Feeling proud of five productions in nine months, operamission would like to share a follow-up of Così fan tutte: Some Assembly Required, affectionately known as #nycosi on twitter. If you were unable to attend, please feel free to view the postcard, press release, or program.
Many have asked how the concept came about. The elements that contributed are many and varied, and spread over many years, perhaps much further back than I’m even aware. It was a unique and inspired idea. Some of the inspirations were practical, and I’m afraid some were negative. I won’t go into what I was trying not to do. The bottom line was that the moment OPERA IN FLIGHT: new scenes & one-acts ended on April 3, 2010, the first word that popped into my head was “Mozart.” I saw the terrifying prospect of the huge and empty (not to mention hot) month of August in New York City looming ahead, and started gradually adding up the operatic pieces. The planning process involved brainstorming sessions, some even formal, all rather intense, with many of the talented individuals who ended up being energetically involved through the end.
Some of the first official brainstorming sessions included bassoonist Daniel Liao who helped me come up with a practical solution for the orchestra which, in the end, proved to be beneficial to all, though in unexpected ways. Dramaturg Cori Ellison receives credit for the brilliant title, as well as dramatically setting into motion my confidence that people of all walks of life would go for the concept.
Casting Così was by far the most fun I’ve ever had making opera. Each of the thirteen singers was not only fully committed, but excited, energized, passionate, and there was absolutely no question that they were going to be cooperative to the end. And this happened consistently, immediately upon contact, which each and every one of them. Each “yes” in an incoming message, no matter the medium, gave me a buzz, even a sustained high, making opera’s sexiness palpable.
The first singer off whom I bounced my semi-formalized brainstorm was baritone Gregory Gerbrandt. We met one afternoon and walked a few blocks up from my studio with sandwiches, found a bench in Central Park, and he just listened, not letting on in any way that he cared in the least about my rambling. I was actually afraid to ask him what he thought of the idea, thinking he was just letting me ‘think out loud’ as a good friend. But in winding up the conversation, he proceeded to ask me if he could please sing Guglielmo, that he wanted to do it, that he really wanted to do it, all of it. Part of the concept was that everything would be ‘tag-team’ from the audience on down, including the casting, so as not to test anyone’s stamina, also to relieve the guilt I would surely experience by insisting on opening up all the cuts, allowing audiences to hear the opera in its entirety. I had thought that with Greg’s many recent successes and busy schedule that he wouldn’t be available or interested in participating, but the fact that he was itching to fly back to New York from a Marcello in La Bohème in Colorado meant a lot to me. I eventually stayed with my decision to divvy up the roles between multiple singers, so he ended up just taking care of Act II, including some extensive recitatives which flesh out the character (as well as the relationships with Ferrando, Dorabella, and Don Alfonso) much more than what we usually hear.
There are similar heartwarming stories to accompany each of the thirteen cast members. Some I have known since school days; some I work with regularly; some I have been dying to work with for years; some have known me all too well ‘in the heat of battle’ — and one I had met only a month before, and invited to participate after only hearing him sing six Handel recitatives…clearly a risky move…which ended up being key to the success of our newly-formed working relationship.
The concept of presenting an opera in separate sections on more than one evening came to me several years ago during a production of Domenico Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto. As this opera, and others from the period (Italian operas contemporary with Mozart) overstretch the stamina required for all involved, disproportionate amounts of rehearsal time (in the production with which I was involved) were spent rewriting, cutting, and attempting to craft something that the audience, the cast members, the orchestra, and everyone else would be able to handle. Performance practice has changed so much from the late eighteenth century, yet I found myself questioning what brought audiences, not to mention underwriters, to these Italian operas in Vienna, which were enormously popular amongst certain circles. During one particular intermission of the Cimarosa, I was talking to myself and seriously assessing the format, while attempting to feel out which elements of this music’s popularity could best grab a contemporary audience. The plots are charming and formulaic, as is so much of American film and TV. The jokes are the same. The characters resemble people we all know. The period costumes are attractive to our eyes, if even just in our fantasties (even better). The music is balanced and soothing: beautiful arias, ensembles, recitatives, with continuous textural variety. No ‘Wagnerian’ concentration is required to be entertained simply by the sonorities. There’s actually nothing inaccessible, per se, by this style, so I thought about what kind of performance schedule might best convince audiences of this. I thought of a TV miniseries — what if every Monday night we presented a single act of an eighteenth century opera as a short evening, allowing time for cocktails, dinner and socializing, still putting us to bed in time for work Tuesday morning, then allowing the audience to return the following Monday if they cared to follow the characters’ plights. Or not. I do love the concept of “or not.” I thought about the end of Act I of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and didn’t see a problem. We know enough about the characters to love them. We haven’t yet met the Countess, but we know she exists. We’re intrigued. And we’re entertained. We’ve had the best overture ever, and we’ve ended with trumpets and timpani crashing in C major. We’ve totally bought in to the creators’ (including Beaumarchais’) scenario; I don’t think anyone is being cheated by bringing in the curtain and saying “come back next week for more adventures of…” Or not.
