Monday, June 16, 2014

First-Person: Baritone Étienne Dupuis inside Against the Grain's Pélleas et Mélisande

On the Joys of a Broken Foot
by Étienne Dupuis

I met Miriam Khalil a few years back, when we were singing together in a production of La Bohème as Marcello and Musetta.  She told me about her husband Joel Ivany and Against the Grain Theatre, and that they were doing a production of La Bohème…in a bar!  I loved the idea!  Still do!  I love even more the idea of going 'against the grain' with opera. Opera nowadays is bound by traditions so tightly that it's getting harder and harder to remove the dust and the rust clinging to it. The only problem is,  AtG was doing this Bohème in English, using Joel's own translation. I sing the role of Marcello in Italian all the time, and learning it in English would have been too I turned the role down.

Rehearsals for Pelléas et Mélisande have proven to be musically and emotionally challenging

And then I saw, through social media and our common friends, the evolution of this beautiful company!  Bohème was a success, as was AtG's take on Le nozze di Figaro (which was, by the way, nominated for 7 Dora Awards!). Critics all seemed to agree that it was about time we had people put up this beautiful art form, unconventionally but respectfully, in strange but carefully chosen venues, with committed artists all around.  The opera next door, if you will!  So I was glad for AtG, which is giving a new life to classical music and finding new ways to make it entertaining for people of all ages and tastes. You may not like everything about it, but it keeps you on your toes -- something that is extremely rare to find in the big opera houses today. So, when I was offered a role in a production of Pelléas et Mélisande (in French!!), how could I say no? I jumped at the chance.

Here and there throughout the year I looked at the score. And then I started memorizing it. It took me two weeks to remember ten or so pages of music. Ten pages, in my mother tongue!! Me, who learned all of Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia in two weeks! Well, that was 10 years ago, so after accepting that age is catching up with me, I went on with my struggle to get the entirety of the score in my brain, and showed up for the first rehearsal scared and uncertain. The best moment came when the whole cast realized that we were in the same boat; everyone was scared and thrilled at once. This score is epic, no less, and with all its twists and turns, it's really hard to grasp in just a few weeks.  Boy was I glad I had broken my foot in April, which allowed me to concentrate on working the role as much as I did! Everyone in this beautiful production has had (or still has) moments of uncertainty and doubt about how it all falls in together, or about what it means. This opera gives you more questions than answers...and therein lies its strength. Joel Ivany, our director, has done a great job of keeping scenes conversational, with a hint of imagery and symbolism. And once again, the venue is the key.  Debussy’s work refers to an incredible number of details: the sea, the forest, the castle, the sky, the stars, the moon, the bells, noon, midnight… All of these symbols are beautifully portrayed by the courtyard in which our production is staged.

Rehearsals for Pelléas et Mélisande have proven to be musically and emotionally challenging, but the friendship and camaraderie more than make up for it. It doesn't hurt that AtG has a new mascot hanging around rehearsals: little Salim David Ivany, the coolest baby on earth.

So, to sum it all up: we have a French opera, where conversations are lengthy and plenty, and silences mean so much more then what is being said, performed by friends and family, in the most intimate setting one could imagine. Just like Pelléas forewarns: "nous aurons une tempête cette nuit" (we will have a storm tonight)…an emotional storm, that is, and I hope you'll join us for it.

June 19 - 25

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