People shove their way through the doors of the Athenaeum Theater, removing scarves and stamping the snow from their feet. The lobby, drab and badly in need of painting, is filled with opera lovers in a mix of clothing styles, ranging from fur coats to pantsuits, from lettermen's jackets to tuxes to an occasional tweed sport coat. No one seems eager to leave the lobby and go inside, but many turn to watch Alan Stone, artistic director of the Chicago Opera Theater, wend his way through the crowd, a cane on one arm and Ardis Krainik of the Lyric Opera on the other. People make way for them, others stop in their conversations to stare, smiles forming: the symbolism is perfect. Krainik for many is the embodiment of Chicago's grand opera tradition and on this night she is here to support Chicago's other opera, not so grand perhaps, but equally important to anyone who loves opera as a living, dynamic art form. They pass through the theater doors and people return to their conversations. Soon the overhead lights blink once and then again, and the crowd squeezes through the doors into the theater.
Inside they find the seats quickly filling. On the armrest of each is a small box of Fannie Mae candy and, since this is the day before Valentine's Day, a card with a red heart in the middle wishing patrons a "Happy Valentine's Day from the Chicago Opera Theater." The houselights dim and a moment later Steve Larsen, the conductor, moves down the center aisle to polite applause and steps into the small orchestra pit before the stage. He taps the music stand, lifts his arms, and nods to the TV camera in front of him. The curtain rises in total silence, revealing a single female figure lying motionless on a stylized black and gold bier. A line of black-robed figures files silently onto the stage. Finally Larsen brings his arms down, the music begins, and the 1988 season of the Chicago Opera Theater opens with the first notes of Gluck's Orfeo and Euridice.
Among the features of this opening night are the sets designed by the sculptor Louise Nevelson for a 1984 production of Orfeo and Euridice by the Saint Louis Opera. Nevelson (who died last week, at age 88) had created a contemporary vision of one of opera's oldest scores, combining set design and costuming to create the atmosphere of a Greek myth put to music. The critical response to her vision was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. When the sets were made available to Chicago Opera Theater, it jumped at the chance to use them. But what COT produced was not a reproduction of the Saint Louis Opera's show, and its reason for doing Orfeo and Euridice in the first place had less to do with the Nevelson sets than it did with Alan Stone's connection to another woman from 30 years before.
Alan Stone is the Chicago Opera Theater, not only its founder and artistic director but an active participant in every show, with the final say about what will and will not be produced. "All the operas I choose. I am the first and last word on repertoire and that will stay that way as long as I'm able. I built the audience. I know what they want."
The building of that audience did not come overnight, nor did Stone arrive easily at his present position. In the 1950s he was a young tenor enjoying a modicum of success singing in Europe during the heyday of opera's last great superstar, Maria Callas. But a series of illnesses affected his voice for a while, and the sudden death of his father made him return to the United States. "That was an unhappy time for me," he now admits. "At that time it was very difficult for American singers to find roles in this country and after a while I just gave it up." Having developed a familiarity with Europe and a serviceable grasp of Italian, French, and Spanish, he decided to open a travel agency. "I was quite successful and I met a lot of interesting and wonderful people."
But eventually he missed the music; he began taking voice lessons again and became a member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Because of his command of Italian, Margaret Hillis, the chorus director, asked if he would be willing to work as the diction coach for the Italian pieces they performed. This led to a third career; as Stone tells it he soon found himself coaching some of the finest singers in Chicago, once more confronting the old frustration of local talent having to leave Chicago for New York or Europe in order to get worthy and challenging roles. He decided, he says, that the only way to give his pupils an opportunity to perform was to put together an opera himself "It was really a Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney kind of thing," he recalls with a smile. "You know, 'Hey, let's put on a show.'"
At the time there were no small opera companies in Chicago. One of Stone's first steps was to incorporate, which he did under the name Chicago Opera Studios Incorporated. Stone says this quite coincidentally formed the acronym COSI, which he took as a sign that his first production should be Mozart's Cosi fan tutti. The company began rehearsals in September of 1973 and presented its first performance--with cardboard sets, borrowed costumes, and a total budget of $7,000--in April of 1974, in the basement of Jones Commercial High School. Despite the minuscule budget, the show was well received by critics, and Stone is certain why: "What we had was tremendous voice coaching and a wonderful musical sound."
The success of Cosi fan tutti was enough to convince Stone that there was a niche in the city for a second opera company. "My original idea was to have COT occupy in a certain way musically the place New York City Opera held in the early 50s--a great deal of contemporary work and opera in English." He saw the company as an adjunct to the Lyric, rather than as a competitor. "We fill in a void they leave. We can be more contemporary, because they have the problem of filling so many seats and some operas are more appropriate in our small theater." Stone gave up the travel agency and threw himself into the new project. Since then, Chicago Opera Theater has changed its name, moved to the Athenaeum Theater, and expanded its annual budget to about $1,300,000. The company now has a full-time professional staff, which recently moved to a full floor of offices at 20 E. Jackson. The 1988 season comprises four operas with a total of 28 performances.
