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Operatic Immersion at JP Brewery


Thought about being young, penniless, and in love? Ever wanted to share a drink with the denizens of Café Momus? Did you like Rent?  If the answer is yes to two out of three of these questions, then by all means plan to experience Boston Opera Collaborative’s site specific La Bohème, where industrial racks will serve as a garret, and the audience will move with singers among the fermentation tanks during scene changes.

The four-act opera will be sung in Italian with English supertitles. A seven-piece ensemble led by conductor Beatrice Affron will play an arrangement including piano strings, clarinet and accordion by Matthieu D’Ordine. Scott Ballantine, Junhan Choi, Sarah Cooper, Carina DiGianfillipo, Mitch Fitzdaniel, Celeste Godin, Seth Grondin, Abigail Krawczynska, Andrew Miller, Fausto Miro, Fran Rogers, and Ryan Stoll constitute the alternating casts.  Greg Smucker sets the show in 2018 Jamaica Plain at. Turtle Swamp Brewery, JP.

The show runs for 60 patrons over each of 10 nights from April 12th to the 22nd. Tickets are $30-$60 in advance and at the door Interviewed  at Turtle Swap, Boston Opera Collaborative’s stage director and co-artistic director Greg Smucker, Musetta Abigail Krawczyńska, Marcello Andrew Miller, and Rodolfo Fran Rogers sang out from their beers with gladful news.

FLE: Boston Opera Collaborative has sometimes chosen to use such unusual locations, although classical music in a brewery is no longer so unusual.

Greg Smucker: The idea was to produce a show that would be attractive to audiences in terms of proximity and intimacy. We wanted to do it in a space that would lend itself to the show, rather than do it in a theater. And initially, we were going to move among three spaces, to have a real artist garret for Act I and IV, and then the Swamp Turtle Brewery would serve for Act II, and another space for Act III.

We had a space a couple of blocks away, but it got sold for high-end condos two months ago…

Abigail Krawczyńska: How very Bohèmian…

GS: We ended up deciding to do it all here, which is a godsend, because trying to produce this show in three spaces would be really have been a trial.

So it was originally going to be a moveable party in which the audience was going to progress from onelocation  to the next as BOC did at Longy last year with the two song cycles, the Schumann Frauen-Liebe und -Leben and Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Wolfe when the audience met the singers consecutively in eight historic rooms.

GS: We thought we’d try the same thing with but with environments that offered even more texture.

Which came first, the opera or the environment?

GS: We wanted to do something with an environment. And Bohème seemed like a great show for that. And we love the idea of doing an opera for 60 people instead of 600 or 6,000 and putting people in the same breathing space as the singers, where you can almost reach out and touch them.

But how intimate do you want to be with an opera singer who’s bellowing in your ear?

AK: In the open room of this brewery, it’s not going to feel as if someone is screaming opera into your ear. In fact, we were here the other night, and I tested the acoustics by singing a little teaser of “Quando m’en vo” for the patrons. And it proved that the acoustics are actually pretty nice here, I don’t think it will be as jarring to the ear as you may imagine.

So they will not allow the public in here to yammer in their suds?

GS: No.

The noise will be lowered. The machinery will be off?

Andrew Miller: Yes. I also want to add that Puccini wrote some very beautiful piano music in the score; it lets singers who are very close to the audience, explore the entire musical range. We really get to be vocally and musically vulnerable in the soft passages where, if you’re at the Met, you still have to sing to the back row of the house. It’s a really nice challenge and a new experience for the singers.

Fran Rogers: And you know, I think the other strong suit about a production like this, where it’s so close, and so intimate, is that for us, it makes us pay even more attention to our dramatic interpretation. This is not only reflected in the way we act, but also the way in which sing. You’re getting dynamic contrast informed by the emotion; the dynamic that (judging by the score) Puccini intended. That has been something that’s been very powerful about the way we’ve been doing it.

AM: And Puccini’s style of writing is verismo, which means truth. It was a movement in music and art meant to bring out the realities of everyday life. Also, we try to also bring that in into our performance technique, and make it a very theatrical experience for the audience. This you don’t have somebody just standing there singing an entire aria blank-faced.

It becomes opera as a form of theater. The texts and the music are so alive that it demands we dig in and produce something very real. It’s one of the joys of doing things in spaces like this.

I gather that venue aside, the production is straightforward. You’re not doing 1930s Fascist Italy or some such.

GS: [LAUGHTER] No. It’s 2018 Jamaica Plain, and it’s just really trying to tell a story. The exceptional thing about this production is how involved in the lives of these seven characters the audience can be by virtue of the intimacy and the interesting quality of the space.

I hated opera growing up. I fell in love with it when I got to be in a room with singers where I could be close enough to see how they could communicate with their whole body, not just with their voices. And this project is recreating that discovery for me – being able to have an audience see their eyes and faces, watch their interactions.

Is this show for opera lovers as well as opera haters?

GS: It absolutely is. And I think people who love this opera will love this production. We’re working with impeccable musical values. Our conductor, Beatrice Affron, is the music director and conductor at the Pennsylvania Ballet and is conducting the next two Boston Ballet performances. We’ve got a professional septet of musicians in the ensemble.

The string quartet plus piano accompaniment sounded very effective in BOC’s La Rondine last year in a small theater. And now you’re asking the arranger Matthieu D’Ordine to make it a little bit richer by adding clarinet an accordion.

Arranger Matthieu D’Ordine: The unique instrumentation was actually the suggestion of another contact of BOC with whom I never interacted. Before the commission was finalized, the original instrumentation was considerably expanded (four-hands piano and percussion were among those discussed), but over time Greg Smucker and I settled on the current instruments as a good balance of size (and budget) along with sonority. The instrumentation also changes from act to act; it’s only in Act II that all seven players are playing, Act III is quartet and piano with clarinet, while the first and last acts are scored only for quartet and piano.

I was only peripherally familiar with the accordion before this project—it was a wonderful journey to learn to write for an instrument that I knew very little about! I was immediately struck when Greg mentioned the accordion—there is something distinctly bohemian about the sound of an accordion that I think is eminently suitable to the tone this opera. As far as the role it is playing in the ensemble, the accordion often pairs with the clarinet since it’s the closest thing to a second wind instrument, or alternately provides harmonic reinforcement for the string quartet. The piano is a very versatile instrument, but in this type of reduction often plays a purely practical role filling in where other instruments cannot. There are several moments where the piano is filling in on an adjusted harp part, or adding both ferocity and punctuation where Puccini uses his brass players, but more often it serves to emphasize the bass line and fill out the harmony.

Are the four string parts taken verbatim from the original?

MD: Unfortunately for the string players, no! My goal is to maintain as many of the contrasts and sonorities present in the original score as possible, so while I have preserved many iconic moments pit musicians may remember from their parts, some passages will look unrecognizable. Going to five players from a full score often means having the quartet play wind or brass parts to continue passing the melodic and harmonic parts between instruments. Puccini is never easy, but anytime his orchestra is reduced I feel bad for the players—reductions are always harder to perform, and usually have far fewer rests!

I’ll take a specific example—the scene in Act I with Benoit. Once the landlord actually enters the room Puccini gives us eight bars of beautiful “P e legato” music, melody in the flutes, harmony in the clarinets, and a pizzicato bass. Then eight bars of staccato music, introducing the distinctive duple motif of this scene — the first four bars melody in the 1st clarinet, harmonized by 2nd clarinet, bassoons, and Cor Ingl; then he switches to oboes and 1st clarinet with an orchestral crescendo back to a more luxurious version of the legato theme he started with. That’s distinctly eight bars of one sonority, four bars of another, four bars of yet another, and then returning to the first. As an arranger, my priority becomes preserving those shifts so, even if the final result is nothing like the original, something of the intent survives. In this example, the strings end up playing the majority of the material, with the piano adding bassline support in the legato theme, and acting as the low winds and brass for the orchestral crescendo.

Have you made any changes in the vocal lines?

MD: I have not. I feel making changes in the vocal lines would be making changes to the opera itself. Changing the instrumentation for a smaller venue is just redecorating; changing the vocal lines would be composing.

Through the magic of Sibelius or Finale, would it be possible to transpose arias easily upon request?

MD: I suppose it would be very simple—however in this show I personally wouldn’t want to try it. Puccini is very thru-composed, and there are very few moments where it would be simple to change the key—to do so tends to be jarring to the ear. I actually requested one of the (very few) cuts be removed because the modulation that they cut out was so messy I didn’t want to have to duplicate it! In isolation, and from the practical “can we do this” viewpoint, we could transpose an aria. My question would be “should we?”

There is, however, a widely accepted transposition for ‘Che gelida manina’ that I would happily endorse. Some tenors simply don’t like singing that high C, and they shouldn’t have to, especially in a small house.

Please take us through the process of your thinking as you begin a project like this arrangement.

MD: On other projects I have spent the first couple of days listening to the work, convincing myself that the reduction that I’m being commissioned for is possible, and that it can sound good in the suggested format. For Bohème I did not have to do either of those things—I knew the score very well going into the project, and I knew from the first moment Greg contacted me that this could be absolutely convincing presented in a smaller venue. Bohème was my introduction to opera – as an undergraduate cellist, having never heard an opera before in my life, I was placed as principal for Bohème, so I know the score better than any other opera. As I’ve been doing more arrangements I have actively been looking forward to doing Bohème, so I was already well prepared to dive into it.

I make my arrangement scores from scratch, so my first week of work on a new opera is usually inputting vocal lines and rehearsal numbers into Finale to use as a frame of reference for the arrangement. During that work (because it’s fairly rote) I’m usually checking to make sure I’ve properly judged the scope of the project, checking to make sure any cuts are musically congruous, and sometimes making hand-written notes to myself planning out tricky passages. I usually like to start with whichever act I think will be the most difficult: In Bohème, that’s Act I. It’s the longest act, it has long passages of very quick tempi, and some of the densest orchestration in the work. On a smaller level, each measure is all about making sure all the notes are accounted for, or at least as many as possible. In some particularly thick passages, I actually compose—in the sense that I change the order and spacing of Puccini’s notes enough that I pay close attention to the sound it will create. Usually I can get all of a composer’s notes to fit into a reduced orchestra one way or another, and in those instances, I simply trust that they knew what they were doing.

There isn’t much artistic planning to be done in advance of a reduction—ensembles this small are usually just barely large enough to fit all the notes into from a full-size orchestra. The majority of the time is spent making whatever is possible work, and, when presented with the impossible, choosing the best option from several choices that are not ideal. The joy in a project like this one comes in the moments that are not just barely possible, but the ones where my choice as an arranger actually makes an aesthetic difference to the audience. For example, as much as I enjoy the piano as an instrument, I arranged the first iteration of Musetta’s waltz without the piano. I did it partly as a challenge to myself, to see if I could do it and be happy with the result, but I also did it because of the drama of the scene. It’s such a magical moment the first time you hear that music, I thought removing the most percussive instrument would only heighten that effect.

* * *

Let’s talk about what it’s going to look like in this space. We have giant fermentation tanks. We have industrial metal racks. We have a forklift. And what did you tell me the forklift was going to be used for?

GS: To put my grand piano on top of a cooling room. Overall It will look the quartet of guys are living in an industrial space for cheap rent. We’ll hide the tanks in the first act. We’ll use the stainless steel as sort of a brilliant reflective surface in Act II and Act III, and that will be part of the charm of the space. It won’t look like any other Bohème you’ll ever see. But we think that the energy and the excitement of being immersed in the space will be what people will remember and appreciate.

Let me ask some singer questions. So how are you singing differently in this space than you would in a large house? I mean, your forte is your forte, probably. Are you going to be singing floating in quieter tones that you might have in a larger house?

AK: I’m not really thinking about changing my vocal technique for this, because as a performer with Opera on Tap, which is an organization who does this very thing, performing opera in bars and restaurants, I’ve never had to really change my voice for any space. I mean, sure, maybe I don’t go quite as forte on the high C as one could, but I also think I am able to get away with more of the pianissimo that I couldn’t get away with in other halls.

Puccini writes as if it were speech. If you just think about having a conversation with somebody in Italian. Italians, they speak maybe a little more passionately. They speak a little louder, with more gestures, things like that. I just think of it just as having a more Italianate conversation, versus changing anything technically or dynamically with my voice.

FR: I think one moment that sticks out to me is, in Rodolfo’s aria, that I’m excited for, is “Talor dal mio forziere….”  When he goes up to those As, the dynamic that’s actually written by Puccini is piano. However, every tenor you hear singing is full out, because they’re trying to get to back of the house, but I think the wonderful thing about this is that we’ve been able to kind of explore why Puccini set that as a tender p.

* * *

Boston Opera Collaborative conceived itself for recent conservatory graduates who were not getting hired in Boston, but wanted to stay here. Is it still serving that role? Or are you expected to graduate?

AK: When I went to NEC, I got to speak to one of the founding directors of Boston Opera Collaborative as part of an entrepreneurship class that I was taking. It was then a bunch of singers who wanted to make their own opportunities in Boston and get some work, get some roles under their belt before they went off into the “real world.”  

GS: The original model was that the company was run by singers. Singers performed on stage, but they also performed all the administrative roles, and it was invaluable for many people who went on to administrative careers. But as the original group of singers began to leave and others came, it wasn’t a sustainable model for a company. After leading the company for the last three years, my co-artistic director Patricia Weinmann and I wanted to move to a model where we’re still supporting singers early in their professional lives by offering roles and training. But we wanted them to be able to focus on the artistry and less on the administrative piece, unless they were really interested in learning administrative skills. So now we have a company of 20 singers performing in our three-show season and training together throughout the year, and six singers who are administrative associates. We’re paying the administrators rather than requiring them to work in exchange for performance opportunities. It’s a model that’s allowing us to raise more money, to increase the effectiveness of the organization administratively, and hopefully sustain the company into the future.

How many opera companies are there in Boston now? Of course, the BLO, BEMF and Odyssey first come to mind, and then there are BOC, Guerilla Opera, Opera Hub, Whole Tone Opera, Nempac, Juventas…

AK: The Boston Opera Alliance lists 19 institutions that perform opera as part of their programming.

And these are mostly small companies



FR: The focus now should be on building audiences that will be engaged with the art form. This put the onus on us to make sure that we are presenting opera in not only an accessible way, but a believable way. In general, people are much more easily moved by what they can relate to. While I sincerely hope we can once again fill 3,000 seat houses, we need to focus now on building and nurturing the audiences that will be filling those auditoriums when we have them. Not only does that mean producing the “standards” in new and interesting ways, such as what we’re doing for Bohème; it also means that we need to be a progressive art form that — while staying true to what we are — represents a more diverse cross section of the human experience. We need more female and minority composers featured (we have some fantastic ones that were featured in BOC’s other productions this year), we need more contemporary examples of relatable, thought provoking narratives (see “As One” or “Dead Man Walking” ).

Once we can invite more people into the experience of the opera — both through the masterworks that have persisted for generations (Bohème), and through new narratives that reflect our world in different ways. I do believe that we will be able to once again fill a house.

On the other hand, would a 3,000-seat house work against relatability? The Richard Rodgers Theater in New York holds less than half of that (1,306), and they are having no issues filling that space every night for one transformational production…

And Bohème, has theatrical legs. Baz Luhrmann’s production ran for a long time on Broadway

AK: You also have the musical theater version of this opera, which is Rent, by Jonathon Larson. And honestly, that’s how I got familiar with this story, because I was a musical theater kid in high school, and I have every word of Rent memorized. It wasn’t hard to memorize this opera, or know exactly what was going on, because I just figured out which character was which person from Rent, and I knew exactly what the storyline was. You have that juxtaposition. This is a great story that needed to be told several different ways, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re just giving another version of it. It’s not abstract. It’s not unusual. It’s an experience. This story is beloved by many cultures all over the world, and it’s still the story of love and loss. It’s the story of really good friendships. It’s the story of youth and poverty.

And don’t forget parties.

AK: I would never forget parties. [LAUGHTER] And there’s always going to be a Musetta. There’s always going to be a Rodolfo. There’s always going to be a Marcello. There’s always going to be these types of people in your friend’s circle. We’re just giving them some lyrics. I could cast this opera from my group of friends

And is there room for anybody who doesn’t live in Jamaica Plain?

AK: Yes, there is plenty of parking on Washington, and it’s easily accessible from the Orange Line.

GS: But not plenty of tickets.

Can you extend the run?

GS: Sadly, no.

AK: But this is just a good excuse to buy your season tickets for next year.


Cafe Momus?

Boston Opera Collaborative presents
La Bohème

Turtle Swamp Brewery
3377 Washington Street
Jamaica Plain, 02130

April 12th to the 22nd
Sold Out

1 Comment »

1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Wow, I had THE opportunity to buy tickets previously, but did not due to family illness complexities. Such a great article! Wish I could be there. Kudos to staff and musicians.

    Comment by Stan Noswark — April 12, 2018 at 6:46 pm

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