This vision inspires many potential production possibilities. When faced specifically with Così it became less a need of leaving the plot hanging for the inevitable sequel, and more a need to dissect and explore the symmetries and sheer beauty of the work, which I saw being horrifyingly overlooked upon my exploration of the public’s general attitude towards it. In July I tweeted a question to my followers asking for their impressions of Così, both good and bad. Cori Ellison had unhesitatingly and proudly jumped forward with the declaration that it was “without question” her “favorite opera,” yet nobody on twitter seemed to be so inclined. “Boring,” “too much recitative,” “unrealistic,” and tweets, which when challenged, developed quickly into frustrated anger, as if this opera has absolutely no business existing under the guise of a masterwork of one of the greatest composers who ever lived. It was sometimes explained away with the attitude that ‘Audiences Today’ are just not the same as they were in the eighteenth century.
Phooey I say. We are still human. Mozart was human. Da Ponte certainly was. I’ve long held an unsubstantiated theory that they came up with this story over many drinks at a bar, and based it all on people they knew very well. To find that audiences think the situation is outlandish frankly surprised me. I mean really… Mozart married the sister of a gorgeous soprano with whom we know for a fact he was madly in love. Neither was in disguise, no, but… the convention of disguise is so far-fetched and exaggerated in Così I had no idea the audience was supposed to even begin thinking that the creators intended us to see it as genuine. Once Despina has changed into drag for the second time, I think we can safely say we are meant to be laughing at the convention. If you think about how old the formulas were by 1789, and how audiences had grown to expect someone to dress up as someone else, and would have been confused if they didn’t, it is properly hilarious that the sisters are fooled no fewer than four times through the course of one day, and in Act II Fiordiligi even presumes to use the technique herself to escape her misery.
All this to say that I would hope an audience can laugh at this opera. I was taught that was the point of comedy. If it means laughing at our long-entrenched theatrical traditions, made all the more ridiculous by the convention of opera seria as had been the case by 1789, all the better!
I felt like I had my work cut out for me to shatter a stereotype or two. With all the positive support I was receiving as I shared my ideas with colleagues, the work pretty much did itself.
In coordinating with Neke Carson at the Gershwin Hotel, I carefully selected dates which would fall before most New Yorkers left for pre-Labor Day vacation, dovetailing the end of the Mostly Mozart Festival, therefore working out a schedule which would deprive no Mozart-lovers from either experience, and was thrilled to learn during my planning process that my presentation would also be timely in anticipating Maestro William Christie’s Metropolitan Opera debut conducting the same opera. If even a single Met-goer finds more joy in Bill’s work because of the superlative work my amazing #nycosi team invested, then I am accomplishing something.
Organizational challenges were many. I was planning on gathering a reading orchestra, which we all saw as a challenge. And by the time I realized I was actually going for four orchestras, not one, I had no time to think about it. Personnel for every session changed dramatically in the 24 hours preceding each, just to keep me on my toes. The full complement of players, spread over the four sessions included:
Flute – Darima Alexandru, Jennifer Chang, Domenica Fossati, Maria Johnson
Oboe – Elizabeth Blaufox, Sarah Loveland, Patty Emerson Mitchell, Ada Muellner, Gregory Weissman
Clarinet - Grover Edwards, Karen Fisher, Boris Shpitalnik, Megan Shumate, Cory Tiffin
Bassoon – Timothy Emerson, Berke Hitay, Daniel Liao
Horn – Roy Femenella, Alexandra Honigsberg, Mike Sayre, Marshall Sealy
Trumpet – Brendan Ballintine, John Brandon, Hugo Moreno
Timpani – Jose Simbulan, Michael Zell
Violin – *Yura Alexov, Nina Bai, Dan Bartfield, Nathan Bartley, Elizabeth Fagan, *Nell Flanders, Janet Harris, *Anna Hiemstra, Rebekah Hodge, Maria Im, Natallia Kozel, Patricia Kuhn, Dennis Lin, *Elzbieta Polak, Cory Ramey, Brendan Ratchford, Yury Shubov, Jamie Wilson (* = concertmasters)
Viola – Alexandra Honigsberg, Joseph Jones, Bjorg Larson, Cory Ramey, Joan Topper, Kenny Wang, Brittany Zellman
Violoncello – Aviva Cantor, Alexandra Moiseeva, Vivian Penham, Dino Quarleri, Ezra Seltzer (principal and continuo), Paul Wolfram, Emily Wright
Contrabass – Justin Peterson, Wen YangThat’s sixty. Wow. I had no idea.
