Keller

The first time I ever saw the Keller Auditorium was when I accidentally found the Ira Keller Fountain. At the time I was showing a couch surfer from Montana around Portland, and it was a lovely, serendipitous thing to happen upon. I saw the auditorium building from the fountain, saw how big it was. A Sunday performance of some kind went to intermission and from the doors spilled wealthy-looking patrons in fine dress — so different from us ruffians splashing around in cold water across the street. 

Last night was my first time inside the Keller, and like my entire Opera experience, it started through the back door. 

Past the security guard in his tiny office. 

Up two flights of narrow, bare stairs. Past the doors with the soloists names on them, and into the big room that said simply, “super chefs”. Into a room with real showbiz mirrors with bulbs encircling the edges, casting eerie lines in our eyes’ highlights. 

We had time to go watch. Back down the stairs to the ground level and through a doorway where world is suddenly carpeted and wide and lit beautifully. Make a sharp corner, and oh my goodness it’s the house. And there’s the stage. 

To watch the performances from the house is to relinquish the intimacy of watching the rough sketches as we have these past few weeks. We are no longer sitting in folding chairs yards away from the table, ducking flying food, privy to very slight changes in facial expressions, we now take in the entire scene as a whole. But it’s meant to be taken in as a whole. Really it’s meant to be taken in with an orchestra and actual stage singing and an audience. So once again Opera added a few more elements to the bigger picture, and once again I was dazzled. 

And the sets are beautiful. Sort of spartan yet textured in a way that makes the light fall on it very beautifully (and in ways difficult to depict). The angles of things remind me deliciously of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, though I think our world will be a little more realistic than that world, cake house and all. It’s a thing of beauty, and it’s a pleasure to be a part of it.

As this was our first night at the Keller (as a production that is, most people seem very familiar and at home with the space,) the night was mostly spent figuring out HOW the movements and words fit into the physical set to create that fuller picture. All our ring leaders now wore headsets and carried clipboards and binders and seemed to have a lot to do. Messages to relay. Props to fix. Adjustments to make. 

As I watched Act 1, voices from the soundboard would periodically cut in. Thank you, music would stop, singing would stop, and the choreographer and director would walk down the isle, over the orchestra-pit-bridge, and to the soloists to give inaudible notes. Stage people and assistant directors would pop out from the wings. Tape would be affixed to the floor. Sharp objects were sanded. Wobbly furniture stabilized. Bag-flinging trajectories asserted. The choreographer would act out something for the soloists to try. There was a lot of pointing to things to look for in the house, a lot of repetition, and a lot of laughter about things we couldn’t hear. It was great to watch, but it was certainly a spectator’s sport. Our separate scenes are now attended to separately, so there is less of a comradely feeling and more of a we are they players and you are the audience flavor to things. 

But soon enough it was our turn. Learning about our own unique challenges like aiming wings through a passage backwards in the dark, adjusting our walking paths to the new dimensions of the table, learning how not to run into a black wall on a dark set with only a mesh screen to see through. 

These are not pertinent problems for, say, the children’s choir, so of course it makes sense that they were not there. Nor were the trees or the performers not involved with the scene. Hansel and Gretel didn’t even go on stage with us until we walked our paths a couple of times, and one could say the whole scene is for them. So it makes sense. Mostly it’s so deliciously new and I’m so fascinated by it that I am greedy to see everything. There is just so much to look at.

Bits and pieces from last week’s rehearsals

Saturday was funny because by the time we arrived everyone was sick and tired of everything.

As times goes on we have been adding more and more elements of the finished show to the rehearsal. Saturday it was time to integrate the children’s choir at last. I had seen them milling around the hallways, but I hadn’t actually heard them at work, and they are enchanting. 

Their voices are like sunlight shining through immaculate cut glass, a gorgeous merry lark of crystal clear wind. They were feeding off the creative energy of the leads and were absolutely bursting with life. 

In fact by the look of sullen, weary faces behind the table it looked as though they had been for some time. By the end of their session — a hour and a half later than it was meant to be — the stern barks of “children!” were becoming more and more frequent from behind the big tables. 

The next day the soloists, the chefs, the trees, the fish, the children AND the director began with expansive yoga-like stretches after the choreographer’s example. Let’s begin afresh seemed to be the idea. Since then (as far as we the supers are concerned) the show is run through in rehearsals, rather than focusing on particular scenes. We have graduated into the Real Thing. 

This means that the chefs and trees and fish may leave after our bit is done, but I have twice now hung around so that I could watch the other parts of the show, albeit without full costumes. 

OTHER THINGS

1. Maureen McKay (Gretel) and Elizabeth Byrne (Mother) trying to maintain composure in the face of a giggle-fit.

2. Daryl*, off stage, quietly singing along to the finale with a big smile on her face. 

3. Sandra and Maureen both (I think) singing the upcoming pieces in the bathroom during the break. 

4. Elizabeth and Weston Hurt (Father) dancing off stage to the music as they waited for their cues. 

5. Listening to the littlest boy in the break room lamenting that we have a rehearsal on Halloween. His already limpid eyes became even moreso — almost tearful — and managed to reason that at least we are not practicing during Christmas. 

