May 24, 2017

Bohème behind-the-scenes: a chorus perspective

The following essay was written by Brenda Tremblay, morning host on Classical 91.5* and 90.3 FM, streaming at Tremblay will perform in the RPO's production of La Bohème with Madrigalia Chorus. We asked her to write about her experience preparing for the concerts!

Brenda Tremblay (far right) backstage at rehearsal

Rehearsal at La Bohème
"Rain glistens on new leaves. The scent of lilacs fills the air. Dogs bark. My neighbors think I’m weird. And who could blame them? For weeks, they’ve seen me prowling the tree-lined streets, muttering like a madwoman -clutching a book, chanting, and singing fragments of songs. They don’t know I’ve been preparing for this week’s semi-staged production of La Bohème.

"La Bohème is Giocomo Puccini’s four act opera based on a book about the lives of poor bohemians in 1840’s Paris. Arturo Toscanini conducted the world premiere in Turin in 1896, and though the first audience left puzzled, the story and its sensuous music soon enraptured listeners all over the world.

"It is one of the most-performed operas in history. Why? First, the music is gorgeous. Second, the themes are universal. We respond to a simple story of people falling in and out of love. We see that the smallest objects – a hat, a key, a candle - can glow with meaning, especially in the face of death. We know that chance encounters shape our lives.

"With my friends in Madrigalia, I’m in the chorus in the Latin Quarter scene, appearing in Act II as a generic Parisian woman and then in Act III as a tired milk-woman trudging to work with an invisible donkey. I don’t actually speak Italian, so committing about twenty minutes of music in that language to memory pushed me to invent a system of pattern recognition using emojis. My score is puckered and coffee-stained.
Brenda Tremblay explains Act II scene
via emoji on Twitter

"What’s it like onstage? It’s a completely immersive experience, like diving into a deep, warm pool. The music swirls to the back of the hall. Have you seen the documentary film 20 Feet from Stardom? It popped into my head last night when I was literally standing two feet from soprano Jacqueline Echols as she sang “Musetta’s Waltz” with full-throated glory. My real-life teenage son Gavin is a street sweeper in the chorus, and when we’re onstage together I’m buzzed with delight that we’ll share this experience. But I have to concentrate.

"I concentrate on everything our excellent chorus master Cary Ratcliff has taught us: breathe early, lift the soft palate, purse lips, sing without vibrato to produce a pure, rich unified sound free of operatic warbling. I try to remember all these things. I try not to trip. I try to remember where I am.

"Snow sparkles on the streets of Paris. The smells of butter and cinnamon and toasted almonds fill the marketplace. See the heaps of oranges and hot-roasted chestnuts? Is your mouth watering? Here comes a noisy crowd in a cacophony of joy and chaos. They have very little money but an unquenchable zest for life. Their kids are squirrely. And who can blame them?

It’s Christmas Eve in Paris!"

*The RPO’s semi-staged La Boheme is scheduled to air on WXXI-FM on July 3 and October 2 at 8 p.m. 

If you go
Puccini's La Bohème in Concert
Thursday, May 25 at 7:30 PM
Saturday, May 27 at 8 PM
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre
Tickets start at $23

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