Sarasota Opera nears the finish line of its ambitious Verdi Cycle as it presents Giuseppe Verdi’s longest opera, ‘Don Carlos.’
Victor DeRenzi, maestro of the Sarasota Opera, addresses the members of the opera orchestra. He also hears a “yes” come from behind the curtain — the all clear. He raises his conductor’s baton, and, with a flick of his wrist, DeRenzi catapults the orchestra, cast, crew and audience inside the theater into the world of “Don Carlos.”
It’s the last dress rehearsal for the opera’s final show of its winter opera season: “Don Carlos” by Giuseppe Verdi. It’s two days before the four-and-a-half-hour-long, five-act grand opera opens.
“I don’t look at time in terms of hours, I look at how it’s spent,” says DeRenzi about the opera’s length. “If I’m in the theater for an hour and it’s a really boring show, I’d rather not be there, but if it’s something exciting, I could be there for 10 hours.”
The maestro, director of production, stage management, orchestra musicians and, of course, singers, all have essential roles to play in bringing Verdi’s longest opera to life.
It’s show time.
“I don’t prepare mentally or physically to conduct a long piece,” says DeRenzi. “I don’t function on any other level. Even when I have to conduct and I don’t feel well, it leaves my mind.”
Designers, assistant conductors and set production crew walk up and down the aisles getting ready for the beginning of the show. The orchestra begins to tune to the oboe. Lights dim and voices hush. The opera’s regal blue curtain rises on a frigid, snow-covered forest in the wilds of Fontainebleau, France. Twenty-plus chorus members are dressed as poor and starving French peasants chopping firewood and bemoaning the war between France and Spain. There’s more than 50 cast and crew members mingling in the house, onstage and backstage for this show.
“The big thing is to stay out of each other’s way and allow people to do what they need to do,” says DeRenzi. “There are more people backstage than we’ve ever had because this chorus is the biggest we’ve ever had. It’s about letting people have their own space. That’s the hardest thing.”
DeRenzi is the watchman seeing that every component of “Don Carlos” operates smoothly. He shouts out notes and guidance to the orchestra and the performers onstage. These mid-rehearsal notes come as a surprise to the untrained eye because at last dress the company, orchestra and crew seem to be performing near perfectly. The curtain closes on what feels like a quick first act and, as he’ll do with each successive scene change, the maestro gives his notes to the orchestra.
“That phrase was choppy and Sousa-like,” says DeRenzi, comparing a musical phrase to American march songsmith John Philip Sousa.
When the curtain is down, that’s when Chris Van Alstyne is in the spotlight. Just as the company and the orchestra hit the last note of the first act, Van Alstyne, production manager, rushes backstage to oversee the scene change. He has about 10 to 15 minutes to transform the stage from a wintery France to a solemn Spanish monastery. “I’ve built the surfboard,” says Van Alstyne, “but it’s time to ride the wave. We plan the interaction of the seven pieces of scenery, and we don’t want to make the night longer because of clumsy scene changes.”
Van Alstyne has had plenty of experience riding waves. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama with an M.F.A. in technical design and production, Van Alstyne has worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Boston Ballet, Cirque du Soleil and the Baltimore Opera Company.
While DeRenzi is going through musical phrases with the orchestra and the actors are getting to their places, Van Alstyne and his crew establish the basic set structure of a tiered set that includes various locations, including a monastery, a garden, the queen’s garden, the front door of a cathedral, King Philippe’s study and a prison. And each time the curtain goes down for a scene change, Van Alstyne runs backstage as quickly as possible. There he supervises his crew to assemble the next world of the opera as quickly and safely as possible.
And that constant change represents a welcome challenge for Van Alstyne.
“‘Don Carlos’ is an animal because it’s bigger than everything in size and commitment,” says Van Alstyne. “It’s mammoth.”
A clear sign of how much of an undertaking the full Paris version of Verdi’s “Don Carlos” is at Stage Manager Brian August’s production folder. It’s a titan of a binder so full of detailed notes it looks like it’ll explode with a slight touch.