If you visit Alan Stone in his office, you can't help but be struck by how it reflects the traditions from which he's sprung. The walls are covered with black and white photographs; some show a young Stone in costume for the many roles he sang in the 50s; some show him schmoozing with celebrities and benefactors; even more show other singers who have been involved in his artistic life in one way or another. But as you sit across the desk from him, listening to him speak of this world with the delight of a little boy, you can easily miss the most important photo of all, because it's behind you, in a spot where Stone can, at any moment of the day, simply look up and remember. When he speaks of the photograph (and he invariably will), his voice verges on veneration. "That," he says, "is Lola d'Ancona, my mentor." The reason COT has begun its season with Orfeo and Euridice starts with this picture.
When Alan Stone was a young singer, he says, the voice coach who led him to understand the beauty of his own voice and the tradition of opera was Lola d'Ancona. And the opera Stone most associates with her is Orfeo and Euridice. "It's one of my favorite operas," he explains. "It was the opera I earned from Lola. One of my earliest remembrances is of hearing her singing it in 1950." When Stone created COT he intended to repay the artistic debt he owed her by performing the opera. "I promised her when she was around. I said, 'Lola, I want to do this in your honor.' Unfortunately she passed away several years ago and now I'm doing it in her memory."
Stone's early memory of Orfeo and Euridice also impressed on him a notion of what it should sound like and what version. (there are several) his company would do. "We had choices to make, but in my mind it was always the original, not of course with a castrato [the original part of Orfeo was written for Gaetano Guadagni, a famous Viennese castrato], but that role with a mezzo-soprano." The pieces began to come together in 1984, when both Stone and Steve Larsen, COT's music director, saw the Saint Louis production with the Nevelson sets and were impressed by the response it received. Stone started collecting librettos and looking for a voice that would fit the Orfeo he heard in his head. In 1985 Jennifer Jones performed the role of Tituba in COT's The Crucible, and Stone knew then he'd found his Orfeo. "Even in 1984, when I first heard her, I said, 'That's an Orfeo voice.' It's a very special kind of voice, very unusual, a low contralto, and that's what Jennifer is."
A tall black figure in glimmering silver robes rushes onto the stage, stares wildly at the figure on the bier, then turns away in anguish and back again. The line of robed figures files by the bier, draping the body with large stylized necklaces. Some approach Orfeo with consoling touches, but he shrugs them off, rushes across the stage, clutching at his throat, eyes wide in the madness of grief. He sings in broken phrases of his loss, turning to the audience as if the answers are waiting beyond the stage lights. Of course no answers come back. The voice rises in pain and anger. The robed figures hang their heads; some turn away, unable to look on the defeated Orfeo.
The Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is the story of young death, and of the inability of even great love and courage to overcome the finality of death. Orpheus is a musician who plays so beautifully even the stones follow him. He falls in love and marries Eurydice, but she suddenly dies and he's left alone with his grief. Orpheus pursues her even in death, taming the furies at the gates of the underworld with his music and completing the perilous journey into Hades, where no living man has gone before. He charms the gods of the underworld and they agree to let him return with Eurydice, but only under the condition that he not look back on her until he is completely past the gates of Hades and again in the living. He agrees, but is unable to resist taking a peek at his bride. He loses her again and this time forever. He spends the rest of his life wandering the land and playing laments. In the end he spurns the advances of the Thracian women and they rip his body apart, burying the pieces in various spots of the ancient world. His head finds its final resting place at the foot of Mount Olympus, where to this day the nightingales sing more beautifully than anywhere else on earth.
The myth has been a favorite of opera composers ever since the idea of opera was born in 1580. By the time Gluck produced his version in 1762, the myth had already been treated by many other composers, most successfully by Monteverdi, but Gluck brought to his version a new vision of what opera should be, and perhaps no opera has been as influential as this one on subsequent composers. The baroque opera of the time was little more than a story appended to a series of complex arias, whose chief purpose was to show off the popular voices of the day. Gluck's intention was to create an opera that connected the narrative more completely with the music to form what he termed a "noble simplicity." When one wishes to keep to the truth, Gluck wrote, "one's style must be adapted to the subject that is being created. The greatest beauties of melody and harmony become imperfections when they are out of place in the whole." This sensibility produced an Orfeo and Euridice that held together as a dramatic work, both musically and theatrically, as no opera before it had done.
