Pulling Back the Curtain on Roméo et Juliette
BU Opera Institute production opens tonight| From BU Today | By Devin Hahn
In the video above, watch BU theater design students create the look for Roméo et Juliette. In the video below, get an inside look at how musicians prepare for an opera, from the bright lights of the stage to the tight squeeze of the orchestra pit.
Roméo et Juliette: 40 singers, 50 orchestra members, 120 costumes, 2 casts, 5 acts, 3 hours. Those numbers barely begin to describe the extraordinary amount of work behind the staging of the BU Opera Institute’s spring production, which has been nearly a year in the planning. Auditions for Gounod’s classic were held back in September and production meetings began a month later, and it all culminated in the April 21 opening at the BU Theatre.
Many factors are considered in choosing the operas the Opera Institute stages each year. “We have to think about what repertoire will best serve our students from a pedagogical point of view,” says William Lumpkin, Opera Institute conductor and musical director of Roméo et Juliette. Operas are selected with an eye toward giving students an opportunity to work in a number of different styles, languages, and time periods during their two years in the program. Opera Institute director Sharon Daniels, stage director of Roméo et Juliette, points out that the current roster of students has several talented male performers. The opera offers strong male roles, another reason for its selection. It also complements the syllabus being taught in the institute’s movement instruction class. “This year their movement class is all based on stage combat,” says Lumpkin, “and the big fight between Romeo and Tybalt is a perfect forum for highlighting that.”
“We also have to think about what will fit in the BU Theatre,” says the College of Fine Arts associate professor. “We can’t choose something that has six tubas and four harps, because it won’t fit.” The orchestra for Roméo et Juliette, which does include one harp, struggled to squeeze into the theater’s narrow pit. “The first rehearsal in the pit is always a bit of a shock because of the space,” says Lumpkin, “but it is kind of comforting to know that we can do a big show like Roméo et Juliette in this theater.” (In the end, the harp had to be moved out of the pit and placed next to the bass drum at the edge of the stage.)
Roméo et Juliette was written by French composer Charles Gounod and first performed in Paris in 1867. Gounod’s tale of the star-crossed lovers differs from the Shakespeare tragedy that inspired it in several respects. “The way it flows is so different from what Shakespeare wrote,” says scenic designer Christopher Dills (CFA’12). “The political overtones of the rival families are practically gone.” The biggest difference can be seen at the end of the opera, according to Daniels, a CFA associate professor. In Shakespeare’s telling, the doomed lovers never get to say their final good-byes. “The way Gounod works it out,” Daniels says, “there’s a big duet to end the story, and it’s tragic and beautiful.”
“We like to joke that this is a French opera based on a story by an English guy about a bunch of Italian people,” says Dills. “So it’s a big amalgamation of ideas and people and for my purposes, architecture.” Dills incorporated visual elements inspired by postwar Paris, Elizabethan England, the photography of Richard Avedon, and even local architecture into his set, which was built over a period of four weeks by the Huntington Theatre Company’s scene shop.
“A lot of the architecture that’s in the set is taken from the architecture of the BU Theatre,” says Dills. “We have a series of fluted columns stage right and stage left, and there are columns in the proscenium arch that are fluted like that. So, there’s a little bit of Boston that happens in there, because I think it’s important to establish that these lovers are us. It’s a timeless, modern show, even though the story itself is hundreds of years old.”
Singing Romeo is first year Opera Institute student John Irvin (CFA’12), who didn’t discover his tenor voice until college and has been singing opera for only four years. For opera to succeed, Irvin says, it must be made relevant for today’s audiences. “The challenge is whether or not we can bring opera to a new generation of people who can actually embrace it as part of their culture.”
Daniels says that Roméo et Juliette is sure to resonate with modern audiences. “We focused on the innocence of the young people, on the tragedy of them being so sorely misunderstood by these feuding families, which has happened over and over again in history, and then chose to de-emphasize the period in the hopes of making it more universal.”