Courtney Lewis, Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony, Haskell Endowed Chair
On April 28 and 30, the Jacksonville Symphony will present one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s most beloved and famous operas, “The Magic Flute.” The two performances will be the culmination of several years of planning and preparation, and the Symphony’s largest production of the season. This is the story of what goes into staging an opera in Jacoby Symphony Hall.
Before our last opera production, “La Bohème,” I met with Tony Nickle, Vice President of Artistic Administration at the Symphony. We plan all the classical concerts together. We’d been delighted with the success of our first opera production in Jacksonville, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” and we were keen to build on that momentum. I wanted to perform more Mozart; he is, after all, the greatest of all opera composers, giving us real characters of flesh and blood with psychological depth accompanied by indescribable music, and he’s usually a box office hit. Of all his stage works, “The Magic Flute” is my favorite. It’s a fairy tale of good versus evil, enlightenment versus ignorance and the journey of finding your own way in the world. Full of some of Mozart’s greatest arias, including the Queen of the Night’s stratospheric high Fs, it’s also a work that equally appeals to adults, young people and children, making it the perfect candidate for our annual opera performance.
When you stage an opera, you start with the score: the music and the libretto–the words. The libretto contains some stage directions, but these are very basic. Nowadays, it’s rare to set an opera strictly in the time period in which it was written. This means that there are thousands of decisions to make about the style, period and feel of a production. What’s it going to look like? Where is it set? What year are we in? What kind of costumes will the singers wear? Of the many possible interpretations of the opera, what themes and ideas are we going to emphasize? Are there any sides of the story that don’t make sense for a modern audience? These are all considerations that are made by the conductor and artistic team with a stage director. A director can make or break a production with her ideas and interpretation of the story, so the most important decision Tony and I would make was choosing who would lead the charge. After a long search, we were delighted to secure Kristine McIntyre, a fabulous American director who worked on staff at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City for many years.
Over Zoom, Kristine, Tony and I discussed our ideas for the direction the production might take. We all agreed we should perform the opera in English to make it as accessible as possible to a wide range of audience members. We wanted to remove some of the problematic parts of the story, which were acceptable to audiences in Mozart’s time but not in ours. The idea that men need to stay away from women in order to maintain their moral compass doesn’t really fly anymore. We also wanted to emphasize the magical, other-worldly element of the fairytale in a way that would be visually exciting for children and adults alike. So, we set about cutting some numbers and changing some of the spoken text. “The Magic Flute” is a “singspiel,” which means it has musical numbers interspersed with spoken dialogue (another reason to perform it in English). Kristine had some excellent ideas about how to keep the important parts of the story while updating it.
Next comes casting, when Tony and I decide who will sing the main roles. Some years, we’ve gone to New York and heard singers live, but time restraints prevented us from doing so this time. So, we cast the opera through video and audio recordings that singers submit via their agents. This process is a lot of fun but really time consuming, especially since our first choices weren’t always available. Eventually, we came up with a spectacular group of world-class artists, starring Sylvia D’Eramo as Pamina and Andrew Stenson as Tamino.
Once the opera is cast, Kristine, Tony and I meet regularly on Zoom with Kristine working out all the movements of the characters on stage. That’s what we’re doing right now. Once we get to the start of April, everyone will arrive in Jacksonville, and we’ll begin staging rehearsals. Most opera companies spend a couple of months in staging, but since an orchestra’s schedule is so much tighter, we cram it all into two weeks. The first week is cast alone, walking around a room upstairs in the Jacksonville Center for the Performing Arts with the stage outlined in tape. Kristine directs the members of the cast, a fearless pianist plays the entire orchestra part and I conduct. Once we “block” something (tell everyone what their movements are), there’s usually only time to run the scene once or twice more before orchestra rehearsals begin, so time is extremely tight.
The orchestra begins rehearsing the music at the start of the second week, the Tuesday before the Friday performance, just like any other week. Our first rehearsal with the cast is called a “Sitzprobe,” literally “sitting rehearsal” in German, which means the singers don’t walk around the stage. They just stand or sit still, so we can focus on the music. Then we have three, maybe four complete run-throughs of the whole opera with everyone, never stopping, and only going back to fix anything that’s gone seriously wrong at the end. At this point, we’re on the large stage that our fantastic stage crew builds behind the orchestra, on top of the stage of Jacoby Symphony Hall. I love this layout since it mimics an opera house. I can see the singers in front of me, and they can hear the orchestra below them. We get around the problem of moving sets in a concert hall by having massive, 30 feet screens around the stage. Virtual sets are projected onto these by huge, high-definition projectors. The projections are designed by the fantastic Brittany Marenda, based in Miami. We call this solution “symphonically staged opera,” since it allows us to stage an opera believably without leaving our dear Jacoby Symphony Hall. A team of costume and prop designers, stage managers and production assistants arrive in Jacksonville with the cast, ensuring everything runs like clockwork. It’s this team aspect of staging an opera that I find so exciting. It’s quite different from conducting a concert when the conductor has basically made all the interpretative decisions and rehearsed with the orchestra alone.
By the end of the week, everyone will be pumped up on adrenaline and ready to present a brand-new production of “The Magic Flute” to you, the Jacksonville public. It’s one of the most intense and thrilling periods of the season, and we can’t wait to see you in the audience!