In creating this new opera, Gluck and his librettist, Ranieri Calzabigi, were not hesitant about changing the myth to suit their own sensibilities. They added a character--the god of love, Amore, who challenges the grieving Orpheus to regain his love--and they changed the story from a tragedy (with Orpheus losing his Eurydice forever) to a romance (in which Eurydice is brought back to life at the end because of their great love). The latter change is particularly problematic for modern audiences, and some 20th-century productions of the opera simply ignore it, leaving Eurydice dead at the end.
In the midst of Orfeo's grief a short boyish figure approaches and reveals that he is Amore, the god of love, who has come to offer Orfeo a way to regain his lost Euridice. At first Orfeo is angered by the interruption, but he listens as Amore, his voice light and almost playful, tells him what he can do. Amore says that he must tame the furies in the cave of Tartarus, and when he leads his beloved back to life, he must never look back or he'll lose her forever. The figures on the stage begin to weave a pattern, and when they are done the body of Euridice is no longer on the bier and Orfeo is staring at the writhing bodies of the furies. Amore approaches, hands Orfeo the harp, and steps back; a smile takes form on his face, as though he is pleased by the splendid sport he is having with this naive mortal.
For conductor Steve Larsen, it's the harp that reveals the unity of the opera Gluck had in mind and justifies the happy ending. "Monteverdi used what sounds like a Byzantine sephardic chant to charm the furies, but Gluck uses the harp. The harp is the symbol of Orfeo's ability to charm the furies and overcome death. Otherwise all we have is that Orfeo screwed up and lost his wife. It was a convention of the time that Gluck chose to follow, but remember not one composer ended this myth unhappily. There is a difference between tragedy and unhappiness and Gluck didn't want it to end tragically. He didn't write it that way and that's not what it's supposed to mean." Listening to Larsen speak, one has the suspicion this is not the first time he's had to argue his own view of the ending. His involvement with this score began long before he started rehearsing the orchestra. He also worked as a librettist, a translator, and a musicologist for this production. As he continues speaking it becomes clear whom he's disagreed with: "The composer wrote the opera and we have to take that point of view. We have to produce this on the level of opera. There were two aspects of opera back then, music and visual--there was little drama. New directors serve the god of drama." It is also obvious who won the argument: "I like the way it is, personally."
This is the eighth opera Steve Larsen has conducted for the Chicago Opera Theater. He is also the company's artistic administrator and the music director of the Opera Theatre of San Antonio. Larsen is a native Chicagoan; he received his MA in conducting from Northwestern University and then studied for a year in Holland with the Russian conductor Kyril Kondrashin.
The conductor's job in an opera is the sound. He is responsible for selecting the score, prepping the musicians, balancing the levels, and protecting the integrity of the composer's intention, as he sees that intention. Leading the orchestra during the performance is only the culmination of his duties.
Larsen's involvement with this opera began in Saint Louis. He says that he and Alan Stone saw the Saint Louis production at different times, "and that's where the idea began to get kicked around." They started to look for librettos, but at this point the production was just a possibility. "There are lots of operas we decide to do that we don't end up doing for one reason or another. Maybe the right singers aren't available or we can't find a good English translation or for whatever reason it just doesn't work out. But the final impetus to do this opera, although Alan always wanted to do it, was when the Nevelson sets were made available to us. Who could resist?"
Once the decision was firmly made, Larsen's first problem was to select an English translation of the libretto. "What we thought we'd do was use the Andrew Porter translation that Saint Louis used. We'd done a couple of Andrew Porter translations before and they'd always turned out to be excellent translations, but when we got the score it just didn't appeal to us. It was very colloquial, in keeping with the production in Saint Louis, but for Alan and me the piece has a great deal of poetry about it, and somehow trying to transmit that to the audience in contemporary English just didn't feel right." Larsen also looked at a version done by the English National Opera, but again was dissatisfied. "Some of the older translations went the other way. You can't say 'Why dost thou forsaketh me,' and expect a modern audience to accept that."
Larsen and Stone finally found a translation that pleased them in an unlikely place, a Shirmer score with a translation by Walter DuCloux. It was not even a translation of the original 1762 libretto, but a translation of a French libretto put together by Berlioz in the 19th century. The arias and choral parts had been beautifully translated, but the recitatives, having been rearranged by Berlioz, did not fit with the original score that Stone and Larsen wanted to use. "Finally I threw the whole thing out and ended up translating many of the recits from scratch," Larsen says. Thus he served as midwife for the production, bringing the final musical version together as a whole.
Of course the final words at COT are always Alan Stone's. "People who love this opera," Larsen says, "come to it with a 19th-century approach, in its grand opera form. My memories of it are from an early-music point of view. Alan's memory of this piece is a very romantic, very 19th-century approach. I always tried to convince him, sometimes unsuccessfully, that the earlier versions of the recits were preferable to the later recits." But Larsen is happy with what they finally arrived at. "I think to a greater extent we got the best of both worlds in the final version."
