By Nancy Malitz
CHICAGO — For the past several weeks, the sound of music at the Lyric Opera of Chicago has been that of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the second in a series of five spring musicals devoted to the legendary composer-librettist team of the 1940s and ’50s. Theirs was a golden age when the pit orchestra was generous in size, the sound was largely acoustic, the singers were classically trained and the tradition of the European operetta still lingered in every turn of phrase.
Still. The Sound of Music? At the Lyric? One could say it’s a stretch, but perhaps one should not. Given the specs of the typical Broadway musical today, with its advanced amplification techniques, its lean, keyboard-heavy pit bands and its rock-influenced palette, the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition seems to move ever closer to opera as it recedes historically.
Yet “everything in its place” has been the argument against bringing musicals to the opera house. The defense of the classic American musical’s legitimacy on the opera playbill has run along two closely related and very practical lines: that musicals help to recruit new audiences to opera and that musicals shore up the bottom line that makes Wagner possible.
The Lyric is mounting 29 performances of The Sound of Music, mostly in May, compared with 67 performances of eight operas over the course of the regular six-month season. Lisa Middleton, Lyric’s director of marketing, says the musical’s ticket sales are not part of the opera subscription, and that a strong early box office led to two quick extensions of the run.
Lyric’s general director Anthony Freud has consistently made the artistic argument that the some musicals belong in the opera house as part of the art form’s natural evolution, as long as the fit is right. “Of all the great Rodgers and Hammerstein pieces, to me Sound of Music is the most operetta-like and can benefit from classically trained voices,” Freud said in a free-wheeling discussion with the company’s creative consultant Renée Fleming and company music director Andrew Davis.
The celebrated soprano buttressed Freud’s point. She offered a story from blues singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt about her father, John Raitt, the original Billy Bigelow in Carousel. By Bonnie Raitt’s account, the Broadway star had full use of an opera-style voice, and liked to sing Lieder while sitting around his pool. (Fleming also revealed herself as a longtime musical buff, admitting that she had played Mother Abbess in the seventh grade.)
Lyric’s Sound of Music cast is a mix of opera and musical theater types, and to be in the rehearsal room is to witness what conductor Rob Fisher calls “this intense curiosity from both sides. The learning curve is steep at the start-up, but it only lasts a couple of days.”
Fisher is perhaps the conductor who moves most comfortably between the Broadway and classical realms, having led My Fair Lady and Carousel for the New York Philharmonic as well as The Sound of Music and Ira at 100, a Gershwin gala, at Carnegie Hall. He is respected in the stage world for the critical curatorial work he did as the founder of New York’s Encores!, the musical revival series at City Center that he also led as music director until 2005. Encores! re-introduced many works from the decades prior to Rodgers and Hammerstein, often with the book-doctoring assistance of David Ives, who received a 2012 Tony nomination for his brilliant two-character play “Venus in Fur.”
Fisher argues that the acoustic pit orchestra is one of the better reasons for allowing opera companies to take on these projects. The Lyric orchestra for The Sound of Music will number 37 musicians, smaller than the configuration for Verdi or Wagner but larger, and with more strings, than the 30-piece ensemble in the original Broadway show. (Of course, the 3,560-seat opera house dwarfs any Broadway arena.)
“I never get any attitude from the musicians when they do these works because they can tell that they are scored at the highest possible level,” Fisher says. “Robert Russell Bennett did the orchestrations for The Sound of Music and when you have the opportunity to use the better and more opulent voices, a number like ‘Climb Every Mountain’ gives you goose bumps. And when you add the nuns chorus to it when the number repeats in the second half, you realize how clearly these (creators) knew what they were doing. The orchestra has an even bigger role in a musical like Carousel, where it characterizes everything, with the big waltz and a second-act ballet. The economics are limiting for most companies, and I understand that. But it is certainly a great privilege to do these shows with full forces.”
Fisher has worked closely on musical projects as far back as the ’80s with Ted Chapin, the president and executive director of Rodgers & Hammerstein: An Imagem Company. The five-musical deal with Lyric is unusual, but Fisher characterizes it as a good fit for an organization that under Chapin practices necessary caution. “So many of the people who want to do revivals think that the problem is the material, that they need to fix the material, that what they have is an opportunity to create a ‘new’ entity,” he says, “and quite frankly these shows don’t need that sort of help.
“Once you start working on one of these shows, you can see how right these guys like Rodgers and Hammerstein were in terms of how they shaped it, what order the events take place, how long the events last, what cuts away to cleanse the palate before beginning another thing. The people I don’t trust are the ones who don’t appreciate how smart those guys were. It comes from training on the classical side to realize that with these shows, we have to start with what’s on the page. We need to go to great lengths to put as much of that page as possible up on the stage.”
