Music affects each person in a different way. It has the ability to comfort, to enliven, to console, and to energize. There is new music being created every day, and we are constantly given the opportunity to hear another piece of music that affects us in a new way and that can change our perspective about something.
As a new member of the Portland Opera To Go (POGO) program, I can safely say that my perspective has been changed. It’s been an exciting first week of rehearsals as our new cast gathers and begins the process of creating opera for children.
Our mission for this month with Opera Improv is to create a completely improvised opera that allows the children to choose what they see onstage. This is a totally new experience for me. Normally in opera, the music, dialogue, and staging is fairly concrete. As a performer, my job is to re-create a masterwork, perhaps with a bit of my own personal spin on things. So you might wonder: how do you rehearse something that you make up? What do you rehearse if the performance is going to be different every time?
Well, the performance we do for children is created and improvised on the spot…sort of. There are many things the children get to choose for the opera they see, but there are also many factors that we plan in advance. These factors are what we have been rehearsing this week. Some of these factors include the general story that we are trying to tell, and a couple primary pieces of music that provide direction for the story. Other than these things, everything else is a variable.
For example, each singer (there are 4 in this production) has a set of a few arias that are available for use in our opera. We also have about a half-dozen duets and trios that we can use in our opera. We give the children choices about what music they would like in their uniquely created opera.
All of this music – and this is very important – is in foreign languages. When the children cannot understand the words of the song being sung, it can become a song about almost anything. In the course of our rehearsal period, my aria “Com’è gentil” has become the following scenes:
*A minstrel flirting with the women in the room
*A young boy excited about a shiny object he found
*A teenager discovering a new fact about his past
*The Greek god Zeus enjoying life on Mt. Olympus
*A fortune-teller reading someone’s palm
As you can see, the possibilities are almost endless. As a singer who has been singing opera for many years, I have come to associate the music I sing with the dramatic context from which it comes. For me, “Com’è gentil” is forever placed within the context of the opera it came from, Don Pasquale. But, for our young audience members, this music could be so many different things. It might sound “happy” or “bouncy” or “silly” to the children, or it might just sound “loud.” As I watch the children respond, suddenly I hear the music differently than I have ever heard it before. While my job with POGO is to educate children about opera, I am finding that they are teaching me a great deal as well.
Performing for Opera Improv is unlike anything I have ever done, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to see music in a new way.
—Daniel Buchanan, POGO tenor