This is a deliberately paradoxical title designed to intrigue a little but it’s actually a reasonable way to describe this particular concept and format. (Your) Opera in a Trunk weaves together both scripted elements, stock operatic melodies and accompaniments, and improvisational unpredictability, characters and stories. While several of my prior forms were coalesced into rough outlines or flow charts, this was the first time I truly formalized an improv piece into a “script” as the complexities of the concept, coupled with the fact that it was designed for opera singers rather than “improvisers,” necessitated that collaborators could have something helpful in their hand that they could refer to throughout the rehearsal and development process.
The seeds for the piece were initially sown by my friend Timothy Kennedy who had been a fellow student at Louisiana State University: he was studying music there while I was studying theatre. Tim had been pivotal in bringing to that campus Making It Up, a large-cast short-form improv competition. Since graduating he had landed at Pensacola Opera as the Director of Education and Community Outreach around the same time I started teaching at Rollins College in Winter Park. Around 2004 he mused on the possibility of having an improv opera as part of his company’s outreach and audience development program. Several detailed conversations and a copy of Opera for Dummies later, the “basic” concept emerged and I set to work structuring the admittedly unwieldy piece. Tim remained instrumental in every sense of that word throughout the process, offering possible source materials, translating opera-speak into English for me as needed, and brainstorming strategies and possibilities for public domain repertory that could inspire the improvisational numbers. As he had been at L.S.U., Tim continued to serve as my doorway into the opera world while I, in many ways, served as our target audience! I joined Tim and his company before New Years 2004, and spent the next few weeks directing and coaching the first of what would become seven seasons of (Your) Opera with Pensacola Opera. Sherrie Mitchell, the Executive Director, also deserves a shout out here as she made this exciting collaboration possible on so many levels.
The Basic Premise: A trunk, brimming with costume pieces, hats and hand props, sits on a bare stage waiting for the operatic players to arrive. The event’s Joker (half-host, half-storyteller) welcomes the assembled audience and invites them to come along on an operatic journey full of unexpected surprises and twists. Opera, our host says, is usually about big events in big places peopled by big characters with big problems and desires. Today’s opera, however, will be slightly different, coming to life from the smallest of trunks. Today’s opera will bring to life a unique story created by today’s audience. Today’s opera, the Joker invites, will be “(your) opera in a trunk”.
There were a lot of unique features to this process and production. In addition to four opera singers, each representing one of the four paradigmatic voice types, the show utilized a maestro and a narrator (I referred to this role as a “Joker” as a nod of sorts to Boal’s emblematic facilitator). Each role had it’s own unique challenges, stresses and gifts. Alongside fully improvised recitative, the singers needed to improvise unique lyrics to arias and duets in their repertoires while constructing some semblance of a story that made sense! The Maestro had the Herculean task of moving from set pieces that framed the show, to improvisational accompaniment, to selecting one of multiple possible arrangements of pre-selected arias or duets to inspire the singers. Lastly, the Joker (played by Tim in the first several productions) had the heavy lifting in terms of the script, with large passages setting up the premise and mechanics of the show, alongside facilitating multiple audience votes and defining core operatic terms, such as aria, cadenza and libretto, as they emerged within the story arc of the piece. There were a lot of moving parts, hence the need for an extremely detailed outline to assist the rehearsal process.
I’m particularly indebted to the bravery of the first company who did not have the knowledge going into the enterprise that the project was in fact possible and that it would be well-received by student and adult audiences alike. In later iterations, we often benefited from having one or two returning players, or at least an understanding that this terrifying concept could actually work! While I had routinely been a company member in most of my prior improvisational works, a position that generally allowed me to direct and assist from inside of the form, this strategy wasn’t possible in this particular instance. Furthermore, generally companies were cast for their (formidable) operatic ability rather than their level of improv experience, and so many singers were taking their first significant steps into this spontaneous realm of performance.
The First Cast:
Annie Burridge (Soprano)
Chip Cothran (Maestro)
Timothy Kennedy (Joker)
Kelly Markgraf (Bass)
Elise Quagliata (Mezzo)
Thomas Rowell (Tenor)
At first glance, the script and its appendices are certainly a bit overwhelming, but they served the intended purpose well; namely, breaking down the action into clear bite-sized pieces. Here’s a set song that we’ll sing to introduce the four voice types, now let’s have the audience select a location and whether or not the soprano or tenor will serve as our star for the show, now let’s have a vote on this character’s identity… So while the hybrid piece moves between scripted, interactive, and fully improvised elements, there was a clear road map as to when and why this was happening. I hadn’t quite conceived of an improv piece in this way before, and this experience certainly influenced other concepts that would follow. This organizational structure also meant that while the show ran about 50 minutes long, no one player was responsible for improvising an enormous amount of lyric or material. This was particularly important as the show was designed for opera performers who improvise rather than improvisers who can pull off some opera.
For the first season, the show opened and closed with an original ditty (I use that word deliberately) that I crafted which I soon discovered didn’t really serve the need. Looking back, opening an opera with a more patter-like musical theatre song was just an odd choice on my part necessitated by, frankly, my lack of knowledge of the canon. Tim recommended the “Drinking Song” from Verdi’s La Traviata for the subsequent season, which provided me with a much stronger musical tone and base for newly-crafted lyric. This now serves as the “in” and “out” of the piece, the other other set song being written to Strauss’ “Champagne’s Delicious Bubbles” re-tooled for our purposes as “Behold the Grand Soprano” in which we meet the four different voice types. My second crack at the opening was certainly stronger, but I’m most proud of my construction of “Behold” as it sets up such a playful tone and dynamic between the singers before the audience casts them in their roles for the show. Here’s a little sample:
“Behold the grand Soprano
(Tra la la la la la la la)
No need for a piano
(Tra la la la la la la)
My voice is valued dearly
So high that dogs can’t hear me
My résumé’s extensive
So each high C’s expensive”
The show also benefited from a sleek and helpful design language. We inherited a large book as the prominent set piece (as this was in use for other touring shows) and had three different beautifully painted backdrops designed by Christien Fontaine: a cityscape, a countryside, and a castle atop a craggy mountain path. As the show started, the book was closed, hiding the players and a huge assembly of random props and costumes that were used to inspire casting choices. When a setting was selected by the audience, the book would open to the corresponding page which then framed the rest of the improvised action. We also deployed a trunk as well, as suggested in the show title, with the conceit that everything that was needed somehow magically came from that one source rather than the racks and crates of items backstage!
(Your) Opera was designed as a pedagogic outreach tool, but it wasn’t just our audiences that learned from the project. There was a great equalizing effect during these rehearsals in that most of the operatic company members were taking their first foray into improv, while I, as the director and deviser, was an opera novice and felt like a guest in a world in which they were experts. The resulting cross pollination was really joyful and rewarding. Opera is certainly not known for its spontaneity and abandon, and many company members have noted how the experience of (Your) Opera opened them up as performers and made them look at old arias in whole new ways after using them to improvise new whimsical lyrics. The depth of my admiration for this form of performance certainly grew exponentially as well as I saw firsthand the discipline, training and talent required to make singing like that happen at nine in the morning!
If you’re intrigued by this premise or way of structuring a show, check back later this month for another peek inside the form. This remains a favorite project and I’d happily direct it again in a heartbeat!