Orfeo moves into a mass of bodies writhing and straining on the floor, as the chorus behind the scrim echoes the furies' anguish and hate. Orfeo sings of his own anguish and pleads for entrance; the music of his voice drives the bodies back, but only for a moment; they surge forward again, grasping at his cloak, tearing at his arms. Amore watches, offering the harp to Orfeo. He takes it and plays. The furies retreat, and Orfeo sets the harp aside to plead his case once more. The furies, as if a single animal with one mind, close in on him and cover his body with their own. For a moment Orfeo disappears beneath their weight, but suddenly he bursts out, throwing them off in anger. He charms them one last time with the harp, and without hesitation this time strides past their prostrate bodies and offstage, into the underworld.
Once the decision was reached to do the opera, a director had to be found. By the summer of 1987 Stone had hired Rhoda Levine, a successful director of recent operas who had also done a version of Orfeo and Euridice in Europe. It was she who wished, in Steve Larsen's words, to "serve the god of drama."
"Alan served as the intermediary between Rhoda and myself," Larsen recalls. At times the need for mediation was apparent, he says, although for the most part they worked out their differences amicably. "For instance, Rhoda wanted to cut a small ballo [dance] in the last act and I could see how it was a problem dramatically. We had to ask ourselves, does it serve a purpose other than a scene change, which we didn't need to make? No, it didn't, so we took it out." But not all disagreements were settled as easily. "There are certain things that are inviolable and Rhoda came with several suggestions that Alan and I just had to say no to." Among those was the single most important difference between the conductor's view of the opera and the director's: the production Levine had done in Europe ended unhappily.
Though Orfeo and Euridice was Rhoda Levine's Chicago debut, her reputation was well-established in New York and Europe. She had recently directed the premiere of The Life and Times of Malcolm X for the New York City Opera and had received a National Institute for Music Theater award for 1987 (along with Philip Glass and George Abbott). She brought with her not only an enormous amount of experience, but some fully formed ideas about opera in general and Orfeo and Euridice in particular.
The director's role, Levine believes, is "to become the advocate of the audience and create a clarity, both visually and emotionally or intellectually." The director's responsibility is to create the action and movement onstage. She must determine the emotional content of a given scene and reflect that in the movement and expression of the individual characters. In an opera this movement must be coordinated tightly with the music. She is also responsible for coordinating the dance sequences (which for this production were choreographed by Lynda Martha and danced by her Evanston-based company) with the rest of the action. The director must do a great deal of interpretation, and for an opera director a great deal of this interpretation is based on a response to the music.
Rhoda Levine's approach to directing is not confrontational. She sees it as a process, a combining of divergent talents to create a unified artistic expression. "The most important thing about the process is that we are interested together and have a good time so that we provoke each other's imagination." This process begins immediately. "The first thing I do is meet the actors and sit down and talk about who we are. And then I say, 'What is this opera about?' and they talk about that. Generally they agree with what I saw. Then we ask questions of each other and we shape it that way. It's a collaboration from the beginning." There is a process of discovery throughout, an interaction between what Levine first imagines and what she discovers in working with the talent around her. "I'm really interested in this process by which the actors enhance what I'm thinking about. I vaguely imagine what will happen. It's the process of rehearsal that makes things better for you."
Levine's own idea of Orfeo and Euridice is that "it's about our hopes and fears when we feel death as abandonment, and it's about tests. This little Amore says you can have your wife back if you pass a test, but Orfeo's needs and his humanity won't allow him to succeed. We must genuinely create the feeling of abandonment. That is a scene we have all played in our life." The opera that Rhoda Levine sees is a much darker one than Steve Larsen's. "I was struck by the kind of maliciousness that Amore has. She acts as a kind of witness. [In this production Amore is a trouser role--a woman playing a man's part; keeping the genders straight is not something opera people tend to worry about.] This is a game she creates, these people are her movie, they are pervaded by love and fear and she enjoys it. That's why she walks off after Orfeo fails the test." just as Steve Larsen defends his views with history, so does Rhoda Levine. "I was not the only one who saw Amore as malicious. Berlioz also saw him that way when he reworked the score."
But to Rhoda Levine opera should never be simply historical. "People too often think of opera as something in the past. You walk by and say, 'Ain't that lovely,' but these pieces are about us." The dark side, as well, was in Gluck's mind when he wrote Orfeo and Euridice. "He wrote when he was creating the French version that the tenor [the Orfeo in that version] should cry out as if he's just had his legs cut off. And if Gluck relates from his gut that way, if he would say something like that, he's talking our language."
Levine sees the ending that was eventually agreed on as a way to experience the opera in a new way. "I have a hard time with the ending," she admits, "but I had to ask myself, 'How did it feel for Gluck,' and I found out. That's OK too."
