Portfolio of Kimberly Johans

A collection of articles created during my stint as a journalist at The Macau Daily Times

Making an opera out of something

Posted by Kimberly on September 29, 2007

By Kimberly Johans
Published in The Macau Daily Times
September 29, 2007, page 18 (1,091 words)

The cast of Rigeletto have just two and a half weeks to convince a Macau audience that the Verdi opera is one guaranteed to make a dramatic impact at the upcoming International Music Festival next month.
Judging by the passion and fervour that has been extended to this task by both the actors and the crew, they have nothing to worry about, despite this being the first performance of the opera in Macau.
Julie Edwardson from Opera Australia has been given the job of Revival Stage Director for the opera and admits that they only have a single day off, the one before the big performance, in which to rest.
“I’m used to four weeks in Australia to put on a revival [and] it’s double cast as well,” she says, but adding that everyone had been “really fantastic to work with.”
It’s not as dramatic and worrying as it sounds though, given that “everyone who is performing the roles have done the roles before so it means that you can take short cuts in terms of analysing text and things like that,” she says.
With a cast that encompasses some 16 countries, it shows an incredible diversity.
For those unfamiliar with the plot of the story, it tells the stale of the hunch-backed court jester Rigoletto, who is deeply bitter about his own deformity.
This gives an edge to the continual barbs he hurls at party guests of his licentious boss, the Duke of Mantua.
The only source of joy in Rigoletto’s life is his innocent daughter Gilda. When the jester finally goes too far, he provokes a curse from his victim, with Gilda paying the final price.
Of his role as the hunchback, Stephen Kechulius says, “the music is very dramatic as is the vocal part which is very long and tense.
“But it’s also the physical part. You have to become the hunchback. There’s a lot of bending over and pulling my leg around the stage.
“So there is the physical difficulty and the vocal demands which require a lyrical singing sometimes and a very dramatic singing which is also very high.
“It’s got everything you want in a role,” he adds.
He sums up the opera as a story about love, betrayal, jealousy, death, tragedy and “mostly about a curse that falls upon me as a father.”
He likens it to a television show or a great movie that people could watch.
“It’s not super-long, it’s in beautiful Italian and has some memorable music. So you’ll leave the theatre feeling very moved by it,” he adds.
Asked to decide on one part of the opera that stands out the most, Julie admits to the difficulty, saying that “you can’t just pull one thing out and say this is the best bit.
“There are memorable moments which the audience will identify but I think the memorable part is the journey that all the characters go on in each scene,” she says.
She adds that there are no dead moments in the opera, where perhaps an actor stops to sing an aria.
The production was brought over from Australia, having existed for about 15 years.
“It’s been very successful in Australia with lots of different revivals of the production and has also toured America,” she says adding that her role as Revival Stage Director is to “recreate what his [original Director Elijah Moshinsky] concept was.
“This is my second staging of it. I’ve staged it in America and prior to that I’ve assisted on the production with the Director,” she says.
Julie believes the main quality of the production is that it’s film-inspired, having been updated to 1960 as well as dealing with basic human issues.
With relation to the former, she gives an example of Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ a reflection of which occurs during a scene with Rigoletto and Sparafucile.
“He appears under a street lamp so it gives very strong defined lighting angles,” she says, suggesting that Act Three was inspired by Tennessee William’s ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’.
Questioned about how he maintains the quality of his baritone voice, Stephen likens the singing of an opera to an Olympics sport, calling it “very physical, with breathing and using the body so you have to take care of yourself.”
The baritone voice, he says, is a lower one with a thrusting top to it, having the lower richness of timbre but the need for high notes.
“You have to be well rested, have the music very well prepared, but then it’s pacing yourself, sometimes in marking, [which means that they will sing with only half their voice, as a way of preserving their energy] sometimes in singing out, and just being healthy,” he adds.
Julie adds that “you can never have a bad night.
“You have to come onstage, lifting the bar each night.”
And there’s no such thing as imitating anyone else in Stephen’s book.
“You just have to make it your own. I’ve done the role many times and you learn something new everytime you do it. For me, opera really is about the drama,” he adds.
Regardless of wanting to sing well, which is a given, his goal is to have the drama be real enough that the audience will be dramatically moved.
“I have to make the moment my own. The moment when my daughter dies in my arms, I have to imagine and feel as if I’m losing someone who’s that previous to me.
“And it’s a really thin line you have to play. It’s very difficult because if you get too carried away with the drama, you can lose control and not be able to sing.
“So there’s always that edge of how far can you take the drama,” he says.
Julie concurs, suggesting that in rehearsals “he’s very dramatic and moving.
“In rehearsal I’ve actually been brought to tears, particularly the end scene, the death of his daughter.
“For me opera is a story and a drama and unless that is being expressed through the actors then the audience is only getting half of what they paid to see,” she says.
For Stephen it comes down to one thing: improvisation and never making a scene the same way twice. This results in the baritone coming up with better ways of performing the part that may not have been thought of before “because it just comes out of of my soul.
“It’s like catching a momentary epiphany from above. I want to free myself to have those light-bulb moments.”

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