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A Night Backstage at the Opera

What's it like behind the scenes of big production like Lucia di Lammermoor? Hairy.

David Tracey 8 Dec 2010TheTyee.ca

David Tracey is, well, let's just go ahead and call him the Tyee Opera Critic.

It sounded like a fun idea to look behind the scenes of a big opera to see how one of these overwrought mixes of music and drama and poetry and visual arts and dance gets put together. So on Tuesday, during a costumed rehearsal of Vancouver Opera's production of Lucia di Lammermoor, I got permission to lurk backstage in the makeup room. What better place to find out what these stars of the vocal world are really like? It was a chance to meet them as they go through the transition from real people to costumed and bewigged stars of the vocal universe.

I'll admit I secretly hoped to discover at least some sense of panic, and perhaps a mezzo a mezzo hissy fit, or if I was really lucky, a full-blown diva blowout. Instead, over the muffled rumbling and trilling of singers in other rooms warming up their throats, the makeup artists told me performers were generally very pleasant people, and all the ones who came through to have their heads primped and fussed over seemed to prove the point.

The six women in charge of makeovers seemed comfortably in control of the human production line even though it included no less than seven named stars and a chorus big enough to later crowd the stage. Apparently turning a few dozen people into 18th century Scots is not such a tough assignment when you've already been through challenges such as The Makropulos Case where they had just one minute to turn a 30-year-old woman into one who was supposed to look 300.

I learned that wigs can cost up to $5,000 -- that's for the fitted type, not the ones used in this production. Which may be why at least one singer wondered whether it wasn't sitting oddly on top of her head. I didn't want to say so but it did look a bit like a large bird's nest had fallen onto her, but the stylist explained that the hair height would make sense when combined with the big hooped costume dress.

I also learned that youthful skin has more pigment, so make-up artists use more neutral colors when painting their younger features to present on stage. And although it wasn't stated and perhaps was not even considered, I gathered the singers understood it was advisable to stay on the better side of the people in charge of making their heads look good. This included being able to take some good-natured kidding. "I'm making it look like he has more hair than he really does," one said to me while fluffing out the locks of baritone Gregory Dahl. To which another added, "You mean you're making it look like even has hair." Dahl, a likable guy from Winnipeg with a ready grin, could obviously take a joke.

Fast exchanges

One singer did walk in the room and announce that the air conditioning was "horrible," but even that was said only half-seriously. So I didn't get my skittish opera star scene. Instead I ended up forming quick impressions of the singers from brief exchanges, even while knowing they were no more valid that any other five minute exchange with celebrity can be used to define a person. But curiously these impressions tended to hold up even after I'd seen them on stage. Dahl had come across as a rugged, wise-cracking guy you'd like to have on your hockey team. On stage as Enrico, the lord of Lammermoor who wrecks his sister's Lucia's future with an ill-advised forced marriage, he was not a sympathetic character but still came across as a solid performer who carried his role out with style, a real asset to the team.

Thomas Macleay from Montreal was cast as Arturo Bucklaw, the man whose honeymoon with Lucia gets cut faster than the wedding cake. We chatted only briefly. I took him to be a quiet, detached type whose appeal would come more from inner resolve than outright power, then was surprised to find my impression of him only confirmed by his performance.

I didn't get to meet soprano Eglise Gutierrez who took on the difficult vocal acrobatics of Lucia. The Cuban-born singer was busy with a new baby. I did learn the surprising news that she had decided to call her daughter by the title role. Fortunately she wasn't singing Brunhilde at the time.

Tenor Michael Fabiano is the other co-star of the show. At just 26, this rising star is at a critical time in his career. I wondered what it was like to try for the top of such a physically demanding art in front of thousands of people just waiting to see if you can pull it off or will collapse trying.

"It's true, people like to see singers get to the breaking point and then not break. That's what they cheer for. If they see singers being safe or they see singers break, they don't like it. So it's like tiptoeing in a house that has all wood floors or walking on a tightrope."

I wondered if there were nights he worried he wouldn't make it.

"I don't think there's any singer that doesn't face that. I think every singer has moments like that over the course of an evening or over the course a career."

It must be very stressful, doing that in front of a big room of people.

"Sure."

Because sometimes you don't make it.

"Sure. But it's rare, if you're good, that that happens."

Do singers have a short professional life span like athletes?

"It's so variable."

By physiology?

"It depends on how much a person's mind can stay with it. It's mind over matter. This career is a high pressure-cooker environment. You're constantly in the heat of the battle, all the time. It can get very competitive, and very fierce with other colleagues and other singers. Everybody wants to be on top and there's not much room."

Does it get vicious?

"That's the way it can be construed, but I find competition to be a good thing. I'm competitive with myself. It's a battle every day I get on stage.

Is the best part the end of the performance when you know you've survived?

"The best moment of doing it is when I'm on stage throwing my heart out there for everyone. It's not even about hitting the notes; it's about communicating something. I get the joy of being able to shout out all the things that lots of other people over the course of a day can't do. I get to talk about great things, bad things, horrors, my life, my job, all on stage, and I get to do it in a controlled scream which is singing."

Beautiful madness

Control was an interesting choice of words, as it turned out, because on opening night Fabiano came on like a star pitcher who quickly throws a few wild pitches that get everyone nervous. He didn't seem in sync with the role. Later he settled in to throw some real heat and earn his reputation as a singer to keep an eye and ear on.

In fact the tightrope might have seemed too high for everyone at the start of the evening. The orchestra and chorus began precariously. It sounded like we might be in for a trying night. But Dahl's rich baritone together with tenor John Arsenault helped settle the collective nerves, and by the time Gutierrez appeared as Lucia to sing her first aria, the train was on track and racing ahead thrillingly. The audience interrupted to thank Gutierrez with a vigorous ovation, an opera fandom thing that sometimes strikes me as weird -- we’re in a drama here, people -- but in this case it seemed justified.

Gutierrez continued with the heroics throughout, her voice an ideal counterpoint to the flute in the famous mad scene. The flute might be a flawless instrument but it's no match for a human in aural flight. For once this mad scene epitome of bel canto (beautiful singing) was less about "listen to this" and more like the great singing actresses of opera past, channeling vocal insanity.

If Gutierrez's voice tired a little towards the end, that could be forgiven. It had been through a lot. And so had we. Lucia was an emotionally engaging performance. It also looked fabulous, although I had to admit I found the main stage with its perspective view of castle walls as seen from the bottom of a well sometimes distracting. But that may have been just me, having been through a day-long CAD session that had me mentally reaching for a scroll wheel to tilt things back up.

Lucia di Lammermoor, fittingly for an opera, is demented. The plot's pivotal moment happens during intermission, then Lucia appears after murdering her husband to sing with achingly tender beauty, and the responses to the horror only add to the sweetness of the tragedy. The Vancouver Opera captures all this beautiful madness with verve. It's worth seeing even if you've never been to an opera before. There are two more performances, Thursday December 9, and ending Saturday, December 11.  [Tyee]

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