Performers from the Broadway realm — Maria is full-voiced soprano Jenn Gambatese (best known as Jane in Disney’s Tarzan and Glinda on the first national Wicked tour) and Captain von Trapp is Billy Zane (the bad guy in the film Titanic and Billy Flynn amid Broadway’s Chicago run) — will star with opera veterans in key cameo roles.
Wagner and Strauss soprano Christine Brewer is the Mother Abbess who sings “Climb Every Mountain” and coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral the baroness Elsa Schraeder, Maria’s rival, who has a clever singing part in the original musical that was cut in the movie version. (Both sopranos head to the Opera Theatre of St. Louis afterwards, Brewer for Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites and Futral for Ricky Ian Gordan’s new Twenty-Seven.)
Brewer says she felt the tension in the room at first of “nobody knowing what to expect.” Gambatese couldn’t believe the opera singers had memorized everything and were off book from the beginning. At the same time, Brewer was intrigued by the actors’ habit of discovery, “coming from that tradition of holding the script in their hands and sort of finding their character as a result of the process.” The day of the Sitzprobe, opera’s traditional seated rehearsal, Gambatese wondered aloud to Brewer if there would be microphones, caught herself and then said, “Oh, I guess your voice just carries over the orchestra.”
Futral found the blocking precision to be rattling at first: “You have to hit your numbers every time, and I’m talking about the numbers on the floor, which start at zero in the middle and go out to either side because of the lights. When they say I have to be at 14 at this moment, they mean exactly 14.” Yet she acknowledges that it felt freeing to be able to find her way in terms of the character, and she says she relishes the opportunity to hone acting skills. When she first sang Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music with conductor Patrick Summers at the Houston Grand Opera, she says she was “worried that ‘Send in the Clowns’ was really low, and that I spoke much more than I sang. But it turned out to be a wonderful project for me because she was so complex, and the book is so brilliant, every line so well written and crafted, with so many wonderful turns of phrase. I had no idea how poignant ‘Send in the Clowns’ could be in that context.” (Futral will originate the role of Alice B. Toklas in Gordon’s Twenty-Seven at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.)
As for Broadway-trained Gambatese, the only real issue, she says, “was in my own head. I didn’t know if I would be accepted. It took me at least eight years to get to the point where I preferred my legit voice.” Futral thinks that Gambatese could succeed in either musical or opera: “She has full-throated, complete technique, and actually the way the role of Maria is written, it’s pretty rangy because of the melding of the musical and the movie. Julie (Andrews) had a higher voice, and some of the adjustments made for the movie are in there.”
Gambatese says she was pleased to learn that “I Have Confidence” would be in the Lyric production. It’s the song created for the movie in which Maria marches off, mustering courage for her assignment with the von Trapp household. “But I am trying to be kind to myself at the moment, because I now realize that Julie’s perfect phrasing came from standing still in a recording booth.”
She’s also impressed by the opera singers’ ability to sing extremely softly. “I have definitely been able to trust in the more intimate moments in theater because I am miked, so when I hear some of these women in the ensemble, I am in awe of their pianissimo moments, in that they are still able to project the voice. It really does take even more strength and technique to get that ringy quiet sound. So I am trying to be a sponge and to soak up those tricks.”
For Brewer, who confesses to always feeling “like I’m a little bit of of an impostor in the opera world,” the rehearsals have been a pleasant melding of experiences. “I grew up singing this kind of music,” she recalls. “I didn’t even see my first opera until college. I was teaching school when I auditioned for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis on a fluke, and when the man asked me, ‘So, are you a soprano or a mezzo-soprano?’ I honestly didn’t know.” But then Richard Gaddes, head of the opera company at the time, heard Brewer sing at at a church service, told her she was a soprano and brought her onstage for The Magic Flute, which he was directing. “Because I was the tallest, he wanted me to be the tree lady,” Brewer recalls. “I held this big iron tree for most of the opera and got to watch people like soprano Sheri Greenawald and tenor Vinson Cole.”
About a year ago, when the Lyric asked Brewer to consider the role of Mother Abbess, she came up from St. Louis to see Oklahoma!, which was then in production. “What impressed me from the beginning was the full orchestra playing that music,” she said. “To actually do a piece like this in a big opera house that has the financial means — I mean, the enormous sets, the big chorus, the works — you get the feeling that this is the way it first was done, that this is what Rodgers and Hammerstein had in mind.”
As she prepares for the Lyric opening, Brewer is boning up for her summer role as another nun — Madame Lidoine, the new prioress in Dialogues of the Carmelites. It’s her third nun’s part, the other being Sister Aloysius in Doug Cuomo’s 2013 Doubt, about a stern school principal who becomes suspicious of her parish priest. Thus it was no problem at all when Sound of Music director Marc Bruni told Brewer that she could afford to be a bit more of a scold as Mother Abbess. “He said I really had the mother down, so loving, so gentle, but that he’d like to see a little more authority. So I thought, no problem, I’ll just pull a little from Sister Aloysius and add a touch of Lidoine.”
For more information about this production, visit lyricopera.org.
Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.