Courtesy of OPERA America
Many people believe that what sets opera apart from theater, symphony, or dance is the voice. It is not that simple. In addition to the voices, opera combines the glories of all the performing and visual art forms. Some of the most beautiful orchestral works are overtures, preludes, and intermezzos from operas. Dance is frequently featured in the choreography of operas, and the visual arts are on prominent display with scenic, lighting, and costume elements. While many famous operas were created by composers and librettists no longer living, the art form is continually renewing itself with the help of some of today's greatest living creative artists.
The grandeur of opera productions and the challenge of the art form attracts many creative artists, including some who have made their mark in areas other than opera. From the dance field, choreographers Mark Morris and Martha Clarke have directed operas. From film and television, examples of such crossover artists include Bruce Beresford, director of Driving Miss Daisy; Charles Nelson Reilly, an actor whose career spans from being a regular on Match Game to a voice on SpongeBob SquarePants; and Garry Marshall, an actor and director of movies including Pretty Woman, directed Los Angeles Opera's The Duchess of Gerolstein in 2005. Stage directors determine the movement of the actors and also work with the principal artists to create an interpretation that resonates with modern audiences.
Designers are important partners in this process. Set and lighting designers create the canvas on which the action takes place, often providing the first indication of the tone of a tale before it begins to unfold. Costume, wig, and make-up designers help tell the visual tale, and the appearances they design can help the actors get the feel for their character. Before The Lion King hit Broadway, designer Julie Taymor was well known in the opera industry, and she continues to be a presence. Most recently she directed the world premiere of Grendel at Los Angeles Opera. Other well-known opera designers include artist David Hockney, architect Frank Gehry, children's author Maurice Sendak, and fashion designers Isaac Mizrahi, Bob Mackie, and Gianni Versace (who until his passing designed costumes at La Scala in Milan).
During a performance, the activity backstage can be as exciting and dramatic as the performance onstage. Set changes require numerous stage hands, while lighting and title cues must correspond exactly with the live music. Elaborate costumes must be at the ready for quick changes as singers hurry from scene to scene. Offstage musicians complement the action and keep pace by watching the conductor on a monitor. The person who is in charge backstage during the production is the stage manager. Out front, the person in charge is the conductor. From the moment the conductor first picks up the baton, every singer and musician (on and offstage) watches the conductor to ensure the performance is musically tight. The stage manager gives cues for light, set, and costume changes, as well as actors' entrances, based on the beat of the conductor.
Like great plays and other works of literature, opera tells stories with universal themes. Opera uses the singing voice to further heighten the drama; recitative (sung dialogue) takes the place of spoken dialogue, and arias take the place of soliloquies. Opera ensembles do something that spoken theater cannot: they convey simultaneously thoughts and emotions of several people at one time. Musical themes played by the orchestra have great importance; they can give hints of what a character is feeling (even as he or she says something different), and foreshadow future events.
Whether the composer/librettist team is contemporary or from centuries past, and regardless of the musical style or the production qualities that go into the staging, opera is very much a living, breathing art form. Audiences are touched by the relevant stories, delighted by the beauty of the stage art, and mesmerized by the power of the non-amplified music.
The articles below (in PDF format) provide insight into the various roles of opera's creators. (In order to view PDF documents, you first need to download and install the FREE Adobe Acrobat Reader.)
Acting Opera (313K)
Serving the Production (240K)
Technique Meets Technology (349K)
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