from Thursday, November3rd of the year2011.
Dark Sisters has been a fascinating adventure for me specifically as it relates to tech, and also, my own insane desire to make everybody happy all the time. It kills me to watch singers bored while lights are focussed around their bodies; it kills me to watch designers not have enough time to work. Specifically, what seems like a form of modern white slavery for the singers seems, somehow, to the design team to be an outrageous deficit of productive time. How these things align is a total mystery to me; one presumes that composers who enjoy the luxury of being long dead are left out of these arguments. It kills me to see the insane conflicting mutually exclusive relationships of putting together an opera all a-boil, but I also realize that it’s this shuttling between agendas that creates the friction and the fun of the work as it exists on stage. My job — which is, literally, to produce a document which, when read by x amount of singers and y amount of musicians in the presence of z amount of design professionals, produces something that we can all agree is an Opera — is done, and has been done for months. So now it’s more a parade of my own neuroses, combined with the herculean efforts of the various departments and the cast. It’s a fascinating emotional bardo: the dual temptations are to hide in my apartment all day, or be there every second and try to subtly imbue every transaction in the theater with benevolence and, put simply, a good attitude. It’s easy to spiral into obsessive questioning: why is that scrim blotchy? Who are all those people talking back there? Is that pipe on fire? What’s that smell? Is this time being spent as cleverly as it could be? I’m sure the props-mistress has her own share of obsessions: Why is that little dress, which looked so good in the rehearsal room, creating an après-ski effect from this distance? What color stationery would a 15 year-old girl in Utah use, anyway? Why is everything covered in diatomaceous earth?
In the last few days, we’ve put together the technical elements of the show. Like in Two Boys, the projections are integrated into the environment as elements of plot, not just decoration; this requires a lot more attention than one would imagine. A constant argument is whether or not projections can be demonstrated without the set, but of course, as projections are essentially stylized versions of lighting, one does need to see it in situ and not just on a laptop screen. Separately, the orchestra has been putting themselves together with the conductor. I’ve had a wild ride with the orchestra in this one — it’s essentially a pickup band made up of people who play with Gotham chamber opera normally. This is, however, that company’s first 21st century work, and so I’ve found myself having to explain some of the fundaments of my instrumental writing afresh. It’s a good exercise for me, as I’m very spoiled by my close circle of friends for whom the kind of string writing in Different Trains or Shaker Loops is as standard as Brahms. I’m also spoiled by a close circle of collaborators who can think site-specifically about vibrato: a little bit here, none there, full-tang Dorothy DeLay here, almost Chinese here. And Dark Sisters has, in it, many different kind of musics competing. There is a Martha Graham / Copland Americana wing of the thing that requires a mid-century borderline embarrassing technique, and then a close-up, Makrokosmos-style Meredith Monk meets Scelsi music that creeps out of the pit and into the soloists’ mouths. Then there are the kind of tight, sixth-based chords as one finds in Tehillim. It’s been fun to watch these stylistic things slowly settle into the players’ fingers.
An additional stress, of course, is doing advance press, although this time around has been marginally less hostile than I expected. There’s this fun, slightly multi-culti only in New York one here, and then this other one here, in which my interviewer slightly conflates my friendliness (perhaps misplaced?) with what reads, on the page, as if I’m experiencing an acute manic fugue (it’s been done before, by Gramophone, in which every utterance I made was rendered with several exclamation points).
A lot of people have been asking me what it’s like working with opera singers. Opera singers are, notoriously, difficult, which in itself is not a problem at all. In fact, difficulty can have its own kind of allure, in the sense of a good mark from a notoriously difficult teacher having more value than the same mark doled out by an easy one. And surely the process of becoming an adult is one of figuring out which of ones difficulties should be sanded down in the interests of being a functioning member of the community, and which can be left as distinguishing and endearing eccentricities. Our cast is excellent, and also young, so they’re still figuring out where this Difficulty Threshold is. A new piece always finds people’s breaking points, I should think, faster than rep, although I’ve heard stories of singers’ patience being tested by outrageous new stagings of older works. I’ve found an enormous joy in writing for these excellent singers, especially because I know from watching their dealings with the director and the stage management that they will not tolerate any of what they perceive to be bullshit. If a note seems weird to them or sits in a strange place in the voice, they’ll tell me. If a phrase would work better with a breath HERE rather than THERE, I’ll hear about it. Then we can negotiate. The whole thing is “difficult” only in the same way a hike can be difficult. And surely, the view from the summit is that much more delicious for it. I’ve always told the singers that once they learn the role, the mistakes they make will be in character. These singers have lived with this piece for months now, so their mistakes are always, always more beautiful than what I could have thought of at my desk. I hope everybody can come see this piece; we open in just under a week and run through November 19th, variously, in New York City. Then, this summer, on to Philadelphia! Click here for tickets & things.
November 3rd, 2011 at 10:42 pm
“Surely the process of becoming an adult is one of figuring out which of one’s difficulties should be sanded down in the interests of being a functioning member of the community, and which can be left as distinguishing and endearing eccentricities.”
Now that’s a most quotable quote (in fact, it’s now my Facebook status). It does rather assume that the figuring is the hard part compared to the sanding, though… if only!
November 4th, 2011 at 11:55 am
I came to quote only to see that I had been beaten to the punch. What a beautiful observation, and how indicative of one of the reasons why you, Nico, are so deeply loved. It makes me weep with happiness.
November 5th, 2011 at 5:40 pm
Amen and amen. You are an incredible source of insight and inspiration.
November 5th, 2011 at 5:43 pm
Second most quoteable quote: There is a Martha Graham / Copland Americana wing of the thing that requires a mid-century borderline embarrassing technique, and then a close-up, Makrokosmos-style Meredith Monk meets Scelsi music that creeps out of the pit and into the soloists’ mouths. Then there are the kind of tight, sixth-based chords as one finds in Tehillim.
Would that reviewers could think in such expansive-yet-specific terms. <3
November 7th, 2011 at 7:40 pm
Hey Nico – It was very keep-sweet to meet you today after the dress. I was the gorgeous blonde director, you were the brilliant composer in a tunic. Eve and Caitlyn were radiant. As to your blog, I love the barrage of questions one asks themselves during a technical. My personal favorites are, “How did I get here?” and “Where are the snacks?” Only in a process where the key tool is called a “God mic.”
November 9th, 2011 at 12:19 am
Thought you would be interested to know that the CBS affiliate in Salt Lake City featured Dark Sisters during a short segment tonight. They showed four or five promotional images from the show and mentioned the website. Glad to know your interest in the subject became something tangible for you. Congratulations and good luck with the performances.
November 9th, 2011 at 2:03 pm
I hope this post makes its way into some anthology for composers/playwrights, directors, techies, performers and producers.
And also an anthology of superb writing about the theater.
November 11th, 2011 at 1:46 pm
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