Thursday, May 22, 2014


OPERA PROJECT COLUMBUS presents Ruggero Leoncavallo's one-act opera PAGLIACCI (Clowns) at the Jewish Center of Columbus on Saturday, June 14 at 8 pm and Sunday the 15th at 3. More information on tickets from
Here's the cast:

Dione Bennett, Nedda

Brian Johnson, Tonio

Jeffrey Ambrosini, Silvio
Tim Culver, tenor

Benjamin Bunsold, Beppe

CANIO     Tim Culver
NEDDA    Dione Bennett
TONIO     Brian Johnson
BEPPE      Benjamin Bunsold
SILVIO     Jeffrey Ambrosini

Enrico Caruso as Canio
Alessandro Siciliani conducts. I'm the stage director. The conductor is responsible for what you hear. The stage director, for what you see.

PAGLIACCI  was first performed in 1892. It caught on immediately and was well established world wide by 1895. It reached the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1893, with Fernado di Lucia, Nellie Melba and Mario Ancona. The opera will always be linked to the great tenor Enrico Caruso, who 'owned' the part of Canio, the heartbroken and betrayed clown.

What follows is a diary I've been keeping through the preliminary meetings and rehearsals. Beginning in reverse chronological order

June 16, 2014

And so it goes and so it went. Two performances well attended, with VERY enthusiastic audiences. A few on stage/pit coordinated train wrecks did not prevent the audience from enjoying the opera. I worked with a splendid chorus. I got to work with adorable and feisty kids form the Columbus Children's Choir.I got to work with fabulous soloists: Tim, Dione, Brian, N Ben, Jeff. I had sad months ago it couldn't be done and they did it. Jared the lighting guy made the show look beautiful. Dione was overworked and underloved juggling many hats. I felt confusion as to my role once the orchestra got into the theater.
The etiquette is for the stage director to have equal input and to fashion the look of the stage and the blocks as s/he needs. I certainly was able to do this, but felt at times like tits on a bull.
A disagreement over mike placing could have been tetchy-well, it was a little. I do mikes for a living and know what I'm talking about but was overruled.
Heroes in this story: Alessandro Siciliani who made us gleeful slaves to Italian opera. Dione Bennett for making it happen and singing a splendid Nedda. Cristina Bendetti did EVERYTHING,  with patience and cheer. She is irreplaceable.

Not forgetting Ruggero Leonvavallo, whose splendid opera was entrusted to us. I hope he's smiling in heaven. On earth I'm tired but I am certainly smiling.

I hope Virgil Thomson's four Saints in Three Acts will be my next project:

But now I'm hearing Dialogues of the Carmelites

I am one lucky fella to have such opportunities with two very different and phenomenal works. This is a testament to the riches in the performing artists and performing arts audiences in Columbus, Ohio!

June 13 2014

Final dress rehearsal was last night. I think. There were some orchestral touches rehearsed with the singers, but we did get underway with just a few stops. Nothing defeats this cast and orchestra. The space doesn't work. Too tight, too restricted. I sat there thinking, : Jesus Mary and Joseph if I had a large proscenium the a pit what I would love to do for this show.  Given the circumstances the show looked and sounded wonderful. There was a lot of frustration and tension in the air, as befits production week. A few sad-seeming singers.. Level of professionalism was 105%.

The tempi bothered me. They great ritards, the slow pace of some of the transitional music. I'm sure this is because  Pagliacci is usually give n in a large space, so the extra time afforded by these tempi is needed. There hasn't been much adjustment for the staging. Rather the reverse. You need the extra time to cross a large stage. Here you don't and it looks blank.

Was this a wonderful experience for me? Yes, because of the work and the cast. It was especially true here that once we got into the theater with orchestra my role ended. It is not supposed to go this way, and it won't again.

And blah-blah-blah. It's a wonderful show and everyone should be proud. I am! Seriously.
Lucine Amara Nedda

Mario del Monaco Canio

For the record, here's a fantastic Met broadcast of Pagliacci from 1959. Mario del Monaco, Lucine Amara, Leonard Warren, Charles Anthony, Mario Sereni.' I've been playing phone tag with 89 year old Lucine Amara. I wanted to ask her about this production and how it was prepared. I'll keep trying.


June 11 11 pm

We ran most of the opera tonight, in chunks, with the bedecked wagon and pros. It was foolish to begin with the orchestra when the little kids were getting sleepy. We should have worked with staging the choral scenes firs and sent the kids home. They are cheerful and  sweet. And a lot of yawning on stage.

