Sunday, May 18, 2008

Opera rehearsal: The kid stays in the show

Today we head off to San Francisco for Sophie's fifth rehearsal for her part as a supernumerary in SF Opera's Das Rheingold. These early rehearsals are held at the Zellerbach Rehearsal Stage, just around the corner from the opera house.

Forty children are cast as the Nibelungs, slaves who toil beneath the earth mining gold for the tyrant Alberich. This staging of the Ring cycle sets the story in early America, using imagery from the Gold Rush and the Roaring Twenties. The children mime pulling gold from the walls and ground and then load bags of gold into mining cars, cowering from Alberich and his whip all the while. At the first rehearsal the staff directing the children explain the story and where the children's role fits into it. They explain lots of other good things to know: why the opera is in German, what's so important about gold, and what the kids can expect from the rehearsal schedule. And they make it very clear that the actor playing Alberich is really a very nice man who likes children very much and would never actually hurt them. And the parents are all assuming he has considerable practice using a leather bullwhip and would never accidentally hit a kid.

Sorry these pictures aren't better. I have to shoot from a platform over on the side or a catwalk across the pit and up the wall, without a flash. Yes, I asked permission and was unofficially granted it so long as no one noticed. I haven't taken many pictures at later rehearsals because I assume it would not be ok to photograph the principals as they rehearse with the kids.

The rehearsals are much like I imagine a drama class would be. They start off with stretching, breathing, and other activities to transition the kids from their ordinary day and help them focus on the task at hand. But unlike a children's' drama class, I'm not paying hundreds of dollars (Sophie receives a small stipend that doesn't ever my gas and bridge tolls but that she thinks is enormous). And although I'm sure many high-level drama classes include professional actors, there's something unique about the kids working with people who are actually working. In the interest of encouraging professional behavior, Sophie and I have talked a lot about how for the adults she works with are not there just for fun. These are their jobs, and when they're at rehearsal or performing, they're working. I also remind her that this is not about her, it's about something much larger—the production, the art. I suppose it's just a characteristic of childhood that this is a foreign concept.

The early rehearsals focused mostly on who goes where and basic action.

Sophie was thrilled to be chosen as one of the "ladder kids." She's at the bottom of the second ladder from the right. This will be very handy for picking her out in the performances, when the the kids will be virtually indistinguishable in their identical costumes and makeup.

Later rehearsals have focused more on the "acting" the kids need to do. Since they are enslaved and downtrodden, they walk hunched over on bent legs. They do not smile. This is hard for kids who are thrilled about being on stage. And perhaps most difficult, the bags that are supposed to hold gold really hold pillows. They are veeerrrrrrryyyyy heavy, and it takes two kids to lug each one. They need to be hoisted into the mining cars, not flipped over the shoulder like . . . a pillow. When Alberich cracks his whip, the kids fall to the ground, try to get up, and fall again with each crack of the whip.

At Wednesday's rehearsal, the problem with the smiles was resolved. The director showed up. The fun and games were over; this was the real deal. The kids had been warned that the director had high expectations and would dismiss (permanently) any child who did not pay attention and could not stay in character. This is not a woman who suffers a fool or a rambunctious child. At the beginning she asked "How many fifth graders do we have? [show of hands] Fourth graders? [etc.]" When the answer to "Do we have any kindergartners?" was no, she replied "GOOD!"

At another point she instructed the pianist and others to mark their scores at certain point, noting "Obviously we're going to have to rehearse this with the kids about ten thousand times."

Sophie's head was nearly removed for asking when the next break was (she was hungry—again). She said "Sophie, if you ask questions like that again, I'm going to get really mad." I advised Sophie to consider before she ever asks another question whether she really needs to know the answer right now. The answer to that question will most likely be no, in which case she just needs to ZIP IT. I explained "Do not mess with this woman. In a conflict with her, you will go down."

No kids were dismissed, and the director came around before yesterday's rehearsal and introduced herself to parents and kids individually, which relieved everyone's anxiety. She even told Sophie that she is doing a really great job.

Although we've got a crazy rehearsal and performance schedule for the next several weeks, I'm breathing easier. Sophie has not been dismissed, something I worried about when she was in Macbeth and this time as well. After all, it's not about the children. But I think we've reached that tipping point where we're far enough in rehearsals that to replace her would be more difficult than keeping her. But really, she is doing a great job and has come a long way since the start.

So now we can relax a bit and wonder things like who will wear these shoes?

And will they tip over and hurt themselves? Crazy things, these operas.


Anonymous said...

What a fabulous opportunity for Sophie. Miss E is quite wild with jealousy... though given her extremely rambunctious nature, she would certainly be dismissed the first day.

Keep us posted on Sophie's continuing opera experience!

Belle in Bloom said...

That's fantastic! I love seeing the rehearsal hall. Thanks for sharing this with us. Sophie really does have a "stage face" doesn't she? Go Sophie!

Kate said...

Hurray! How exciting for Sophie!

Angelina said...

I'm terrified of the director now too.

Sophie sure does do a lot of interesting things. What a wonderful experience!

sfmike said...

In truth, Ms. Zambello is even more terrifying when working with adults, though personally I get a kick out of her outrageous rudeness. Being a Nibelungen is really fun and so is the music in that scene. I did it last time the opera was produced at SF Opera, crawling over a large papier-mache rock and cowering from Alberich's bullwhip.

And yes, there are secret tunnels in the basement of the opera house, but you have to find them for yourself, in areas where you are not permitted.