Fly­ing in the wings

Be­hind the scenes at the Wex­ford Fes­ti­val Opera

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY GEMMA TIPTON

What is it about opera and di­vas?

So­prano, Su­san­nah Biller’s first brush with the art form, in­volved her beat­ing up a tenor back­stage. In fair­ness, she was only three years old at the time. “My aunt was an opera singer,” re­mem­bers Biller, when we meet in Wex­ford as she gets ready to re­hearse her role as Kitty Packard in the Eu­ro­pean pre­miere of Wil­liam Bol­com’s

Din­ner at Eight. “She was do­ing Car­men in Cincin­nati. Jerry Hadley was play­ing José. It was a more mod­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tion, and I didn’t re­ally un­der­stand it. And my Mom didn’t think to tell me she dies in the end.

“Yah,” she says, her green blue eyes bright with amuse­ment as she un­folds her tale. “Big mis­take. He doesn’t just stab her once, it’s like mul­ti­ple times. And I just started scream­ing, from the top tier. So Mom had to take me out. We go back stage, I’m in­con­solable. Jerry Hadley comes out, cov­ered in blood, and I just start hit­ting him as hard as I pos­si­bly could. Diva is def­i­nitely a stretch,” con­cludes Biller. “I’m from Ten­nessee, so I def­i­nitely mow my own lawn. But that was dif­fer­ent; he killed my aunt.”

Ir­ish mezzo so­prano Sharon Carty, who will be play­ing the more re­strained char­ac­ter of Lucy Tal­bot, joins us. “Holy crap,” she says when we up­date her on the con­ver­sa­tion, be­fore con­firm­ing that she her­self has never beaten any­one up in the theatre. “I may have wanted to, but re­strained my­self.” “It’s usu­ally ver­bal,” agrees Biller. In fact, opera is full of di­vas, but they’re fre­quently not the ones on the stage. Part of the rea­son is that of all the art forms, opera is the most to­tal: along­side the soloists and cho­rus, it also in­cludes orches­tra, act­ing, danc­ing, tech­ni­cal wiz­ardry, set and cos­tume de­sign. When I ar­rive at the Wex­ford Opera House, the set for the dou­ble bill, L’Ora­colo and Mala Vita, is not play­ing ball. “The re­volve is eat­ing the stage wood,” says artis­tic di­rec­tor David Agler, who goes on to con­firm that opera is “a busi­ness where, as you can imag­ine, peo­ple’s emo­tions are high. Theatre is a pas­toral field com­pared to the opera house.”

Agler, who will be step­ping down from Wex­ford next year, af­ter 14 years in the role, says he got into opera by mis­take; af­ter a fight be­tween a com­poser and a con­duc­tor left a gap in a pro­gramme. He had been plan­ning to be­come a monk. Are fights so very com­mon, I won­der? “They can be. Singing is a very in­ter­est­ing and com­pli­cated art form. When you think about what singers have to do, they have to sing these re­ally de­mand­ing roles, which means they have to be an ath­lete, they have to have a good singing tech­nique, they have to wear all these clothes, they have to be with the orches­tra, they have to sing in many lan­guages.”

The au­di­ences are dif­fer­ent too. “Peo­ple who go to the opera, it’s al­most a blood sport,” says Agler, who has a quick wit and a gen­tle man­ner, be­lied by the con­stant en­ergy and move­ment in his hands. He will be con­duct­ing Din­ner at

Eight, hav­ing been in­vited by the com­poser, who is a good friend. I won­der about the role of the con­duc­tor, whose job it is to hold it all to­gether, reel it out and pull it in. “I’m known as a cool con­duc­tor,” he says. “A one-shirt con­duc­tor,” he af­firms, al­lud­ing to oth­ers who have to change clothes, drip­ping with sweat in the in­ter­val. “Some­times singers want to go faster. I’m not a shouter, but I’m told by peo­ple you can see it, be­cause of the way my jaw sits.”

It’s hec­tic at the opera house, as three brand new pro­duc­tions are in re­hearsal for Wex­ford Fes­ti­val Opera, which won Best Fes­ti­val at the 2017 In­ter­na­tional Opera Awards. De­sign­ers and di­rec­tors are try­ing to share stages and

dress­ing rooms are full of care­fully la­belled clothes, ac­ces­sories, hats and shoes. Vita Tzykun, who has cre­ated the glo­ri­ous 1930s cos­tumes for Din­ner at Eight, comes to show me around. “Opera is dan­ger­ous,” she says, join­ing our con­ver­sa­tion. “That’s why I love it. You don’t get that ten­sion in film or video games. Be­ing an opera singer is sin­gle hand­edly one of the most dif­fi­cult pro­fes­sions in the world, be­cause it’s all hap­pen­ing in real time.”


The opera house in Min­nesota is larger than Wex­ford, so Tzykun is fo­cus­ing on the de­tail­ing of her cos­tumes, as the au­di­ences will be closer. “In theatre, clothes are sto­ry­telling de­vices,” she says, glee­fully show­ing me a pair of truly hideous cuff­links she has found for the char­ac­ter of Dan Packard, the newly wealthy brash in­dus­tri­al­ist. Din­ner at Eight was orig­i­nally a Broad­way play, be­fore be­com­ing an MGM film star­ring Jean Har­low and John Bar­ry­more. Set in the Great De­pres­sion, it is about man­ners, the ac­qui­si­tion and use of power, and for­tunes made and lost. It has a great deal of rel­e­vance to­day.