I was given the gift of three stage hands: pleasant and responsible lads who are willing to help how they can. They marked sets for me. They carried furniture and made themselves useful. We all did the best we could in the final design of orchestra and opera sharing one stage. I won't do this again. It's a creative challenge and I'm running out of this kind of creativity.

Once an opera is in the hands of the conductor the stage director fades away. That's a big ass fade for my big ass, and I'm not the fade away type. For as much as we ran tonight it was suggested I position the playing area differently and it was a good idea. Chorus completely professional. My soloists seemed tired and discouraged. They are in "must always watch the conductor" mode, meaning they can't interact and could miss the audience!

Final dress tomorrow  night. I imagine it won't be much different than tonight. First performances tend to function as dress rehearsals. The difference is the audience. Having a theater filled with people beefs up the dynamic, increases the tension and helps a performance to 'pour'. At least I hope it does. We still have a lot of blank faces on stage.

June 11 2014

The best laid plans. It was an indeed an orchestra rehearsal last night, with little for me to do in the theater. Backstage I did a bit to help the peerless  Cristina Benedetti build a mini theater to be held aloft on our onstage cart. There's a canopy, with a cheesy stage backdrop to roll down, and some curtains. The perfect  down and out conveyance for traveling clowns and actors in 19th century Italy. So okay, the actual pieces of this contraption are early-swimming pool blue, but I'm promised some stage dressing. Let me shut  up. I know it will be great I know it will be great I know it will be great......I hope I misread a late night e mail about "tomorrow's rehearsal" written as if to suggest another all orchestra no staging outing. I've decided I misread it. God knows any orchestra needs several rehearsal alone, and the music only with chorus and singers. We don't have that. There was one tantrum last night, not mine. Still, there seems to be endless you can't move here, JoeBlow can't come to rehearsal til 8 pm; the children can't work more than one hour. Don't bring potato chips into the hall...

I was asked about my process. Don't fall into the pit. That's my process. I keep thinking on my favorite AA motto: If your ass falls off, put it into a paper bag and take it to a meeting. That's going to be my epitaph.

Our singers and chorus continue to impress, excite and amaze. Every time I open the score to Pagliacci I am more and more impressed, and I learn more about the score, about opera and about drama. Leoncavallo wrote many operas but only this one survives. I know a few of the others. They don't have the musical creativity. Except for Zaza and maybe La boheme, they are predictable and dull.
I was interested to learn tat Leoncavallo wrote film scores for the silents around WWI. He wrote operettas as well, tho I've heard none of them. He doesn't strike me as the charming type.

I have no idea what is going to happen at tonight's rehearsal. Stay tuned.

Alessandro Siciliani, conductor

June 10 2014

Last night was our first night in the theater. It may not really count since the orchestra was not with us, and we may have used parts of the stage to which we will have no access. We share the stage with the orchestras. There's no viable bit. Remember the wagon I hope to use as a centerpiece? Well it worked okay...I'm promised tonight there's be a fake wall device complete with backdrops and curtain. That's fine  except the comedy will take place a good 10 feet downstage form the wagon, which will  not be able to function as a stage. We had some bunching up and traffic jam issues with folk. The commedia especially has to be moved around. Our wonder Ryan Behan played form a clavinova on a rickety stand. He made do with me shouting STOP ever ten bars. We did one stumble through of the complete opera and one run,.

Last night we had everybody. Chorus, children, principals and props. The kids needed a juice and Frito break mid way. I did too, but did without.  The rehearsal was to begin at 6.30 and at 6.40 we were short several people. I was getting pissy, but kept it to myself in respect for this unpaid but loved company. Eventually we got started. Nedda nearly off book. Canio , Tonio Beppe and Silvio at full strength. Beppe showing a nice character. Tonio is very powerful just standing still, even when he is not singing. Canio's voice, I'm telling you, is big time.

Just had a message that tonight's rehearsal will be a sitzprobe. That means music only, with orchestra. I had asked last night if such a rehearsal was planned and was told no. I knew pretty well THAT would change. May or may not be time to tweak staging. I'd rather they have the sitz. Make the musical mistakes tonight, not on Saturday and Sunday.

Here's a bit from the Italian baritone Mario Ancona, who created the role of Tonio in New York:

The world premiere cast starred French baritone Victor Maurel as Tonio. He had been Verdi's choice for both Iago and Falstaff. Maurel was a splendid looking man who was known to be a powerful actor.