The dancers lift themselves from the floor as the music begins to change, as do the dancers' costumes and the lighting, until we have left the cave of Tartarus behind and entered the Elysian Fields, abode of the blessed dead. For the first time the Nevelson set shines brightly through the dark scrim, a large wall of geometric shapes of gold. The music and the dance have taken on a gentle air as Orfeo enters with Amore. He watches the Blessed Spirits in amazement, but not for long. Even their grace and beauty cannot salve the loss of his beloved Euridice. Where is she? he asks, but at first the Blessed Spirits look only dumbfounded at his figure, astonished at the mortal in their midst. Orfeo wanders to the front of the stage and sits with his back to the Elysian Fields; he doesn't see his Euridice enter. She dances with the spirits, glancing once or twice at the strange figure with his back, turned to her. She seems to remember something, but what? She sings an aria of her joy at being in the Elysian Fields. Only the figure of Orfeo, brooding on the bench, dims the brightness. When she finishes the Blessed Spirits lead her to his figure. He stands and reaches back his hand. Will she come with him? She looks to her friends first, but finally takes the hand. Orfeo, never looking back, leads her offstage. As she goes, she waves good-bye to the Elysian Fields. The curtain drops.
By January 18 the singers are in town and the voice coaching has begun. Alan Stone, as he has for every opera since the founding of the company, works with the individual singers to impress his style on the voices. Many of the coaching sessions are held in his apartment with Steve Larsen, Philip Bauman (the assistant conductor), and Judith Jackson (the repetiteur and principal pianist) present to give their input. Music rehearsals begin January 22 for the principal singers. Rhoda Levine is in town for a production meeting on the 24th and begins leading the staging rehearsals on the 25th, at Curtis Hall on the tenth floor of the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue.
While the singers, dancers, and musicians rehearse, another arm of COT is occupied with more practical considerations. On February 2, Jim Freeman, the production manager/technical director, gathers his crew at the Athenaeum Theater to erect the Nevelson set. "I always think of putting a show on as building a house," Freeman says. The crew he's put together are professionals in various theater disciplines; to them this is simply a job.
Freeman's task is to transform artistic concepts into physical reality. "I'm the one who has to make the practical decisions. No matter what anyone says they want to happen, it has to be physically possible." His work does not begin with the building of the set; for him no less than for the others, what finally appears onstage is only the end of a long creative process. "I'm responsible for the organization and communication with the artistic director for the preproduction period where the designer, the director, and our artistic staff discuss the piece and made decisions about the direction we're going to take. There has to be an active interchange. If anyone stops listening things go off."
The Nevelson set presents special difficulties. "We didn't create this set, we inherited it. Apparently it was constructed from a model in the Nevelson studio, but the model is an art object in itself and is in someone's collection somewhere and the crew that put it together originally made no notations." That the set was created by a sculptor, not an experienced set designer, makes Freeman wary. "Visual artists from other disciplines don't always have a sensitivity to the demands of dramatic production. They don't really think about what performers need to work with and they have no idea what a lighting designer can do with scenery." He approaches the challenge with a smile. "It can be very exciting and very difficult at the same time."
By the time the crew gathers to build the set, work has already been done on the Athenaeum Theater to prepare it for the 1988 season. Two lighting towers, constructed of black metal pipes, fill the balconies on either side of the stage. At 6:30 PM, crew members climb the back stairs carrying toolboxes; several wear portable power drills in holsters, looking for all the world like hired guns come to town for the big shootout. They stash their tools in a corner, raise the stage curtain, and begin lowering the traveler curtains at the back of the stage. These large, heavy curtains are laid out on the stage and folded. There is only the vaguest sense of a chain of command, as Freeman himself lends a shoulder in shoving the curtains into a stand offstage. As the curtains disappear, other crew members are busy laying out rolls of wire and taping labels to the plugs.
With the travelers down, the stage looks like an enormous, badly organized garage. Ladders and folding chairs are lined against the bare brick walls; old lights and forgotten cables are strewn about haphazardly; dust is everywhere. A naked stage is a very undramatic place. The only things that look vaguely theatrical are two winding metal staircases that look left over from a production of Phantom of the Opera.
A metal bar is lowered from overhead; cables are tied to it and the bar is raised. More cables are unrolled, taped to the floor, and attached to more metal bars, which also disappear overhead. Two young crew members, a man and woman, climb over the towers in the balconies as though they were monkey bars, stringing cable and then attaching small cannonlike lights that they aim at particular spots on the stage. No one seems in charge as the crew members wander across the stage, occasionally stopping to stare at the acrobatics of the two on the monkey bars. Every so often someone yells, "Loose tools overhead," but no one seems to pay attention. Freeman occasionally rolls out a set of blueprints on the floor and stares at them, marking a spot with his finger and then looking up to find it on the stage.
