The North Carolina Opera's rehearsal space is the kind of place you're thankful to drive past.
In an anonymous North Raleigh strip mall, empty storefronts alternate with a hair place, a manicure place and a place that will sell you car insurance regardless of your driving record. They've all been orphaned by the seemingly infinite sprawl of nearby Triangle Town Center. The vacant anchor spot, once occupied by the upscale discount store Tuesday Morning, looms in the strip's middle like a bright yellow airplane hangar.
But on this early September afternoon, six world-class opera singers sit where racks of spatulas and dog bowls once stood, gradually bringing Mozart's Così fan tutte to life for conductor Timothy Myers and director Michael Shell. The footprint of the Fletcher Opera Theater stage, where the fully staged production opens Thursday night, is marked in multicolored lines of tape on the bland carpet.
The cast will spend much of the next two-and-a-half weeks inside a small oval of green tape, pretending it's a temporal rift into 18th-century Naples, before stepping onto their real set. It arrives soon from St. Louis, where Shell led Così last year. Stage manager Madeleine Borg and assistant stage manager Carrington Konow aren't playing pretend: Konow is poised at the edge of the set as if it's opening night, while Borg is capturing every tiny performance note in the conversations between Myers and his singers. On this second day of rehearsal, Myers is running the vocalists through the show's big finish, the 30-minute finale of Act II.
"Just to give you all a head's-up on bar 159," Myers says, stopping Christopher Ray's piano accompaniment to tease out a quartet section syllable by syllable, "we have to make sure that B-flat stays in tune."
Contrary to popular belief, conductors don't just wear tuxedos and wave batons. Myers explicates the score moment-by-moment to the singers—sometimes clarifying a musical phrase, other times extracting the libretto's meaning. Thoughts like "Really bloom on that 'oo' there" and "the stop of that consonant is actually what articulates the rest of the phrase" elicit knowing nods.
The singers pantomime and inaudibly try the corrected lines under their breath, ultimately transferring the information to their scores, adding tiny notations with mechanical pencils.
"We're deep into scansion territory," Myers says, chuckling during a break. This is Mozart, reduced to millions of microscopic sound envelopes.
Some cast members munch apples and check cellphones. But mezzo-soprano Elizabeth De Trejo and soprano Cecelia Hall, who play vacationing sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, linger in the green oval, working to sort out the relationship between music, text and dramatic emotion. After all, they're singers and actresses.
Shell and Myers are peeling back psychological layers in this production of Così fan tutte, though it's usually presented as a zany romantic romp. Two Neapolitan soldier pals, Ferrando (tenor Tyler Nelson) and Guglielmo (baritone Sidney Outlaw), have fallen in love with the sisters. They fawn over the women, but their older and wiser friend Don Alfonso (bass-baritone Jake Gardner) will have none of it.
He believes that all women are inherently fickle, so he proposes a gambit worthy of Three's Company: The soldiers will pretend to be called to the front only to return in disguise as hot-blooded Albanians looking for a good time. Don Alfonso, now scheming with the sisters' maid Despina (soprano Hailey Clark), introduces the Albanians to Dorabella and Fiordiligi.
The masked men make their best moves, and the sisters stay true to their soldiers—for a while. The Albanian impostors win the day with each other's women. Cuckolded, Ferrando and Guglielmo remain masked, hoping to get something from the situation even while deeply troubled by it.
Don Alfonso consoles the boys by singing "Così fan tutte" ("All women are like that"), before endorsing forgiveness all around in the form of an unusual double wedding. Life is short, after all.
Rehearsal, however, isn't: Borg calls everyone back to the oval. Myers gives a page number. The singers begin a third hour of shaping syllables into art.
Remember that gimmick where a dozen people cram into the same phone booth? Choreographing the entrance of a 17-person chorus into a single musical phrase looks much the same.
Shell herds the choral members around like an elementary school class. For this section, the chorus abruptly floods the stage around Despina, marches off in mock-military style and then quickly rearranges the set for the next scene. Everyone has their part to sing, an object to remove from the set without tripping over anyone else, and another object to bring onto the set without looking awkward. No football play has ever seemed this complex.
While Shell teaches male members how to lift a couch elegantly, mezzo-soprano Jean Renze-Eilers pores over pink and yellow notecards wrinkled to the pliancy of fabric. "When I go running I squish my notes and they get all sweaty," she explains. Every member of the chorus has these cheat sheets; they mouth the parts under their breath like prayers.