Victor Maurel, Verdi's favorite and the first Tonio in Pagliacci

June 9 2014

Tonight we met Silvio for the first time. He is as my mother and aunts up in Boston would have described him, "Quite the drinka watah." He's tall and good looking with a fine voice. Like most of the cast he has done is role before,. That's good with rehearsal time being limited. Silvio and Nedda have one scene together. Musically it is the most lyrical part of the opera. Meaning you can hum along, and it sounds like the hot and romantic scene it is meant to be. Nedda is the abused wife of Canio the head clown. She is in a violent and loveless marriage. Silvio is a camp follower who follows Nedda as she goes form miserable town to miserable town. They live for their few and brief moments together. In the opera, their meeting leads to a quick decision to run away together. A sta notte e per sempre tua saro. Until tonight, when I shall be yours forever.

I had expected a lot of crazy nooky for the staging of this scene. Horizontal action, intense coupling while the music surges away. A few problems: When was the last time you sang Italian opera out loud while intense coupling? Even so, if you are onstage and horizontal most of the audience will not be able to see you. And two the singers, in ecstasy or not, will be unable to see the conductor. Since our Silvio is tall it makes a nice stage picture for Nedda to sing in his arms, first cozied up to his chest, then on their knees facing one another, then cuddling on the floor but vertical enough to be seen and heard while appearing to be, well, interested in each other.

Yesterday's rehearsal tuned out to be more music than staging. But my Nedda and Silvio are pros and we got the job done-the staging I mean-nicely.

We had time to work on the commedia.  Beppe has a lot to do in keeping order. I have  him doing more traffic cop stuff than I'd like. Something to work on.

June 8 2014

First day with the chorus and the children and full company except Silvio. We have a good rehearsal space at Capital University.     The kids arrived with their teacher. Much younger than I expected, first and second graders. They are all adorable. One little girl has killer red hair.
Three small boys are excited  about the stag business I have given them. They are all part of a children's choir but are not singing. Too much at once I expect. I don't need them to sing as much as I need them on stage. They are terrific so far. I did ask their teacher, Do these kids know what this opera is? Adultery, murder, abuse? Murder three feet from them. Do they? The teacher went pale. Kids and I circled up on the floor while I did a G-rated edition of "Let's pretend."  Earlier I had, at my jocular best, assured one of the mothers I wouldn't swear. She replied, stone-faced, That would be appreciated. Bitch.    

Our rehearsal was pleasantly interrupted by a surprise birthday party for the maestro. The Opera Project Columbus board provided food and Mrs. Benedetti's orgasmic carrot cake. If I taste that cake after I die I 'll know I reached heaven.

Then we did a 'stumble' through of the entire opera without stopping except for the Silvio scene. We are getting there.


June 5 2014

 Ruggero Leoncavallo (1856-1919) was one of the composers of the verismo movement. In late 19th century Italy, literature and opera began to reflect every day life. The language was very direct. Instead of singing about murdering your mistresses husband for thirty minutes, you just sing 'He's dead" and then run him through. Thus versimo operas are short as operas go. They do not reflect escapist of pretty fare. They can be joyful but they are also very honest about the difficulties of day to day life. Pagliacci was Leoncavallo's only bona fide hit. His opera Zaza -based on a tale by Emile Zola-used was a vehicle for the drop-dead hot star Geraldine Farrar. Then there's La boheme. No, not that La boheme. Leoncavallo set another version of the Henri Murger novel, almost at the same time as Puccini's opera was breaking hearts everywhere. Leoncavallo's fine score was blasted into oblivion. Bad luck.

Geraldine Farrar as Zaza

You may remember the 'No more Rice Krispies" commercial that used 'Vesti la Giubba'

Yeah, funny. Canio is a clown by profession and a lonely insecure man. He knows his much younger wife does not love him. He is prone to jealous rages. Nedda has no life except ducking her husband's fist. But finally, errant wife or not, Canio has to put on the make up and get on with the show

June 1 2014

Met the chorus today. God bless our chorus director, Michael Lester. The chorus was one of my big BIG worries about this show. It's impossible I told the OPC board. You are not equipped to do Pagliacci. It may be a short opera, but this is a big and intense show. Chorus, children, principles, clowns , acrobats. Do the Barber of Seville instead and cast it completely locally. Do a Mozart opera. Nothin' doing. Its Canio and the traveling clowns. I'm in or I'm out. Sheepishly, I'm in.