At 8:30 Freeman hands brooms to two crew members; the floor is swept and the curtain lowered. A black metal overhead door is opened at the back of the stage and a rented truck backed up to it. Freeman and three crew members begin to unload rolls of black rubber mats. Before anything else is taken out of the truck, the mats are rolled out and taped down so they cover the entire stage. Now other crew members start unloading long aluminum braces that they stack against the brick wall. A large red object, partially covered with bubbled plastic, comes out of the truck and someone yells, "Where do you want the harp?"
Freeman is staring into the back of the truck, hands on his hips. He sighs, remembers the question, and says, "Stage left, somewhere"; then he disappears into the truck, as if beginning a long journey. He emerges holding one end of a long section of plywood--the first piece of the Nevelson set, which Freeman describes as "A highly textured wall, beastly heavy." This piece is followed by dozens more. The numbers on the back are checked and they are stacked in order against the stage curtain. Various other pieces are removed as well: square wooden boxes that will later be assembled into columns; more aluminum strips; a bag full of chains and another with screws. When the truck is finally emptied and its various contents are laid out, they look like a jigsaw puzzle for a Quonset hut.
There's a break in the work as pictures of the set from the Saint Louis production are handed out. Freeman is inspecting the plywood pieces and shaking his head. The panels have warped because the backs were not "black painted"--just one of several indications that a sculptor rather than a set designer created them. "We should be able to straighten them out with the frame," Freeman says.
The tech crew has to be out of the theater by midnight, but they don't begin assembling the Nevelson set until 11. The labels are checked and rechecked, the photographs are studied, and finally the pieces are laid face down on the stage floor. The aluminum strips, which will serve as a frame, are placed over the sections, and then three crew members quickly attach the frame with screws, walking over the backs of the sections to get at the middle, their portable drills whining in the silence. To the art world this may be a masterpiece; to a tech crew it is simply a beastly heavy wall that needs to be assembled. What's lying on the stage now is only the top portion of that wall. When it's been put together, everything comes to a stop.
"How much stage weight do we have?" Freeman yells to someone offstage.
Stage weight is used to counterbalance anything that needs to be lifted aloft. If you need to lift a hundred pounds, you counterbalance it with a hundred pounds of stage weight and then lifting it becomes easy. A stage curtain weighs several hundred pounds but is easily raised because of stage weight.
A voice from the side finally answers, "Two hundred fifty." Freeman looks overhead and then down at the assembled section. "Not enough, we'll have to finish this tomorrow." When the crew leaves that night most of the Nevelson set is still stacked against the curtain.
Problems continued with the set; because of its size and weight it would take two extra days before it was in place. The wall could not simply be assembled in a single piece and lifted up, because the aluminum frame was too flimsy and would have bent. It had to be taken up in sections, and even then, using all the stage weight they could get, the crew couldn't get it up the final few inches. They finally had to jerry-rig several blocks and tackles and winch the set into place. Then they discovered that the old theater had settled unevenly, leaving a nine-and-one-half-inch dip at one end of the stage. They shimmed the bottom of the set with wooden blocks. On opening night it looked as if it had always been there, much the way houses often do.
The houselights come up for intermission and the audience filters out into the lobby. Conversations work their way around opera; little is said about tonight's offering.
"Is Nevelson here? I'm such a fan of hers."
"This, why it's my Lyric scarf, don't you just love it?"
"What's the song Callas did?"
"'I've lost my Euridice,' but hers was the French version."
The major hitch in the night's proceedings occurs in the lobby, where a long line has formed to buy coffee. Only one pot has been made and it's quickly gone. Before the second pot can be brewed the houselights flicker and people return to their seats. A thin, steady stream of fresh coffee continues to fill the pot as the waiting line disappears.
Curtis Hall is a large empty room with a small stage on the tenth floor of the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. At 7 PM on February 4, the room is filling with dancers, singers, musicians, and supporting staff for a staging rehearsal of the last act of Orfeo and Euridice. The dancers are easy to spot, not only because of their tights and leg warmers, but because from the moment they enter to the time they leave three hours later, they are continually stretching and loosening muscles. In the center of the room is the Nevelson bier and along the walls are tall staffs topped with different shapes, gold on one side and black on the other. Outside a steady snow has been falling; the room's windows offer a breathtaking view of the park and the traffic on Lake Shore Drive beyond, but no one bothers to look.
A large pot of coffee fills the room with its smell. Occasionally a male voice can be heard warming up out in the hall. "Ah ah ah ah ah ah ahhhhhh." Members of the chorus walk to the stacked poles and test them for weight. Dancers spread themselves out on the floor, touching their heads to one knee and then the other. One of the chorus members watches, transfixed, and then shivers at the thought of having to do that with her own body.
