Backstage Tour at the Manitoba Opera

When I found out I was moving to Winnipeg, my piano teacher in Montreal told me the city was known for the arts. Although I’m used to a peripatetic lifestyle and was excited by the move, it was news to me, since all I knew about Winnipeg was that 1) it was cold, 2) it was home to a world-renowned ballet company, and 3) there weren’t any current nearby cosmologists or string theorists (until Andrew and I came here).

I’ve discovered that with proper clothing even on the coldest days, the weather in Winnipeg really is tolerable, and I walk or bus everywhere, so I’m out a lot even on the most frigid days. In fact, anyone who knows me has heard the story far too many times how the coldest period of my life was living in an unheated, LA apartment as a UCLA graduate student where the windows didn’t close as the weather plummeted to freezing; my only consolation as I shivered in my winter coat in bed at night was reading the biography of a freezing Marie Curie in Paris.

However, the reputation that preceded Winnipeg as an arts city, I’m discovering, is not unfounded. Where else have I been able to find high caliber music teachers, tickets to the symphony, opera, ballet, or plays (in venues small enough that even in the worst seats you don’t need your binoculars) that are accessible and affordable? And where else can you spend a Sunday afternoon free at the concert hall for a backstage tour of the opera?

I didn’t know what to expect. Since the tour started every twenty minutes, I thought it would be a twenty minute lecture on the stage. However, the tour was comprehensive, starting in the orchestra pit where we were privy to view not only the concert hall from below but also the celesta (a keyboard instrument) used in the Manitoba Opera’s last production Of Mice and Men, composed by American composer, Carlisle Floyd, and based on the John Steinbeck novel. I believe it was the executive board member, Robert Vineberg, who explained the relationship of the conductor to the music (where the conductor studies each note weeks before rehearsals and how the orchestra is blind to the performance on stage, only the conductor can see the singers).

At this point in the tour, we were conscious of the obvious talent behind the production, the musicians and singers on stage. It was only later in the tour where the full magnitude of how many talents behind the scenes are required for a three-day-run of an opera. For example, we see the orchestra members, but how often do we think of the simplest of matters in a production, such as the procurement of the copies of the orchestral scores?

The second stop was in a rehearsal room with the CEO and Director of the Opera, Larry Desrochers whose photo I pass often at the University Winnipeg where he won a Distinguished Alumni Award.  The first point of note was how humble and passionate all of the speakers at the backstage tour were. How Desrochers expressed his wish to make opera accessible to everyone (and so he encouraged people to phone legislators to provide the necessary funding). He demonstrated how a score is marked, one page of music, the other with blocking that would match the spike marks (tape on the floor designating the performers’ marks, which seems similar to film). His gracious talk to us on the tour emphasized how little the ticket sales cover expense of an opera and how critical opera accessibility is to the vitality of a community.

Third was the make-up artist. Again, I was impressed by his passion for stage make-up and happy with his response to my question about how he maintains sanitary conditions with make-up (alcohol sprays on the make-up, disposable applicators, brush cleanings between applications to different performers). Next was hair, where we were treated to the behind the scenes work of the hair dresser and wig maker. From the wardrobe manager, we learned that, like the rented sets, the costumes are rented, though the performers could use their own shoes. I also found this interesting since I would fathom using unknown shoes could make it difficult to perform optimally. Would it?

We also saw the director of production, Sheldon Johnson, who emphasized that even a relatively small production, such as Of Mice and Men, which features a cast of eight principals and twelve chorus members, requires sixty orchestra members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and 107 people backstage not including ushers, the box office, the bartenders, etc. The first thing he said is that productions require 1) lots of people and 2) lots of stuff. He mentioned how the scores must be rented, customs attended to, props, tape (for the marks), piano movers for rehearsals, piano tuners, rehearsal props, sets etc. all must be organized. There are 150 lamps alone above the stage which each must be focused for this production. I must admit, I became lost when he started talking about the machinery (chain motors?) needed to keep the 2600 pounds of bunk beds above the stage (in the fly) or the barn set.

The next stop was with the Stage Manager, Robert Pel, who came to Winnipeg specifically for five weeks to work on this production. One aspect of his job was to plot out (in twelve hours over two days) the 120 looks needed for this production with the lighting designer and director. He arrived one week before the artists, there were two weeks of rehearsals, one week when the set had arrived during which it was unpacked and set up by Monday night, Tuesday the orchestra and singers rehearsed, Wednesday costume, make-up, hair were done with a rehearsal accompanied by the piano (no orchestra), Thursday a final dress rehearsal with orchestra and an audience of students, Friday off, and performance on Saturday. From his location in the wings, the stage manager watches monitors of the performance, which are also available to the performing artists to watch, whom he calls to the wings 5 minutes before their entrance. They prepare two minutes before they go onstage from the wings. It is also the stage manager who takes care of the extensive safety precautions needed when props include firearms (hearing protection for the actors, permits, making sure it is clean and without bullets, overseeing that two people watch the firearm at all times before it goes on stage, etc).

The final treat of the tour that we attended (we opted to skip the last stop, which was the lighting booth in the back of the theatre) was conducted by Lara Ciekiewicz, whom I have enjoyed watching from the audience as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro and in Turandot. As with all the other talent who spoke on the backstage tour, Ciekiewicz was humble and modest, though possessed a confidence which I admire. She even demonstrated for us by singing an excerpt from Bizet’s Carmen. She truly embodied an artist, as all the backstage talent did as well, communicating that the stage is her office, that she envisions the 2200 member audience (who bring their own stories to the theatre) as surrounding a campfire on the stage where the artists connect to each other and the audience in the conveyance of a story. She discussed how important it is for her to warm up her body as well as her voice before performing, that an opera is, in a way, akin to a vocal marathon. And, as she relayed to us, she feels as though the performing artists are the tip of the iceberg of backstage talent that supports the performance. She discussed Mozart’s emotional as well as musical intelligence, which is evidenced by anyone who has ever played one of his sonatas on the piano, sung one of his art songs or arias, or read his letters.

I enjoyed listening to Ciekiewicz’s enjoyment of singing in choirs, loved her statement of “phlegm begone” (as my throat is often phlegmy when I sing), and her discussion of the flawed perception a singer has of her own voice as she sings. I have hence recently learned to rely on the feeling of my body (or my teacher) and to not worry about the sound, and, as Lara so eloquently said, it’s not about you. It’s about the text and the music.

And with that, I thank the Manitoba Opera for all you give to our community and look forward to the season in Winnipeg!

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