Impressions: Behind The Stage at Deutsche Oper

When it comes to opera, you could say the performance is the tangible product of an opera house: a sensory experience comprised of sound, story, and setting. But in truth it is only the very tip of the vast iceberg which is the planning, training, and coordination which goes into any given production.
I recently had the opportunity to peek behind the curtains and witness the preparations underway for a new October premier at the Deutsche Oper Berlin: Vasco da Gama, a grand opera in five acts by 19th century composer Giacomo Meyerbeer.  The opera tells a fictitious account of events in the life of historical Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama. With a running time of five hours, including two intermissions, this is a proper Wagner-sized opera, and thus requires more in the way of both musical rehearsal and technical planning.

This morning we arrive to the Hauptbühne a little before the beginning of stage rehearsal. Technicians are still setting up and at this point the scenery is still largely incomplete. Things are marked to show where pieces will be, in many cases only crude and basic forms with which the cast can interact, while others are more fully realized.

The current stage scenery consists of a number of large, arching, sail-like constructions on wooden frameworks arranged in a semi-circle around the stage. These ‘sails’ can be drawn up or down. I was told there had been malfunctions here and there, but there is still time to work out any mechanical bugs in the next few weeks. There is also a large, raised wooden platform in the shape of a half-moon, on which I can make out the white outlines of Europe, Africa, and ‘the Indies’. There is a motor inside which allows the surface to be shifted up and down. This can be raised to be completely vertical, and windows slide open near the bottom.

An amazing amount of planning goes into the creation of something like this. Talks, like tentative diplomatic negotiations, begin up to two years in advance: discussions between director and stage designer, and then between stage designer and technical director, in which design dreams are translated into logistical realities. Eventually they will be etched into schematic drawings and given to those who build: the carpenters, metal workers, muralists...  And so, looking at the set of Vasco da Gama, we glimpse the scene transfixed midway in the process of becoming the final realization.
There is a sort of life cycle to this kind of thing. Vasco da Gama is merely one bud on the tree of the opera house. I can perceive the existence of others. Lurking behind the curtains of the stage we get a view of the expansive standing room and storage capacity that are the side stages. Imminent productions are kept close at hand—in the shadows behind me the giant wooden set pieces of Tosca and Pelléas et Mélisande rise into darkness. The latter enjoyed two performances last week and will perform again next week, whereas the former opens later in October. Sets for productions not returning in the near future are stored in larger facilities off-site.

Next, my gaze drifts to the orchestra pit at the foot of the stage, presently vacant and dark except for a solitary point of illumination at the piano. The 80-piece orchestra is tucked away in the Orchesterprobesaal, their enormous practice space is located deeper in the belly of the opera house. This morning they’ll be rehearsing with the Kappellmeister while this production’s conductor, Enrique Mazzola, is engaged with the singers on stage.

Vasco da Gama is interesting: it was to be Meyerbeer’s great work, but the composer not only died before seeing it performed on the stage, but he left behind an incomplete version of the opera. This led to the work suffering alterations, reinterpretations, and cuts, evidenced in its 1865 premier and subsequent performances under the title (and misnomer) L’Africaine. The opera enjoyed only moderate popularity in the 19th century. A casualty, alas, of changing tastes, the production had the misfortune of coming in at the end of the age of grand opera. Where Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, premiering less than one month earlier, was hailed as groundbreaking, Vasco da Gama found itself helplessly démodé. Yet despite only infrequent revivals, the opera has somehow endured. 2013 saw the production restored to Meyerbeer’s original version to an extremely positive response—a rediscovery.

Thus an opera performed infrequently, the music is not likely to be already in the musicians’ repertoire. For this reason there is extra need for rehearsal and training. It’s like a big puzzle, bringing together the myriad pieces and coaxing them into coherence with one another. The musicians will have received their individual parts the previous season and have begun their solitary practice. It’s only in the last few weeks that the ensembles are beginning to come together under one roof, though still momentarily separated into different chambers. Today the singers rehearse with piano accompaniment, but starting next week the orchestra will join them.

While the Hauptbühne is still being readied, I’m shown one of the large practice stages also housed in the Deutsche Oper. An eerie sense of transition and illusion pervades the space. I recognize immediately the sail-like shapes, the half-moon platform, but on closer inspection they’re crude, temporary structures, intended to give the impression of the shape and design but lacking the interactive mechanisms of their more evolved main stage counterparts. An earlier permutation, temporary scenery like this is frequently created for practice prior to access to the actual set.

A similar process occurs with the costumes. A nearby clothing rack is laden with working versions: a progression of rough impressions. All the while the costume people busy themselves behind workshop doors, readying the final garments for next week’s costume rehearsal. At this time the costume people will check for fit and function, keenly aware that nothing is ever perfect on the first try. It is an opportunity for the costume designer and the director to form their impressions, perhaps a color is not right, something is not as was imagined, in which case there is still time to make changes.

Paying a visit to one of the maske rooms with its chaotic tabletops scattered with papers and styling products and its wall lined with mannequin heads and wigs is also fascinating. There is a clipboard on which I can see the handwritten styling notes for each role. Like so many other pieces of the puzzle, the planning on this began far in advance. I can see these notes are dated from March, and the fact that they’re written in pencil indicates a state of impermanence. Eventually these too will be solidified, locked down.

Returning to the Hauptbühne, the rehearsal is now underway for Act 1: The Council Chamber. The soloists and men’s chorus are gathered around the perimeter of the half-moon platform, like a giant table. The chorus members are in street clothes, the soloists in basic costume pieces like hats and overcoats, or bearing simplistic props: a crucifix, a rolled map. I can over hear both director and conductor on microphone, uttering stage and music direction. I find it hard to follow, as the vocalists are singing in French while instruction is given in German, but I can gather that staging is clearly today’s focus. It’s all about where people are standing, body movement, hand gestures, and interactions with one another.

At this stage Vasco da Gama is still a disjointed collection of impressions interrupted by would-be organizing forces, but there are tiny moments which begin to crystallize into something, like a chemical reaction, effecting changes in my own perceptions. For an instant I can imagine, am buoyed up and transported, but only an instant. It’s still too soon, too incomplete. Still, I can visualize it—from the music, the singers and the orchestra,  the sets and costumes,  the story and context of the opera itself—all of it is an act of coordinated illusion, the conjuring forth of this moment in time and place in all its painstaking details. It will coalesce there on the main stage in tangible yet gloriously ephemeral reality, like a fragile living thing humming and vibrating before the captivated eyes and ears of the audience. And then it will fade and decay, as all things do, its physical parts reduced and packed away, waiting for another day, another season—waiting for another breath of life.

It gives new flavor to the word revival.

By Eileen Carelock 
Images © Bettina Stöß 
Eileen is a Berlin-based freelancer and tentative explorer of a tiny segment of the human experience. She ends up hanging out with her dog a lot; she also writes things.

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