn’t have happened (or gone so beautifully) without the incredible talent, skill, and knowledge of all those involved. As a conductor, I was the beneficiary of all of that.