The chorus is terrific. I am already in loved with them. We have a dozen singers in a score calling for four times as many but my guys SOUND like a huge and well schooled opera chorus. They are all well trained musicians and complete professionals. In today's rehearsal I had nothing but patience and good cheer from them. And wonderful singing. I guess if I'm doing my job right they'll hate me by production week.

Out Tonio was in today. He has a fine voice but he's an even better actor. You need that for Tonio. He is described as 'gobbo' lurido' -hunch back....lurid. Our Tonio is neither of these things. H I have asked him not to hunch over, not to play to any physical problems except a slight limp. More of a heavy, flat footed tread. He will sing the prologue straight out, like a concert aria. I have the cohru8s coming out onstage in a straight line, looking blank to the audience...and braking into character when the little trumpet announces t epaproach of te payers. It's my Brechitan moment (Ha!) or hinting at a 'fourth wall'.
The Jewish Center playing area is quite small. As with Gianni Schicchi last year, we'll have to use the entire house. I have Canio chasing Silvio down the aisles and through the auditorium. (I couldn't do it!)

The zampognari chorus is a musical highlight. I had nightmares of being asked to stage this opera without chorus. Who would want to miss this?

Staging this will be OK. In part two the chorus returns for the show at venti rte ore (11 pm)
I had them in a staley procession from the back of the house. Which, as our conductor pointed out, has nothing to do with the music. You can't have ea stately procession to words like "Presto!"  "Andiamo" So they rush up onto he stage-and fight over the few seats available. The kids will  get there first and get shooed off. There's plenty of jostling and time for a feel here and there (that is indicated by the music)

Working on this opera with an Ira lain conductor who had led Pagliacci at the Met and all over the world is an education. I despair of really grasping any opera not written in English. The nuances in Italian and especially in French are lost on non native speakers. Many directors insist that the words are the paramount
guide in staging an opera. I go with the music. I do not speak Italian fluently. In a well written opera, the music agrees with the words (if the word is 'fast' the music sounds fast)  I have been criticized for telling students, "The music will tell you what to do."

May 31 2014

Worked with the soloists today, or the three I've met thus far. Tonio and Silvio have yet to arrive. I threw my first tantrum when I realized how few rehearsals I will have with the entire company. People who know me well know that I need to throw a fit about something, swear I will never deal with these people again, simmer and rage and five minutes later take everyone to lunch. It doesn't last with me. Ask anyone at WOSU. Most of em giggle and walk away, knowing I will within a few minutes cheerfully fix whatever needs fixing. Usually.

Beppe becomes Harlequin

Nedda becomes Columbine

Nedda I knew had a marvelous voice. She's a sharp and sexy lady. Our Canio commutes from Kent Oh. and OH MY GOD. Why isn't this boy a star? What is he doing HERE? It it a major tenor voice with star making squillo. Squillo is an Italian term meaning ring. A tenor voice with a touch of metal that rings out. A voice like this is prized and its a helluva prize we got for this Pagliacci. I asked him ,as everyone does, why he isn't pursuing a career. Kids, mortgage, mowing the lawn, living a good life, singing and teaching a lot. A good answer and a good guy.

Everyone will fall in love with our Beppe. He's from a musical family. His sister once told me, Our entire family can sing Messiah around the kitchen table.    Beppe's serenade may be my favorite part of the opera. It's easy to stage. Just get outta the way and let the boy sing:

May 30 2014

Musica rehearsal at a lovely church in Gahanna. I don't think I've ever been to Gahanna. I was ready to groan about a long commute, but it was a piece of pasta. Easy. Even at this early juncture, I believe musically we will be more than alright

I'm hoping to use a 'wagon' for the Canio and the players. Bring it in to cheers of the opening chorus will be effective. Later the actors can hide behind it. It will contain the props, and Nedda will ride in, like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. I may be counting on this wagon too much. I have a staging plan B to do without it.. I think.

Our production will look like this:

May 25 2014

First visit to the Jewish Center since last year. Met boss-Jared as opposed to lighting guy-Jared. I was relieved to find the playing area larger than I remembered. We did Gianni Schicchi there last year. No chorus in this opera, but a large cast and a lot of hiding and back and forth. Last' year's main prop was a bed (I think more of a couch ultimately) This year I hope to have a wagon in which the company can be dragged on stage. Aha! The Jewish Center has a conveyance that may just work! I said again, oh the place is big enough, we'll be OK. Two members of the company rolled their eyes.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

This is why I don't shop for clothes

I have worked in radio for over twenty years and have dressed in thrift shop duds for years. Why spend the money? My weight fluctuates and nobody is going to see me anyway.

