Pagliacci: Stage Director, Garnett Bruce

Oct 7, 2009

It’s 4:30 in the morning and I can’t sleep. After a year of planning, we are now poised to start principal rehearsals this morning. It’s a chance to reunite with several colleagues from past productions and to meet some singers new to me who are mightily impressive. Our chorus has worked hard the past week to capture the letter and the spirit of Leoncavallo’s choral writing, and we had the first staging rehearsal with the Ragazzi (Italian for “kids”) yesterday emphasizing key words like “Evviva!” and “Indietro” and “Arrivano !” for dramatic and vocal effect.

What keeps a stage director up at night? The pieces can’t stage themselves – nor should they. We’ve brought an extremely creative cast together, and I want to see their best ideas, their responses and reactions to the characters and situations. But, just as the strongest writer craves an editor, the best opera wants guidance, balance, and a taut storyline. Essential to this is the score. I try and base my decisions on the music – honoring pauses, tempo changes, the small indications from the composer – so that the visual story mirrors and enhances the aural one. Perhaps that’s what keeps me up at night. Do I know the score well enough? We’re listening to a bunch of clowns – or so the title says. Pagliacci is the plural of one of the Italian words for clown. Which will we believe: the clown or the human? Are we expressing ourselves or performing for you? Part of the genius of this opera is this underlying paradox.

The music is in the hands of Richard Buckley, my trusted friend and colleague. We have collaborated on Tosca, Turandot and Pagliacci over the past several years. He knows how to make these pieces crackle with life, with vigor, and above all, with dramatic intent. While we all have cherished recordings, they are placeholders for the shared experience of 100 musicians focused on a central theme, a central goal in a theater full of engaged listeners. As Pagliacci unfolds, Richard is with me at every step with his attention to our blueprint (the score) and his instinctive pacing and leadership.

One moment we staged yesterday with chorus had no singing in it whatsoever. The townspeople return from church (or the tavern) and head home before the evening’s Commedia dell arte performance. Its background to the principal action of a fight between Canio and Nedda over her supposed infidelity which we have yet to stage. With the energy of 40 additional characters onstage, the dimensions of the story become exponential. Now each of these chorus “stories” are attached to a soundtrack and we have the Verismo (“slice of life”) world unfolding in front of us. Key moments in opera almost always happen in isolation, but when the powers (and sheer numbers) collide and combine; Opera shows its true force. The visual drama on the stage matches the energy of this score. But hopefully our audience will be too caught up in the opera to notice the solid construction behind it. Pagliacci can be a harrowing ride. That’s our challenge. As rehearsals to begin — and maybe I can get the ideas out of my head, onto the stage and I can get some sleep!

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