Finally Juli Walker, the stage manager, yells out, "All right, everybody, gather round," and the crowd slowly forms a half circle before her as she continues to speak. "Everybody, everybody. OK, I'd like to introduce Jan Watson, she'll be calling the shots backstage and I'm sure you'll give her the same respect you show me." There's laughter. Walker adds, "You get the point."
Rhoda Levine steps to the "stage," an area defined by masking tape laid on the floor. "Let's start. . . ." She hesitates and Juli Walker yells "Quiet!" so effectively that even the traffic noise outside seems to pause. Levine begins again, "Let's start just before Orfeo's song." Joyce Guyer (Euridice), dressed in black pants, lies on the floor in the center of the room and Jennifer Jones (Orfeo), wearing knee pads under her gray and white caftan, kneels over her. The chorus lines up in two rows, each member carrying one of the Nevelson staffs. "Someone is missing." A name is called out. "Juli, where are you? Oh, you've already taken his place. Beautiful, wonderful. Let's walk through it one time. Ready and . . ." Levine claps out a beat as the chorus comes onstage. Two of the dancers without poles spread their arms, as if they were wearing capes, and help Euridice to rise and mount the bier.
"What happened?" Levine walks onstage. Several people chime in. She asks others where they are supposed to end up and how they got where they are. She thinks for a moment and says, "If you go around, will you still have time to make your spot?" They give her a doubtful look. "Just a little quicker and you should have it," she says. "Let's try it again." They return to their starting positions offstage, she claps, and they're off. People bump into each other. "All right," Levine yells. She walks back onstage and addresses a young woman. "Dear, where do you end up?" She listens and then says, "And there's not enough time. Yes, I see, you're absolutely right. What should we do?" For a moment there's silence; everyone stares at Rhoda Levine. "George Balanchine would have figured this out in a second." Someone finally suggests a solution and they try it a third time.
After the third run Levine turns to Steve Larsen and says "This time we'll try it with the music. Just after Orfeo's song."
Jennifer Jones asks, "What do you want me to sing?"
"Just the last note, a sound will do."
"Quiet!" Juli Walker screams. Jones sings the note, and Steve Larsen lifts his hands to conduct his rehearsal orchestra of one, a pianist. This time there is something wrong with the dancers holding the cape. They do it again. The dancers who are not in this section continue to stretch. Lynda Martha, the choreographer, has taken out some needlepoint. More small changes are made as they do it again and again and again. After the tenth try Levine says, "All right, one last time," but she stops them in the middle and they start again. Before the 13th attempt she says, "When you come out make sure your poles are with the dark side facing the audience."
Everything goes smoothly this time. "Let's do it again and then I want you to do it backward." The joke provokes only polite laughter. About ten minutes later, after running through some recits and solos by the primary singers, Levine asks, "Would you like to take a break now?" Without an answer, everyone starts for the exit.
After the break Steve Larsen hands out sheet music to the chorus. "This is an alternate ending I discovered. Just try to sight-read it." Smiles spread across the singers' faces and the piano begins. It's a sprightly, syrupy piece that they sing with gusto. Rhoda Levine does a soft shoe and then salutes and marches in place with a limp. When the song is finished, the dancers applaud and the chorus members tear up the sheet music, laughing.
The curtain rises to reveal the two lovers in the cave of Tartarus, wending their way back to the world of the living. Orfeo is tall and stoic, but Euridice is confused. She asks why he is treating her so. Why is he being so cruel? Orfeo cringes at the barbs, but can say nothing. In the shadows lurks Amore, keeping tabs on his cruel game. In desperation Euridice asks why Orfeo has taken her from the place she loves so much only that she should die again from his disdain. Anguished and confused, Orfeo struggles away, but finally unable to bear her pain any longer he turns. The audience gasps; Euridice slumps to the floor. Orfeo has loved but one woman all his life, and now he has lost her twice.
On February 7 the three featured singers, the orchestra, the conductor, and Alan Stone gather at the Athenaeum for what is called a Sitzprobe, a rehearsal in which the orchestra is matched with the voices to balance the sound levels and coordinate the timing. The singers, perched on chairs at the front of the stage, are dressed in street clothes, including their coats--the heating system has been turned off so its noise won't interfere with the delicate balances they are searching for. Alan Stone sits a few rows from the stage near the center aisle, the score laid out before him on a drawing board. Steve Larsen stands in front of the orchestra, which is stuffed into a small, unsunken pit separated from the audience by a waist-high wooden barrier.