I have a couple of suits, cheap but passable. I was saving one for my wake. May  as well look as good as possible when you're dead. You don't want the relatives bitching. I came home one day to find my suit gone. It had gone to Goodwill. "You're being cremated", I was told.

The other day we went off to the local outlet store mall. They have a large Brooks Brothers outlet there so I thought what-the-hell. It's an outlet, meaning it'll be cheap. And it's Brooks Brothers. I'm an old fashioned snob. To me, Brooks Brothers was the Kennedys and the flagship store in Back Bay. Not that I had ever set foot in said emporium in my life. The only Kennedys I've seen have been at 12 step meetings and they weren't dressed fancy.

Nevertheless,  I could use a dark suit (for my funeral) I'm called on to do a lot of public speaking. A new suit wouldn't hurt.  Likewise I needed some dress shirts. The thrift store had kept me in 75 cent cast offs for a good while. But hell, what could it hurt to be a brand new dress shirt, from a designer label no less-my first in 25 years.                                                                                                                                              

I don't know from J. Crew or anyone else's crew. There was an outlet store for Tommy Hilfiger. Do I really want to buy a shirt from someone named Tommy? I walked through the Polo-Ralph Lauren shop: Shirts in colors I never thought possible,  all with that little guy on the horse logo. I was beginning to feel like the hapless schmuck who asked for Orange Juice at Starbuck's. Don't do that. "We have banana-papaya we have tangerine-grape we have lemongrass-cantaloupe, we have the detoxing papaya citrus with cinnamon apple and we have the cleansing prune whip." When I repeated a request for OJ I got a panicked stare from the counter. What do I call them now? Waitperson; Waitstaff; Barrista ---if its a guy wouldn't it be Barristo?  Are we in Barcelona or  Rte. 315 in Columbus, Ohio?

I digress.

Several stores, pretty names. No dark suits. No white shirts. No solid ties.

Then there's Brooks Brothers.

The first thing I see is a large window display for Brook s Brothers Nursing Bras. Say what? In my day, BB was a men's store. Still, with all this genome testing  you never now. Did I miss that men need nursing bras? Sure enough I walked in and found a beautiful well kept store with a large sections for Women's Apparel. That, boys and girls is how long its been since I've shopped for clothes. In my day BB was a men's store.

Still, there were lovely colors, a nice ambiance and a zaftig manager named Carol. She and I were the only zaftig people in the place. And she as the boss. Carol very graciously showed me the generous selection of men's shirts. Nice pastel colors,  but I don't want to be laid out in lime green or orangeade, thank you very much. Lots of purple. Lilac, or Concord grape, you name it they got it. I'm not interested in purple They had nothing in the way of a gray flannel or dark suit. Yes, I know its coming on summer but this is the outlet store.

I digress again: Back in the day I would just for shit and giggles wander into Bloomingdale's or Macy's.  Every sales person in those stores weighed 29 pounds and would spray you with perfume. You left craving doughnuts and smelling like a gardenia masking your grandmother's rosewater. At more than one such person I would yell "Eat something!!"

Tangerine, said Carol. No.
Lime green, yet.

Back to Brooks Bros. I did find some nice shirts. I figure hell, I'll drop thirty bucks a piece on a BB shirt. Think again (And you don't have to laugh. Remember I said radio...over twenty years...) The shirts were marked $69.00 At the OUTLET store. Carol assured me, we knock off another thirty percent. Thirty percent for taffy apple stripes, or 'sand'? (They call off white shirts sand) So its about fifty bucks per. As opposed to 75 cents at the Thrift, ok, kick in a few bucks for dry cleaning and I don't wander about in shirtsleeves anyway. In addition to a profession where  by definition I'm not seen, I have all my life run to avoirdupois. Oh, fuck it, I'm fat. Sometimes partly  lean, as befits a man of my age. Sometimes fat. Sometimes, now moving in the wrong direction from lean to fat again . I am also what was once kindly called "Chesty". Man boobs have long been a problem that the costliest shirt doesn't mask. So if they're gonna float around anyway, I may as well go cheap, know what I'm saying?

Clothes shopping didn't work for me. The day was redeemed by the BOSE outlet and a nice payment plan enabling me to bring home a bread box sized terrific sound system. The better to play my operas full blast while contemplating the raft of white dress shirts I picked up for $2.50  in toto.