6. Seeing Weston cornered by a charming eggheady youth rattling on a lot of statistics about World War I

*I don’t have a full name or a website for Daryl, though she is special to my heart because she was the first soloist who introduced herself to me. We have since had brief but lovely talks about drawing, cooking, and a gloss on the strange gypsy life these performers must lead. She along with Sandra and Maureen are youngish, yet have done a good amount of work already which makes me a little dizzy. Each successive show on any given performer’s website seems to be in a different city, far away from the previous city. Daryl lives part time somewhere else, but will be in [y] city for [x] years, and I didn’t really get a sense of where it is she actually calls home.

UPDATE, Sept 25, 2014: Daryl Freedman

Wonderful things at the Opera

On Sunday — good heavens — we were going to stage with the leads. But we started in a blank room next to the rehearsal stage. No giant table, no props, no wings. Nothing. Just a smallish table that someone dragged to the center of the room, and a CD player with our music on it. We mimed a few times, then we were allowed to go into the rehearsal stage and finally see the soloists.

The soloists! You could hear them as soon as we went out into the hall, as soon as we left the blank room. Their voices were encircling each other in a delicious harmony and the moment I heard them my eyes grew wide. This. This is what I’d come for. 

We had to pass three of the four walls to enter nearest our chairs without disturbing the performance, and the whole time we could hear the singing at different volume levels (acoustics are a funny thing). And then we got to just sit and be spellbound as the sequence-with-the-trees was run through again and again.

This was a long wait for the disengaged, but I for one was enchanted. 

I have skimmed through the scene they were playing (it’s the one just before ours). The scene starts as a merry lark in the woods to look for food and turns very quickly into panic, a witch/sandman comes to put them to sleep, they groggily say evening prayers that ask for fourteen angels to come and watch over them. They sleep, the key changes, and we the fourteen winged chefs drift in.

Obviously hearing it as it’s meant to be heard is much different than reading the plot overview. But also seeing was much different. 

Watching them shift from playful rambunctiousness to fear was incredible, and I was struck by how moving it was. Gretel panicking, Hansel trying to be brave against the rising terror. They were remarkable, and it must be incredibly difficult to communicate all that emotion through one’s body (i.e., act) at the same time one is trying to sing in such a big way. 

Having never seen an Opera, it was in this moment where I think I finally started to “get” the form. 

And later, when we ran our scene through for the first time, in our half-costumes, with the music, and finally with the leads putting on their imaginary party clothes and looking in stunned and humbled awe at the feast we were setting out for them, it was Sandra Piques-Eddy‘s (Hansel) turn to be moved. 

She looked up and down at us, waiting in reverent silence with our food trays, the music swelling, and her eyes grew misty. 

Later when the piece finished she and Gretel and the trees and the forest creature and everyone broke into a spontaneous applause. 

We have run the scene several times with them since then. And every time Sandra mentions to us or the staging choreographer how powerful it is, and she makes a point of telling us how touched she feels to see us. It’s a lovely thing to be a part of, and it’s amazing to me that we in our goofy heads can stir that much emotion into someone whose job it is to stir up emotion in an entire auditorium. Powerful stuff. Rubber heads and all.

First Rehearsal

I keep getting these wonderful emails that say things like, “trees, please make sure you wear pants you don’t mind getting dirty, since you’ll have to put berries in your pockets”.

We were also sent a video of a version of the sequence we are in, but there are a lot of differences in our production. Our heads are not QUITE as cartoonish as those — a bit creepier, really — and also we have wings. Before the scene in this video there is a complicated little slow-motion curlie-cue route everybody follows to sent the table and (with luck) avoid one another’s wings. We enter one at a time and begin our intricate little paths, and as more and more chefs come onto stage our paths loop and swirl around each other, and I bet it looks really neat. I haven’t found a good video of that online yet, but I’d love to see what it’s supposed to look like from the front. 

The entire sequence is meant to be in a sort of dreamy un-reality, so all of our movements have to be natural but in slow-motion. This is harder than it sounds. One tends to walk like a robot, or do strange things with one’s arms (either leave them limp or stiffen them too much). It’s fun to play up slow motion and be melodramatic about it, but here our body language has to be dignified and proud of this feast we have prepared for the starving children. Slow motion subtly. In a fat suit. 

Then there’s these wings. They attach via harness and are made of a metal armature that is then covered in polystyrene. So it’s stiff enough not to break when we bump them into things, which is good because there is a lot of scraping and sliding along the table, along the false walls that indicate our entrance and exit points, and of course on each other. They stick out about three feet behind. I am the second chef to enter and I get to enter wings-first. I bet it looks great but it was really tricky to get the hang of as it’s a pretty tight fit. Once I had that entrance worked out though I hardly scraped my wings on anything at all.