As stage manager for such a large production, August is the nucleus of organization, dictating and cataloguing every design and performance change. During the production, August calls the cues from above in the stage manager booth. He issues commands from his headset to his backstage crew and makes sure every technical and performance transition happens without a hitch. He keeps the illusion from falling apart onstage. In addition to “Don Carlos,” August is the stage manager for “Tosca,” as well. But August, like most stage managers, takes any stress in stride.
“When it comes to opera, you just have to power through,” says August. “You can’t think about yourself, but the needs of the show.”
August has been looking out for the needs of the show since trying out stage management in high school at Cranbrook Kingswood in Michigan. August has been stage managing ever since — from Boston University to Sydney, Australia.
“If I’m in the theater for an hour and it’s a really boring show, I’d rather not be there, but if it’s something exciting, I could be there for 10 hours.” – Victor DeRenzi
August’s managerial coordination is needed in Act III of “Don Carlos,” where two pivotal scenes take place. These dramatic shifts in the plot and tone of the story are represented by subtle lighting and stage cues that are invisible to the average audience member.
“We like to accomplish everything during these dress rehearsals,” says August. “We want to make sure every cue flows well for the singers and the audience. We’re managers, and we have to figure out the path for this show.”
Fueling the emotional drama onstage is the orchestra that’s out of sight in the deep orchestra pit. An ensemble composed of more than 70 musicians from all across the United States, the orchestra drives the underlying emotion of the opera’s songs and story. L.P. How, violin and concertmaster, has been with the opera for nine seasons and doesn’t let works as complex and as long as “Don Carlos” intimidate him or his compatriots down in the pit.
“It goes by pretty quickly, and it’s not physically demanding,” How says.
He seconds DeRenzi in that it’s about the emotional impact of the work and not the time that determines difficulty.
“Verdi’s music and compositions aren’t big, thick and heavy like Puccini, which is much more passionate,” How says.
This comfort during demanding productions comes from an almost daily regimen. The orchestra works together on a daily basis so members know how to pace themselves from relatively short productions such as “Pagliacci” from earlier this season to larger shows such as “Don Carlos.” How picked up the violin at the age of 4 and has been playing classical and opera ever since.
“You always want more once it’s over. And I realized that this is easier and better because I have time to settle in and be natural in my character and the world of the show.” – Jonathan Burton
“I had no idea this was going to be my lifelong profession,” says How. “Opera is my life now. I grew up listening to it when I was a little kid because my dad was an opera nut. And now I’ve been playing it for 40 years.”
Surviving a season, let alone thriving for 40 years as an orchestra player, requires one key ingredient according to How: concentration.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is to get familiar with the piece,” says How. “This isn’t a piece you do all the time in opera. Concentration is a big factor.”
Reaching the final act and conclusion of the opera is a grand achievement to everyone involved, but especially for the opera’s titular leading man, Jonathan Burton. When describing getting through the five-act behemoth, he preps almost like a long-distance runner.
“Eat fats before you go onstage and carbs along the way,” says Burton. “You have to get enough sleep. We’re just like athletes up there onstage.”
And just like athletes find a rhythm to maintaining their bodies and focus through a long game or race, Burton and his cast mates find their pace to perform “Don Carlos.” To accomplish this, Burton finds the peaks and valleys of his vocal expenditure. Entering the climactic Act V, Burton has been singing for more than four hours. Every song he has contributed to has been different from one another. Valleys seem nonexistent in a production filled with continual musical peaks.
Burton, like DeRenzi, Van Alstyne, August and How, looks at length as just a number and appreciates the experience such long shows create.
“Something this long to me makes more sense than something short,” says Burton. “You always want more once it’s over. And I realized that this is easier and better because I have time to settle in and be natural in my character and the world of the show.”
As the principal singers take their curtain call bows at the end of the dress rehearsal, the concentration and naturalness of everyone involved in the production is evident. Even though DeRenzi, ever the passionate musical perfectionist, had notes for everyone, the opening-night performance was a success for both cast and crew.
“Opera is pure and in the moment,” says Burton.