Monthly blog archive

About PDX OPERAbeat




PDX OPERAbeat | A Company Blog is the blog for all things Portland Opera, featuring a variety of guest contributors who will provide insider's tidbits on all we do to celebrate the beauty and breadth of opera.

"Instrumentalists are from Mars. Singers are from Venus."

How do two hours fly by so quickly? We students were bursting with questions for our guests of Opera 101 last night. In fact, we passionate opera lovers could have remained in class all evening, eager for more behind-the-scenes information from experts who have devoted their lives to opera. Our first guest was Clare Burovac, Director of Artistic Operations. Some of her responsibilities include auditioning and hiring all the vocalists and instrumentalists for the Portland Opera. This includes the singers for the Portland Opera Resident Artists, the chorus, the mainstage singers, and the children’s chorus. Of all the positions we’ve learned about, Clare’s has the most appeal to me. Can you imagine a job where you can listen to and evaluate hundreds of opera singers each year? Where you can meet both the young, aspiring singers beginning their careers, as well as experienced singers who have sung all over the world? I imagine that would be fabulous. Extraordinarily difficult, but enormously satisfying.

Next we met the amazing Rodney Menn. I have had the pleasure of knowing Rodney for many years in his capacity as an opera accompanist. But that’s only one hat he wears. He’s also a conductor, teacher, and vocal coach. Underlying all his jobs is a passion for the music and a mission to train and encourage young singers. Rodney shared his insider knowledge about the differences between instrumentalists and singers in relation to the conductor. Most singers are motivated to get along well with the conductor, but instrumentalists often have a combative relationship with him/her. “Instrumentalists are from Mars,” Rodney pointed out, “and singers are from Venus.”

Nowadays Rodney does more work as a vocal coach than as a conductor. Whereas a teacher helps their students with vocal technique, a coach helps the student prepare the music for a conductor. Rodney’s refined musical ear can pick out the merest nuances of a singer’s technique, style, and diction.

To illustrate Rodney’s work as a vocal coach, Hannah Penn and André Chiang sang “Là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni. How Rodney could play the piano AND listen to the singers at the same time hardly seemed possible. In a Mozart duet, he wants the singers to focus on clarity, balance, and elegance — which Hannah and André did beautifully.

Rodney Teaching

Jennifer Hammontree’s presentation was eye opening. I had no idea what the Production Stage Manager did, and now that I do, I don’t understand how anyone can survive it. A year ahead of opening night, Jennifer starts familiarizing herself with the opera, and talking with the director about the needs of the performers. Will there be enough time for costume changes? Will supers be necessary? Any special lighting, scenery, or stage requirements? Jennifer tries to anticipate the special needs of each opera, so that the rehearsals can proceed smoothly. She is the person who communicates and resolves technical problems during the rehearsals and the performances. “Have you heard the phrase, ‘Houston, we have a problem?’” she asks. “'I' am Houston.”

During the performances, “Houston” is on the hot seat. She is backstage, speaking into a headset, giving every cue (first “standby” then “GO”) to all the stagehands involved with lighting, scenery, sound effects, and projections. She also pages the singers to come to the stage at the precise moment and monitors their blocking.

Jennifer passed out a 6-page sample of her production notes from last year’s Candide. It was chock full of color-coded jargon that described the cues she needed to give, down to the second. “Mid Strips 1 IN low, Red Q light/Medium,” for example, and “Verticals 1-2 OUT, Medium –Fast-Strips 4 lead.”

Candide Score

She also follows along with the score to be certain that the cues are given at the exact time. If the singer drops some lines or mixes up the order of stanzas, she must make an instantaneous decision about what to do. She’s keeping a sharp eye on the stage, so if a singer is moving too slowly out of the way of a heavy piece of scenery being dropped from above, it’s her job to whisper to the singer, “move downstage NOW.” Serious injuries can happen in live opera, and it’s Jennifer’s job to prevent them.

The intensity and concentration of the job of the Production Stage Manager is astounding. I just wonder how Jennifer keeps breathing throughout it all. Maybe it’s her training as a tuba player.

Yours operatically,


Filed under: