Silly Seriousness at the COC
DAREarts was hosted by the Canadian Opera Company the day after the opening of “Tristan and Isolde” which explains why it was so quiet when we arrived in the morning. The students had a great opportunity hear about the history of the stunning two hundred year old Consumers Gas building on Front Street.
The students got a crash course in theatre management, costume and space rental, budgets, opera show rentals, rehearsals…quite the head full for a veteran artist let alone a group of sixth graders.
When Katherine Semcesen, our hostess, showed us the costume department, she talked about how the process from concept to delivery is carried out. How the designer, cutters, sewers need to count every inch of fabric to save money and time. How not-for-profit organizations work to keep their engine running. How every cent is not their own, but everyone’s.
The trip to the music library found Wayne, who was binding some manuscripts in a machine that absolutely fascinated the students. “What’s that machine?” Is a binder press. He showed them how it worked. He explained that he is a répétiteur, the rehearsal accompanist. He explained that the singers know their music before the first day of rehearsal and that the orchestra has the music at least a month before. He explained the machinations of a rehearsal, emergency procedures should a performer become ill or indisposed, and best of all…
He turned around and there was a keyboard. He started playing. The Sugar Plum Fairy was in the room, dancing from a celesta. He spoke of a celesta as being an instrument used “as a spice” in musical pieces. He explained what it was made of and what other instruments were related to it.
Our visit with him was so lovely. He commented on how astute the students were, when they asked about how long rehearsals were, could he play the piano with his eyes closed, do they make those celestas with low notes…We bade farewell to Wayne headed to the wig department.
Again, the wig department was quiet, empty except for the faceless heads with blue hair, white hair piled up in curlers, hair everywhere. Katherine explained that no department works alone. All are integrated. The actor isn’t alone up there under the lights. Collaboration was the word of the day.
We heard how a wig is planned, from the drawings to the “map” of the actor’s head, which is plastic wrapped around the skull, then drawn on with a sharpy, to match the contours, hairline, etc. A mesh is made to cover that, and each strand, one by one, is crocheted into the holes. Synthetic hair. Yak hair. Human hair.
Then she showed them a picture of an actor. John the Baptist in Atom Agoyan’s Salome.
Can you guess what she held up next?
Yup. The head.
A very life-like head. With every wrinkled nuance in place, the skin tones realistic, the hair in dreadlocks. Funny, the kids didn’t say “Ewww…!” There was a collective gasp, then wide eyed fascination. She talked about the work it took to make this very important prop, and how many people it took to make it. Again that word; collaboration.
Now it was time to go to a singing class with Markus Howard assisted by Sarah Hicks, which took place over the rest of the day. At that point, I stopped taking notes and just joined in with the teachers, students and our vocal coach. A warm up, tongue twisters, breathing, stretching, posture. The kids jumped right in, no self consciousness here. They pulled themselves up. Their voices became stronger, more free. They sang with energy.
What I loved about this class is that Opera wasn’t just about the voice. He guided us through what he called “tactics”. (What this veteran actor has been calling “method acting” for years.) How do you break down a song so that you’re telling a story? How do you become a completely different person? The song has a setting. Two people conversing over dinner. They want something from each other. What do you do to get what you want? The kids hold up their hands and offer:
“Yell a lot.”
“Change your voice.”
The song is funny and clever. It was time for “serious silliness”. The students are brilliant. With no prior experience, they are singing and dancing. The concentration is wonderful. The kind of discipline they witnessed the day before in the ballet class at the National. They are pulling these experiences together and learning how to apply them as streams of learning.
Our coach was so impressed with them that he wants to come to their end of term performance, “Promenade”.
Another good day of passion, laughter and valour. Bravo, DAREarts!
Thank you, Canadian Opera Company, for hosting us in your beautiful shops and rehearsal hall. DAREarts is grateful for partners like you!
Please visit the COC’s website for information on tickets and events. They are indeed a treasure here in Toronto.
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