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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.

Tosca dribs and drabs



Today's blog title is a tiny shout-out to our Maestro, Joseph Colaneri, who yesterday before the matinee asked me if I could send our concertmaster to chat with him, because he had "just a few dribs and drabs" to adjust in the strings before the performance.


I was hoping to have an interview for you today with our current interim Chorusmaster & Principal Coach, Francesco Milioto, but that didn't work out -- maybe next week! Instead I have an assortment of Tosca-related notes that I've been compiling during this past week of rehearsals and performances.


Trials and tribulations of running supertext

Tosca is, relatively speaking, not a terribly difficult opera to follow, supertext wise. The music goes quickly and changes a lot, but there aren't a lot of fast recits or strange time signatures or anything like that. However, there are plenty of places where I have to take my cue from the singers rather than the orchestra (because the orchestra is sustaining a note and the singer can come in at will). This normally works just fine -- I just wait until I begin to hear the singer and I press the button. But sometimes it's trouble. I tend to cue the title slide when I hear the singer breathe, because that way the title comes up just as they start to sing. This is particularly important when the slide goes by quickly. But yesterday, during the matinee, I was waiting for Roger Honeywell (our Cavaradossi) to sing a line, thought I heard him breathe in, and hit the button. The slide, which goes by lightning fast, says "Someone's coming!" and is therefore kind of a surprise moment in the opera. It came up, and ... no singing. Foible! He did sing it a moment later, but I had already given it away. Sorry, Roger.


In our post-show Q & A yesterday, Kara Shay Thomson answered the question, "What languages do you speak?" The answer cracked me up: "This is embarrassing, but ... none. I speak opera." She clarified that although she doesn't speak the language she's singing, she (and all singers you see) translates every word of the opera and knows exactly what she's saying onstage. She said, "You know, the syntax is not always the same as what you see up there" (pointing to the supertext screen). "Sometimes I'll be singing something and I'll think, 'why are they laughing?' and I'll realize, oh, right, they've already read the joke even though I'm not through saying it."


The bells of Rome

There are a lot of bells in Tosca. There are chimes in the pit, and two sets of chimes backstage. For this production, there is also a synthesizer loaded with bell samples, which we use for the lowest three church bells. (You hear one of these bells at the start of e lucevan le stelle, Cavaradossi's heart-breaking Act III aria).

As the story goes, Puccini climbed up to the top of the Castel Sant'Angelo at dawn and wrote out in musical notation the sound of all the different bells of the city, and that's what you hear at the top of Act III. One percussionist is in the wings on stage right, downstage near the front of the stage. The other backstage percussionist plays both one set of real, physical chimes and the three lowest bells of the keyboard. They all watch monitors so they can follow the conductor. This took us several rehearsals to perfect, as you can probably imagine.


Puccini's original score actually calls for a carillon. I don't really know the story behind why he called for this, the heaviest (and most impossible to transport) of all instruments, but there you have it. Fun fact, I used to play the carillon in college. This carillon, in fact:(It's a very physical instrument to play! I would be sweating afterwards)


Whenever anyone produces Tosca, they have to come up with a bell solution. In previous years, we've rented a set of large tubular bells (like giant chimes), which actually sound an octave above what's written, because to get bells that low means they have to be REALLY BIG. This time, with the help of Maestro Colaneri, we acquired these extremely well-produced samples. Those low bells are some of my favorite moments in the opera.


Stabbing and dying 101

dead scarpia


Yesterday I found myself wondering, how does Kara Shay stab Mark Schnaible (our Scarpia)? First off, that is a real kitchen knife, which has been dulled down, with its point rounded, and then coated in foil to make it shinier. When she thrusts the knife at him, she twists her hand, turning the knife parallel to his body, so that what hits him is the flat side of the blade rather than the pointy end. This explains how, on opening night, she said, "Do you know where I ended up stabbing him tonight? In the thigh."


And what about her final plunge? Behind the 'parapet' onstage, there is a large foam pad -- actually two pads, one a crash pad generously provided by Do Jump!, the other, topmost layer a piece of thick foam. Altogether the pad is about three feet tall. As she jumps, jump spotters on either side of the mat hold up what essentially amounts to foam bumpers (like at the bowling alley!) to make sure she falls in the right direction on the pad. Then, to avoid problems with sightlines in the second balcony, Kara Shay immediately rolls to one side of the pad and a stagehand throws a black cloth over her so that she can't be seen. Theater!!


Relatedly, on opening night, the audience applauded Scarpia's death -- a thing we all agreed had never before happened in anyone's experience of the show! A testament to just how (delightfully) detestable Mark Schnaible makes Scarpia, and just how well Kara Shay kills him. For my part, I am often out of breath at the end of the Act II, even though I can't see any of the action. Yesterday, my hands were shaking. It is, maybe weirdly, one of my favorite parts of the opera, not least because Kara Shay acts the heck out of it. Sunday was her 77th performance of the role!

Photos by Cory Weaver.

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