We all have different props for the table setting. I am “candelabra #4”. There’s the table cloth first, then there’s a music cue that I haven’t quite figured out that signals us to raise the candelabras, slowly, and then place them on the table. We exit as soon as things are set on the table, and I have to be offstage as quickly as one can do in slow motion, because I am then the FIRST one back onto stage with my food-tray.* 

What this means is that I am the one who really has to get the pace down, since I lead everyone out to the table. We are all struggling to walk slowly enough. There was a wonderful session right at the beginning (before we got the wings on) where we all just wandered around the room, practicing slow motion natural movement. It was a fantastic spectacle. It is so much easier when you can look around and pace yourself with someone else. It’s a whole different ballgame when it’s just you ahead of everyone, and all you can do is hope people are following you. This is not unlike carrying the cross at mass, and I am thanking my lucky stars I was an alter server for so many years before all this. It takes away the potential for it to be a nervous thing for me, and lets me just focus on the pace.

*We ordered it by height, and guess who’s the shortest one? It was me. It’s always me. It’s been me ever since preschool when I took dance classes. Evidently shortness is a boon for the stage because whenever I’ve been in shows I’ve always had some sort of special treatment. In Christmas pageants I got to stand on the same step as the holy family so that I could see over the other animals’ heads. For ballet dance recitals I was always the last one offstage, and I was always instructed to give a cutesy little wave to the audience just before the curtain (in retrospect it’s really cute, but at the time I remember feeling a little conflicted about it. I wanted the audience to know that I was SUPPOSED to do that, I wasn’t just adding the flourish on my own. I was disciplined. I was controlled. I was five.) And in Hansel and Gretel, although you will not be able to see my face, you will know it’s me because I’ll be the first chef leading our solemn chef procession out to the table’s edge. It’s what shortness gets you.

I must have a thing for fat-suits

A couple years ago I worked at a newspaper in our small college town, for the classified section. Our office was very into Halloween — each department would dress up as one thing or another and put on little skits for everyone. That year our department of about seven people decided to dress as the seven deadly sins. Because I was the smallest, youngest, and least self-conscious, I volunteered to be “Gluttony”. I was a BIG hit, in more ways than one.

I borrowed the wig and bought the biggest shirt and jumper I could find at Goodwill. To add girth, I got two pairs of XL panty hose, put one on like pants and cut a slit in the crotch of the other and put it on like a shirt. I then stuffed them with essentially every piece of lightweight clothing I had. Et voila. 

I actually can’t tell you what was more fun — going to the Halloween party at my friend’s house (where I met several people for the very first time, who I then later had to re-meet because no one recognized me,) or getting to work all day in my get-up. The entire day was tinged with absurdity because I had to sound so normal on the phone. I volunteered to fax everyone’s paperwork and to fetch things from the break room just for the pure joy of being a spectacle. I had to readjust my chair so that I could fit under the desk, and my headset kept getting stuck in my hair. 

The following year Anthony and I went to a Halloween party as Ann Coulter and Michael Moore (respectively). Anthony wore a striking red dress and some surprisingly comfortable high heals that, (I note with great interest,) he still has tucked away in a drawer. To fill his bra he got those single-serving pocket-shots, and over the course of the evening he would give them away coquettishly to people. My costume was not as successful as Gluttony, mostly because I couldn’t find a stubbly beard in time. But it was the same fat-suit formula over jean shorts and a plaid flannel shirt, topped with a baseball cap. Easy.

Today I went to a building just south of OMSI to be fitted for another fat-suit, this time to be an extra in the Portland Opera’s production of Hansel and Gretel.

The building is just off the river, and I sort of recognized it from the time I biked along the Springwater Corridor. Evidently it used to house a TV station which makes sense, somehow, as you walk along the cramped hallways and push through the double doors. 

The sewing room was filled with a lot of delightful things I didn’t get to examine for too long.

I ducked into a room with a curtain and a double mirror, stood on an X marked in tape on the floor, and followed directions.

I will be a chef, one of a dozen. Our costumes involve a creepy head that fits over mine (with a mesh screen in the mask’s forehead to look through). I also have these fantastic foam wings that have to be attached via a harness and it’s a very complicated affair. I had two different people helping me with my costume today in a double-mirrored room, one person making adjustment notes in a little notebook. I’ve never been an extra with them before, and I don’t know how to take my own measurements, so my file was fairly bare. After we finished the fitting they got a tape measure out and recorded every measurement that I think can be recorded. All of my stats are in a little file somewhere, as well as a picture of me both in my chef costume and my regular clothes. 

I am evidently in just one scene, a dream sequence, but I know it will involve props that will be scaled-up to make us (and the leads) look smaller. Food is involved, we will be carrying trays of stuff around. Great attention was placed on the fact that my gloves were a bit big, and I was assured that if anything didn’t feel quite right it could be adjusted. I may be just a volunteer, and I may have never met any of these people before, never seen an opera, and scarcely know the storyline (in the context of the production), but seems that as far as anyone in the costume department is concerned, I am one of the cast.