“I think a lot about light and move­ment when I de­sign,” she says, try­ing on a hat, and swing­ing round with a smile. The at­ten­tion to de­tail is ex­tra­or­di­nary. A black and white dress has its hem stiff­ened with horse hair for shape. A bias-cut green silk dress, that Carty will wear in the fi­nal act, is all hand-made cou­ture. We come to Biller’s wardrobe. “She re­ally is a moun­tain of pink,” says Tzykun, count­ing 17 lay­ers of flounces in the sleeve puffs of a neg­ligee. “She’s wear­ing this when she ar­gues with her ob­nox­ious hus­band; it’s one of my favourites.” Agler believes New York-based Tzykun, who also de­signs for film, is a ge­nius. “She’ll win an Os­car one day.”

Biller is also a fan of the neg­ligee, though she also de­scribes it as a “con­cern. You have to be taped in. I think I have usu­ally [she counts them] at least six pieces of tape per breast. Tak­ing it off,” she says, “in­volves a lot of ‘spe­cial words’; words that my mother would be ashamed of.”

The fact that they can cre­ate di­vine mu­sic with noth­ing more than a highly schooled set of lungs, vo­cal cords and di­aphragm, and that they have to train like ath­letes, even cal­cu­lat­ing when they can eat be­fore a per­for­mance (no sooner than an hour be­fore), shouldn’t fool you: opera singers are ac­tu­ally bril­liant fun.

Some of them even smoke. Back in the 1930s, when Din­ner at Eight is set, the fa­mous Rus­sian bass, Feodor Chali­apin, had a brand of cig­a­rettes named for him. Both Biller and Carty agree how the clothes help cre­ate their char­ac­ters, but they also dig deep to find what might mo­ti­vate the peo­ple they are play­ing. “When I first got the part,” says Carty of Lucy Tal­bot, who is mar­ried to a phi­lan­der­ing doc­tor, “I thought, why in God’s name would she stay with him? But, for the time it was prob­a­bly quite coura­geous, de­spite the hurt she feels.”

“You find some­thing in your­self that makes the emo­tion hon­est,” says Biller. “Or you can take it from other peo­ple who are close in your life,” she con­tin­ues, and goes on to tell of a friend who found a video of her hus­band cheat­ing on her. “He made a video?” Carty and I shriek in uni­son. “Yes, and she played it. Ahead of a din­ner party. I got there, and the video was play­ing, and I thought, I want to get the f*** out of here. Then every­one starts turn­ing up, and she just turns it off and says ‘Will we go in to din­ner?’.”

“I have no words,” says Carty. We pon­der this in si­lence for a mo­ment, be­fore con­tin­u­ing the ques­tion of play­ing char­ac­ters out­side your own ex­pe­ri­ence. Carty talks about the tech­ni­cal­i­ties of chang­ing the emo­tional range within a piece of mu­sic, which is one of the rea­sons that opera can be so pow­er­ful and so mov­ing: be­yond the words the mu­sic can speak di­rectly to our own emo­tional core.

Per­haps it’s be­cause of all that emo­tion, and the close­ness a cast and crew will achieve dur­ing the in­tense pe­riod of re­hearsals and the run it­self, that there are other haz­ards on stage: such as fight­ing an at­tack of the gig­gles. Are those times fre­quent, I won­der? “Oh God yes,” Carty says. “That’s the bril­liance of live theatre. You’ll also get col­leagues who try to ac­tu­ally ac­tively make you corpse on stage.” Biller re­calls singing Ad­ina in L’Elisir d’Amore. “She’s this in­génue, and I go to get a pen out of a drawer. And there’s this rain­bow-coloured dildo in there . . . My mother’s go­ing to be so proud of that story,” she says, sug­gest­ing we change the sub­ject.

Carty has to go, and I fol­low her down to the re­hearsal room, where she puts on red gloves and picks up a hat box to join Mary Dun­leavy, who plays the old-mon­eyed Millicent Jor­dan. Move­ments, nu­ance and emo­tions are scru­ti­nised, as Agler and as­sis­tant con­duc­tor Les­lie Dala map out the per­for­mance minutely. By open­ing night it will be pre­ci­sion-per­fect. But it will be dan­ger­ous, risky and ex­cit­ing too, and it will pack a phe­nom­e­nal emo­tional punch that is also a whole lot of fun in­deed.

Wex­ford Fes­ti­val Opera runs from Oct 19thNov 4th. Tick­ets from €20. wex­for­d­


Left: Su­san­nah Bil­lar in ‘Din­ner at Eight’ by Wil­liam Bol­com. Right: Sharon Carty, who plays Lucy Tal­bot in ‘Din­ner at Eight’. Be­low: David Agler, Wex­ford Fes­ti­val Opera’s artis­tic di­rec­tor.

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