Fiordiligi – Kerri Marcinko, Caroline Worra
Dorabella – Jennifer Berkebile, Toby Newman
Ferrando – Brian Anderson, John Carlo Pierce, Asitha Tennekoon
Guglielmo – James Bobick, Gregory Gerbrandt
Despina – Jennifer Aylmer, Kristen Plumley
Don Alfonso – Dennis Blackwell, Andrew Nolen
…any of which I heartily recommend to anyone to hire in a heartbeat. Please contact me if you would like any more information on any of them. They are all true friends and phenomenal human beings.
I would like to offer a huge thank you to my dear friend Jose Simbulan who was able to attend all four sessions and perform countless production functions. One especially sweet role he played was to shoot some terrific video clips which can be viewed on the ‘operamission’ YouTube channel…please enjoy them. Jose is a pianist and also happens to be a very classy food photographer, @JoseSPiano on twitter.
We received press mentions in major media sources such as the New York Times, the New Yorker magazine, the New York Post, the New York Observer, the Washington Post, Broadway World, WQXR, classicaltv, and more. Bloggers involved in the buzz - oboeinsight, MMmusing, Endless Possibilities (also 8/23), Cabaret Hotline, My Life as a “Cover Girl”…, Dennis Blackwell baritone, Portland Opera operaman, and Opera Insider – were and are keeping my Google Alerts alert. Thank you all very, very much for your energy and interest!
I’d like to also acknowledge the participation of our ‘Twhistorians’ – a term coined during a late-night twitter poll - Bob Kingston, Eric Malson, and Michael Monroe. Thank you, lovely gentlemen, thank you. And of course the ‘hosts’ Ned Canty and Cori Ellison. Amazing, guys. It was so good to be able to look over at you and know that the audience was happy, no matter how little sleep I had had, or how thirsty I was.
Also a very, VERY special thank you to all who traveled long-distance to participate:Gregory Gerbrandt (Colorado) – Guglielmo, parts 3 & 4 Janet Harris (Washington, DC) – violin *Berke Hitay (Istanbul, Turkey) – bassoon *Bob Kingston (Oregon) – twhistorian *Patty Emerson Mitchell (California) – oboe *Michael Monroe (Massachusetts) – twhistorian John Carlo Pierce (Massachusetts) – Ferrando, parts 3 & 4 Asitha Tennekoon (Indiana) – Ferrando, part 2 *Cory Tiffin (Illinois) – clarinet *Emily Wright (Maryland) – cello * people who connected to operamission via twitter, aka “tweeps” (click name for twitter profile)
This was truly one of the elements which made this experience so thrilling — to have this sense of gathering for a purpose — many of us never having met in person before.
A super sweet sub-plot of the #nycosi twitter angle ended up leading operamission to some very glamorous exposure on a landscape photography blog. Oboist Patty Emerson Mitchell, twitterer & blogger extraordinaire, as well as Principal Oboist in the Opera San Jose Orchestra and member of the San Francisco Opera’s Merola orchestra and more, not only led me to her Brooklyn brother Timothy Emerson, who held together our winds from the principal bassoon chair for Parts 1 and 2, she brought her husband G Dan Mitchell along from San Jose. Dan honored #nycosi with an amazing blog entry of gorgeous (“definitely not landscape photography”) photographs. If you read about his process, you will see how lucky we are to have happened upon someone with his skill. And…you can follow his “definitely not operatic” adventures on twitter. Thank you for coming to New York, Dan!
Please enjoy an archive of #nycosi tweets, browsable here.
There were a number of individuals who did end up participating in all four sessions. At one point, a “#nycosi decoder ring” was offered as a prize, yet alas the rings were not in the budget. The recipients amongst the participants would have been:
John Brandon (trumpet)
Aviva Cantor (cello)
Ned Canty (director and host)
Cori Ellison (dramaturg and host)
Alexandra Honigsberg (viola and horn)
Joseph Jones (viola)
Daniel Liao (bassoon)
Ezra Seltzer (cello)
Jose Simbulan (house manager, photographer, videographer, timpani, sanity manager)
Several audiences members attended all four as well, although we sadly planned no concrete way of keeping track. Feel free to comment below if you’d like your due recognition. My mother, Sue Peterson, should be mentioned; she flew from Eugene, Oregon, and I credit her with singlehandedly inspiring (demanding…requiring…?) pretty much every little bit of this concept. It took her 43 years of hard work to do it. Thank you, mom, for loving opera, and for being emotionally supportive of my activities in the genre.
In short, I’m shocked and thrilled it came off, and hope in my heart the operamission will thrive on this incredible energy and buzz that unexpectedly came out of this fortunate lining up of ideas.
Please stay tuned for news of opera-in-progress Antinous and Hadrian and the exciting work being completed daily by librettist Edward Ficklin and composer Clint Borzoni, as well as details on the next concert in the ongoing series, HANDEL at the Gershwin.
Also please feel free to drop in to operamission’s support page or to send any friends or colleagues who may be interested in supporting the arts.
Graphics in this post: bust of ‘Antinous of Ecouen,’ marble, 18th century copy from an original come from the Villa Adriana, now in the Prado Museum;
and ‘Protea’ by Cathie King