The members of the chorus have day jobs. Renze-Eilers is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Cary. Lindon Pearson, who sits down to catch his breath after couch-lifting class, is a financial management analyst. He wolfs a blueberry muffin and marvels at the sheer pace of the rehearsal.
"You have to move, you have to look excited, and you have to move a big-ass rug offstage too," he says. "Just don't park and bark." On cue, Shell calls him back to practice.
Nelson and Outlaw, the romantic warriors, are in the stage oval now, too, with fencing swords. They've been practicing in an adjacent suite, lunging and spinning, shoving and disarming one other, tumbling and getting up. The chorus members appear alternately frightened and exasperated with the soldiers' foil play. They're nearly beheaded or skewered a half-dozen times. The voiceless scene brings energy into the overture and even establishes something of the young men's characters before the plot begins.
Gardner watches the swordfight with bemusement. Does Don Alfonso fence? "No," he answers, in Italian and then in English, "I'm a man of peace. I only fight at dinner." He pantomimes knife-and-fork work and chews an imaginary bite.
The opera is now 10 days into rehearsals, and they've hit a major snag. Shell, Outlaw and Hall all stand with their hands on their hips. They're almost an hour into a key duet in the second act, "Il core vi dono" ("I give you my heart"), in which the disguised Guglielmo breaks through with his buddy Ferrando's woman, Dorabella. It's as close as Così gets to a sex scene.
But the singers are each showing so much internal conflict that the physical side of the scene seems forced.
"It's like the person who thinks she can have a one-night stand but then she wakes up in the morning and she's in love," Shell says. The singers discuss Dorabella's ambiguous psyche for a few minutes, completing each other's sentences before trailing off without resolution. "Why don't we sing this? Go with your instincts and respond to each other, and we'll shape it."
They take their marks and run it again.
Nelson, who's waiting his turn to work on a comparable duet with De Trejo, watches from the wings. He explains the demand for dramatic realism in opera. In musical theater, you have to be able to act and sing a little. In opera, you first needed to be able to sing and then act a little. Audiences now expect both.
"These recitatives are the really time-consuming things, these dialogue parts that are more conversational and realistic," he says. "There are so many options and less direction in the score. It's up to you to color and drive the phrasing."
After directing Così in St. Louis last year, Shell has been in post-mortem mode on the opera, priming him perfectly for this full production. He's excited by the level of commitment he's found among the cast in Raleigh.
Indeed, the cast is close now, commuting together from the hotel each morning, finding good Vietnamese food in Raleigh at night. Half the singers have a North Carolina connection. Hall is a Durham native, Outlaw is from Brevard, and Clark was born and raised in Cary. Mix in national talent like De Trejo and Nelson with masters like Gardner, and there's a bit of a summer camp feeling even as the group is doing intense work. The chemistry fostered in all these rehearsals has catalyzed the expressive characterization that Shell hopes sets this Così apart. For Shell, that starts and ends with Don Alfonso.
"I've always thought that his reason to make this bet and to make the guys talk about fidelity came from a place of his own pain—a past relationship that had maybe failed, one from which he was trying to prove to himself that all women behave the way that he thought they did," Shell says. "But what he ends up learning is that they don't. In fact it might have been him that was the reason why his relationship failed."
Shell scratched Don Alfonso's surface in St. Louis but left dissatisfied. Gardner turns out to be the missing piece.
"With Jake, he definitely has a more heartfelt approach to it. The struggle is a bit more clear, and his journey is even clearer," he says. "I really wanted to figure out how to make that idea work—that Don Alfonso is doing this not just because he's a jerk. We touched on that in St. Louis, but we're really finding that here."
During breaks, Myers usually wanders from singer to singer, battening down moments in the music. But it's almost October, and the company is finally on the verge of its first full run-through of the opera. He allows himself a moment away from the set. He's very happy with the progress of the process, even a little buzzed by the way the characters have connected to specific moments of the music. Regardless of how conscious the audience in the opera house is of them during a performance, Myers says they make the difference between a run-of-the-mill Così and what the Opera wants to offer.
"People forget opera is theater," he says. Like free agents acquired at a trading deadline, some dramatic leads might arrive for just a couple rehearsals before the opera's opening night. He shakes his head like there's a bad smell in the room.
"So you get big-box emotional gesture with no subtlety," he says. This isn't his goal. "That's why we put in two hours on a recitative."
It's not a smug statement, simply a matter of fact: You work until it's perfect. Why would you not do that? The baton is in Myers' hand again, and he's back in motion, offering a suggestion about another syllable.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The process toward perfection."