Meet three behind-the-scenes stars of N.C. Opera's Così fan tutte

The hidden operatic helpers of supertitles and piano

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The N.C. Opera, in rehearsals for Così fan tutte - PHOTO BY JUSTIN COOK
  • Photo by Justin Cook
  • The N.C. Opera, in rehearsals for Così fan tutte

Staring blearily at a musical score, Nancy Goldsmith holds a sheet of orange stickers in one hand and a pencil in the other. Jessica Samples sits next to her, index finger poised on the return key of her laptop. They’re the supertitles operation for the North Carolina Opera’s production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, which opened last night at Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh and runs through Sunday.

During the performances, Samples will sit somewhere in the wings, manually advancing the supertitles as the action hits the orange dots. And Goldsmith will be in the audience, or at home in Winston-Salem. They’re only two of many indispensable people in the production who, if they’re doing their jobs right, are unnoticeable to the audience. Their names are in the program, but their work is transparent.

Even though the score already has the words in Italian, German and English, Goldsmith is translating the supertitles anew for this show. “The goal of the supertitles is not to strictly translate the libretto,” she says. “It’s also the emotion of the music and, in some sense, what you’re seeing—the look of the singers and the props and the costumes.”

Goldsmith taught Italian at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem until her retirement in 2008. She has translated supertitles for Così for the Piedmont Opera; for one Fletcher Opera Institute production set in the late 1960s, she wove Beatles and Aretha Franklin lyrics into the libretto.

For this production, she’s hoping to capture conductor Tim Myers’ musical phrasing and director Michael Shell’s psychological interpretations of characters. But she has a sense of humor about it, too, confessing a longstanding fantasy to sabotage a performance with something like, “Hey audience, will the tenor make the high note he’s about to sing?”

Right now, the women squint at Goldsmith’s work on Powerpoint slides on the laptop screen. She knows she’ll make edits once the rehearsals move to the Fletcher stage a couple days before opening. The text looks different projected in giant letters because it becomes part of the stage and performance. Words and phrases that seemed locked down suddenly stand out, literally writ large.

According to Goldsmith, that’s not how supertitles should be. “I want them to be so congruent to what’s going on onstage that you think you’re thinking them.”

Meanwhile, during his three weeks in Raleigh in advance of Così fan tutte, Christopher Ray’s probably logged more hours on a piano bench than in a bed.

During rehearsal, the Houston-based accompanist sits at conductor Timothy Myers’ right elbow, constantly stopping and starting, fast-forwarding and rewinding, as Myers fine-tunes the singers’ performances. With clear, understated piano playing, he is there to represent the orchestra while staying out of the way.

In a way, Ray’s been the most important single musician to this production, providing a handrail for the singers through hours of grueling rehearsal each day. But the audience will never get to hear Ray play. He almost passes under the radar in rehearsal, even, although his musicianship is impeccable.

Ray instantly responds to cues, whether Myers notes a measure number or sings the smallest scrap of a phrase. His eyes stay on the tip of the baton. Without hesitation, he unfurls the chords of whichever point of the score Myers needs. For Ray, this isn’t uncanny synergy; it’s just the job.

“You half-listen all the time,” he says. “You know about where they’re working in the score, so you try to get there right before they start. Even if you’re on your phone or something, you just perk up.”

During breaks, Ray noodles at the keyboard. It sounds like what Bill Evans might have played after the nightclub closed. There really should be cocktails. But his ambition is to sit in Myers’ chair. “Basically I want to be Tim,” he says, grinning.

Ray also serves as Myers’ assistant for this production of Così, so being this far inside the conductor’s head is the ultimate training. For now, though, he’s riding the bench—and, seemingly, loving it.

For more on this production, see the story in the INDY this week. For tickets, visit N.C Opera.

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