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Orchestrating 'Aida'

The Sarasota Opera opens the final season of its Verdi Cycle with 'Aida' — the largest production in the company's history. What does it take to pull it all off?

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  • | 6:10 a.m. February 10, 2016
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‘Aida’ might be the most recognizable opera in the world. For many people, the work, composed by Giuseppe Verdi in 1871, is their introduction to the world of opera. It revolves around a love triangle in ancient Egypt — a timelessly relatable tale of love, sacrifice and jealousy. But it’s more than just an enduring love story — it’s a logistical miracle.

Just mention “Aida,” and the first thing that comes to mind is the opera’s famous triumphal march scene. In the second act, 103 guards, soldiers, bystanders, dancers and trumpeters fill the two-level stage in celebration of the Egyptian army’s victory over the Ethiopians. It’s a spectacle typical of the grand opera style of the period. Put simply, it’s enormous.

To open the 28th and final season of its Verdi Cycle, the Sarasota Opera is bringing the iconic opera to life on its stage. It’s the biggest production in the company’s history, and it’s a fitting capstone to an accomplishment of that magnitude. While the romantic tableau is unfolding onstage, behind the curtain is another sight to behold — the production team that’s spent the last year making sure it all goes off without a hitch.

The Triumphal March in
The Triumphal March in "Aida" is one of the most famous operatic scenes, and it's the largest production in Sarasota Opera history. Rod MIllington

Organized Chaos

At a dress rehearsal just three days before opening night, Francesca MacBeth steps out from behind her work station backstage at the Sarasota Opera House.

“This is my office,” she says with a laugh. “Well, my office on wheels.”

She glances back at the black rolling podium, just offstage behind the curtain, equipped with monitors and other electronics, an oversized clock and a thick three-ring notebook filled with meticulously color-coded notes. From here, she oversees just about every technical aspect of the opera’s production as stage manager. She makes announcements about the time clock, corrals the ever-rotating mob of chorus members, supernumeraries and other performers, and communicates with the light-board operator and flyman via a small black headset. As she describes it, she’s the keeper and disseminator of information.

Photo by Rod Millington.
Photo by Rod Millington.

“This opera has a reputation for being big,” she says. “And it really is. Just the sheer number of bodies onstage is a lot to handle. It’s a little bit like organized chaos — hopefully more organized than chaos.”

For her, the process starts well before any actual rehearsing. MacBeth spends weeks immersing herself in the opera, listening to the music any chance she has — in the car, while she’s doing dishes — she wants to be as familiar with the piece as possible. When the real work starts, MacBeth gets blueprints from the set designer, followed by a model of the set, which she can physically manipulate to get a sense of the real thing. When rehearsals start, she doesn’t want any surprises. After the set is built and shipped to the Opera House, initial rehearsals take place in a room offstage, where MacBeth says it can be difficult to picture the end product.

“Then you get to rehearse in the real set, and suddenly, you see it all come to life,” she says. “And it’s huge. The enormity of this opera, and the enormity of the Verdi Cycle — you can feel it in the company. It’s palpable. I pick what shows I work on, and there was no question about whether I wanted to do ‘Aida.’ I love the opera, and I love a challenge.”


Realizing the Vision

David P. Gordon likes to tell his architectural history students at Rutgers that the lesson about ancient Egypt will be a brief one.

“You’ll never have to deal with this,” he would tell them. “Except in the unlikely event that you’re designing ‘Aida.’”

As scenic designer for the production, Gordon’s job is to bring Maestro Victor DeRenzi’s vision to life. Sarasota Opera’s production of “Aida” is as traditional as they come. If it’s in the score, it’s on the stage.

Chris Van Alstyne and David P. Gordon stand next to the boat used in the Nile scene.
Chris Van Alstyne and David P. Gordon stand next to the boat used in the Nile scene.

Gordon works closely with DeRenzi, Stage Director Stephanie Sundine and Director of Production Chris Van Alstyne to get the look of the set just right, all while working within the confines of a relatively small stage. To make things more challenging, the original score doesn’t specify a time period, and with a history spanning more than 3,000 years, constructing an accurate set is no short order.

“My job is to tell the story in the clearest and most evocative way possible,” says Gordon. “With ancient Egpyt, it’s such a long span of time, with evolving styles. It’s hard to be specific. I chose elements that I thought would be most evocative to an audience. I live in fear of an Egyptologist coming to see the production. I’d be in all kinds of trouble.”

Van Alstyne handles the logistical aspects of the opera. It’s his job to figure out how all the props and set pieces fit together, move and get stored. He says “Aida’s” reputation as a huge production rings true, especially on a smaller stage, with three other operas running simultaneously.

Chris Van Alstyne backstage at the Opera House
Chris Van Alstyne backstage at the Opera House

“It’s an animal,” he says. “There’s no question about it. It’s enormous. There’s more painted scenery and just sheer surface area than any other shows we’ve done, by a long margin. It’s not even close.”

Fitting the traditional set on the opera house’s 36-foot-wide proscenium required a lot of creativity, he says. Sets ride on telescoping tracks, chorus members are elevated on towers and props manipulate perspective to give the illusion of expansive desert vistas. And backstage is a tightly packed cluster of sets from all four operas.

To tackle the production, Gordon says they started the process much earlier than usual — about a year in advance. The extra time allowed things to run smoothly and for no detail to be overlooked. Gordon says it also gave him a chance to fall in love with the story all over again.

“It’s a very famous opera, and it’s produced a lot,” says Gordon. “It’s a piece that’s really taken for granted. Working on it and diving into it reminds you there’s a reason it’s as well known as it is. There’s the spectacle that everyone remembers, but at its heart, ‘Aida’ is a very intimate story. Verdi makes you feel for the characters.”


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