In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

So Do We all: Phyllis Pancella gives us a first look in the COSI FAN TUTTE rehearsal room

Feb 26, 2013 3:07:00 PM
By BLO Staff

Although I feel I’ve just gotten off the plane, a week has already passed in which I’ve  done my first load of laundry, gained 5 pounds from just  looking at all the Dunkin’ Donuts around, and, most incredibly, zoomed through the staging of two thirds of the masterpiece that is  Cosi Fan Tutte.  What a week!
First, I should let you know that I haven’t been doing a lot of opera lately. When my son, now 11, hit first grade five years ago, I decided to stop accepting opera engagements during the school year for awhile, and stick with shorter concert outings. I have no regrets about that decision, but I also had absolutely no hesitation about chucking it out the window when the Boston Lyric Opera called.  Would I be interested in trying my first Despina, under the direction and with the Don Alfonso of the magnificent Sir Thomas Allen?   Um, let-me-think-about-it-yes.  I won’t bore you with the tedious realities of getting a household and middle-schooler ready for Mom’s first solo five-week road trip since 2000---lots of more interesting people have done it before me and would describe it better.  All I’ll say is that it turns out you can, in fact, help with homework and three-day-field-trip nerves via instant message. Walking the dog, doing everyone’s laundry and grocery shopping---not so much.
The smart, silly cast and the open, welcoming production and administrative staff made my re-entry very smooth, and I love spending time in Boston, even in the winter.  Despina herself was a little less cordial, with high notes in all the wrong places, but I figured I’d compensate for any shortfalls in vocal beauty with whatever comic voices/accents I’d do for her Doctor and Lawyer disguises. What I didn’t expect was how I’d feel when I trotted those things out in front of my colleagues at our first musical rehearsal.  

My heart actually pounded a little in anticipation of the Doctor’s entrance, and I felt this odd, warm sensation begin in my face.  Good grief!  Was I blushing??  A middle-aged Midwestern lady, 25 year veteran of the opera biz, mother of an 11 year old boy fercryinoutloud, blushing?  Did I blush when our Peerless Leader compared one of Mozart’s Cosi duets to worm copulation? No. Did I blush the next day at my costume fitting when the stitcher asked me to please hoist my breasts up as high as possible so she could make the right markings on the corset mock-up? or when John Conklin pointed to my shoes, and, thinking they had been pulled from wardrobe stock, said, “Well those would be perfect, since they’re so unfashionable”?  No.  Man, you just never know where you might still have buttons.  I love comedy!  I work hard at comedy!  But trying to make people laugh can make you look really, really stupid, and there‘s no bigger anxiety-trigger than that for me. You know what? I’ll probably get nervous singing in front of the chorus for the first time, too.  Always have.

English as a second language.  The single task on which we’ve spent the most rehearsal time thus far is language.  Why all those hours?  This  Cosi company comprises a conductor and director/Don Alfonso from the U.K., and five other cast members from the U.S.  We are performing an opera written in Italian, that takes place in Naples in 1790, in a translation written in 1922 by an Englishman, revised by another Englishman in 1970 and again in 1988, for a Boston audience in 2013.….I think you might be getting the picture.  Of course, the ultimate goal is to communicate to this particular audience in this particular time and place the power of this piece.  Honoring that goal requires us to honor the original creation above all else, and we share a common desire to do just that.  But we all come from different backgrounds and with different pet peeves.  

David Angus is the Diction Police, with a special affection for punctuation.  He intentionally avoided writing the translation into his orchestra score so that he could discover whether or not he could understand the singers, who all have different regional dialects and different preferences when it comes to sung English diction (wish I had audio to share from the great “tooter” vs. “tyewtah” debate) and who are, by the way, mostly from a different country than he is.  Paul Appleby and I are both inclined to be the Grammar Police (“Ah, the subjunctive!”  “It makes no sense to combine the mechanical with the abstract.” “How did they get away with a subject-free sentence?”) and quake whenever the translator finds the wrong spot to put a preposition in (sic).   Then there are the changes we’re all making in the interest of singability:  e.g. maybe a sweet young soprano could sing the suffix -ing on a high G, but this well-worn mezzo can’t!  

The timeframe is a puzzle for some. Yes, the production design places us in 1790 (sort of), but which archaic words enhance meaning and which obscure it?  (So far, chary is out, and trepidate is hanging by a thread.)  And then there are the Britishisms:  “takes the biscuit” instead of “takes the cake," "I’ll crease myself with laughter,“ instead of…what?…“I feel my sides are splitting?“  Ah, which ones to keep, which ones to jettison, and  why.  It is a messy, imperfect process that is alternately galling and hilarious (I‘m happy to report that “You dirty basilisk” has entered our rehearsal lexicon), but which ultimately clarifies our intentions and priorities as actors.

Nicole Tongue, our assistant director, Karen Oberthal, our stage manager, and Brett Hodgdon, our coach/accompanist are madly scribbling the alterations we’re making in rehearsals, while making good suggestions of their own.  Mr. Allen will eventually have to pull the plug on all our, um, contributions, so that timing, diction, and surtitles (never mind memorization) may be finalized.  At that point, since we‘ve all grown rather precious about our language of origin, we’ll each have to swallow hard about some final text decision that makes us cringe or worry.  But for now, our job is to argue about every single tree, so that our audience will be able to see the lush and complex forest that results.

Why do it in English in the first place?  Ah, I’ll leave that to you to discuss.  I’m just the maid.
~Phyllis Pancella

Topics: Boston Lyric Opera, Brett Hodgdon, Cosi fan Tutte, david angus, diction, Karen Oberthal, maid, Nicole Tongue, opera translation, Paul Appleby, Phyllis Pancella, Sir Thomas Allen, John Conklin

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