In the Sitzprobe each aria is gone through in full voice with the orchestral accompaniment. If the music doesn't fit perfectly with the singer's interpretation, adjustments have to be made, generally by the orchestra. At first only Jennifer Jones and Rondi Charlston (Amore) are onstage because Euridice doesn't sing until the Elysian Fields scene. Their approaches to the Sitzprobe are very different. Charlston sings her piece and wait for Steve Larsen's comments. Jones has a question or comment after every melody she sings. "Am I going too slow on this?"
"No, you're just fine."
"If I come in on that note I cant hear myself."
"You can come in a little later, but I just want to avoid air between."
Larsen stands at his podium, pencil in hand. Anything that sounds even a bit off is changed, the score reworked on the spot. "Let's cut from two and a half notes before the letter G to two and a half notes before the letter I." To the average ear the changes are imperceptible, but then operas are not performed for people with average ears; opera aficionados hear the types of bugs that are being worked out on this day, or at least they claim to.
Steve Larsen is the focus. He does 90 percent of the talking; the musicians and singers respond to him. At one point he runs a line through his score and says, "Cut the harpsichord in that whole section." Then he looks into the pit and adds, "Don't take it so personally." The next run-through, the harpsichord is silent. Only once does Alan Stone call Larsen over and make a suggestion. "We don't want her fighting the orchestra," he says. Larsen says, "Fine," and returns to the podium.
Of the three singers only Rondi Charlston is a native Chicagoan (and she now lives in New York). She has sung leading roles with the Fort Worth Opera, Augusta Opera, Lake George Opera Festival, and Chamber Opera Theater of New York; she is the recipient of the Liederkranz and Artist International awards. She is a short woman with long blond hair that she will sacrifice after the Siizprobe to better look the part of Amore. "It's not a major role for me, but the production is a fine one," she says. "I'm particularly impressed with the preparation they take."
Joyce Guyer is making her Chicago debut in the role of Euridice, but brings with her an impressive history of major roles, including Gilda in Rigoletto for the New York City Opera, a company she thinks COT compares favorably with. Of the three major roles in this production, only hers demanded a drastic alteration of costume, because she is a considerably taller woman than the Euridice in the Saint Louis Opera production. Euridice's main aria is in the cave of Tartarus, where, Guyer says, "She lays a big guilt trip on Orfeo." When asked about the ending she answers without equivocation, "I don't like it, but that was Gluck I guess. It doesn't fit with the original myth, which I think is very beautiful without a happy ending."
Jennifer Jones, who sings the part of Orfeo, disagrees. "Without the ending you have a whole opera of Robert Stack." If these don't sound like the words of an opera diva, that's probably because Jones views herself as simply a singer; opera is just a type of music she sings. Her original intention was to be a music teacher, but when that didn't work out she fell back on the tremendous vocal instrument God gave her. "At one time I thought of becoming a rock singer," she says. "A Whitney Houston type. I had a contract and everything, but the recording industry is a terrible place. The people are so insincere." Jones found opera to be a world interested less in hype than in talent. She has been busy as an opera singer, primarily in Europe, but she has performed twice before in Chicago, as Tituba in COT's production of The Crucible and with the Chicago Symphony in Die Meistersinger. Onstage she is a striking figure who moves with energy and power. Offstage she is every bit as dynamic, but a good deal more personal. "One of the things I had to learn for this was how to act like a man. Rhoda kept saying, 'You're hugging her like a woman,' and I didn't know what she meant. She had to show me that and also how to hold the knife, because at first I was more worried about breaking a nail." She is a quick study; her Orfeo moves across the stage with an intensity and a presence that dominate the other characters.
After the Sitzprobe the work goes on for another week: there are staging run-throughs of the entire opera, piano-accompanied dress rehearsals, a full-orchestra dress rehearsal, orchestra evaluation . . . Through all of it, the fine tuning continues and small problems arise--a lighting cue doesn't work right, the bier glares on the balcony, a costume can't be found. But by February 13, they are ready, and on opening night they are all there to see the child their shared labor has produced--a child they no longer have any control over.
Orfeo looks down at his beloved wife, dead once more. He lifts his face and begins to sing, "I have lost my Euridice." This is not the end--Gluck's happy ending is yet to come--but it is the moment the entire opera has worked toward. This is the aria the audience knew before coming to the theater. This is the aria whose beauty Steve Larsen was looking for in the librettos he searched through. This is the aria that laments the loss of love, the emotions that Rhoda Levine saw as the opera's connection to our lives. This must be the aria that Alan Stone hears in his memory when he thinks of his beloved mentor Lola d'Ancona singing the part. But all of these artists are helpless now; despite their months of work, there is nothing they can do to make it come out right. In the end, opera is a single human voice filling a theater with its sound, its emotion, its drama, and in this moment all the 200 years of history this song has gone through will mean nothing if Jennifer Jones cannot make us believe. A single voice, naked on the stage, and no more.
She sings, she makes us believe, the aria ends, and the applause begins.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.