What was I thinking?! Thoughts from Hansel and Gretel set designer Larry Hancock

Hansel's candy-cane cage

Hansel’s candy-cane cage

Often, I am asked, “Who came up with that design?” Of course, when we’re talking about the set or costumes or lighting, the expected answer is the set or costume or lighting designer, and it is. But at the same time, it isn’t, as opera is an enormously collaborative art form, and such ideas seldom come from just one mind. In the case of Opera San José, we first establish with the stage director, before we even negotiate a contract, the kind of opera we’re looking for, what period it should be set in (and it isn’t always the period indicated in the score, even at OSJ), what we can spend (the budget is not to be taken lightly), and how many weeks can be scheduled for the build and when the build must start.

Then, for both sets and costumes, the designer, using information (research) and requests from the stage director, begins making sketches. When the sketches have the nod from the stage director, work begins in earnest, measurements are made, color is applied, fabric swatches are found for costumes and for sets a scale model is created. Of course there’s a lot of back and forth in this process, technical problems are solved, materials are explored, lumber and steel are ordered, construction drawings are made, fabrics are found and purchased, and patterns are cut. A great many people are involved in the production of an opera, and we are not addressing the performers in this article. That would make an army.

In this article, I have been asked to share a little about the creation of the set, as for Hansel and Gretel, I designed the scenery, which is unusual (this is my 6th set design for OSJ over the past eight years) and I suppose has raised a little interest, probably because I’ve had such fun doing it, and have been so very impressed with the work of the entire scene shop. Our shop always does wonderful work, but when it’s your own design being realized, I have to admit, it’s a bit of a thrill, every time.

It was about a year ago when Hansel and Gretel stage director Layna Chianakas and I first sat down to talk through the opera. We were in the scene shop and hadn’t even discussed which edition of the score we would use, but both of us had images in our heads. The chief image in my head was a forest of enormous trees executed in watercolor. Layna could see a great deal more. She’s brilliant.

Scenic painting by Renee Jankowski, Liz Palmer, Robyn Winslow, Sophia Smith and Heather Peterson

Scenic painting by Renee Jankowski, Liz Palmer, Robyn Winslow, Sophia Smith and Heather Peterson

We both did a fair amount of research, and Layna found some wonderful images. One of them, a forest in Ireland, came to life as a huge watercolor forest. From there the first step was a matter of creating a cottage in that forest, which I originally painted as if built of timbers. Layna immediately recognized a lost opportunity to show the longtime poverty of this family and asked if the timbers could be large branches. The cottage was made of materials found in the forest and transformed into a hut with a sod roof. Renee Jankowski, our scenic charge artist, volunteered to repaint this piece for the set model, and she also repainted the model piece for gingerbread house the next week. So these two large pieces became a group effort, and are the better for it. Everything retained the quality of watercolor illustrations. From there it was a short step to make a peppermint stick cage, and the most amazing of all ovens.

Layna asked if the oven might look like a deep-sea fish with enormous, bared teeth. After a quick image search the perfect fish flashed on my screen. From that I made a paper model, and our props master, Lori Scheper-Kesel, used it to fashion a model from clay. Perfection! This is an oven with a mouth big enough to swallow a grown man. It has glowing eyes. Smoke rises from its chimney. Fearsome!

gingerbreadAThe gingerbread children, in this case a fence of them, were first made of plywood that was then upholstered and finally decorated with glistening candies and frosting. At this writing, the gingerbread house is being painted. I dropped in today as it was getting its first coat of color. It, too, will be glistening with gumdrops, cookies, and candy. A dentist’s nightmare!

bedOf all the props, the oven is the most astonishing, but the one everyone wants to take home, including me, is the bunk bed. All the furniture in the hut, the stools, bench, table, everything, was constructed to look as if made from things the family could find in the forest. Their whole lives depend on the forest. They make brooms from sticks and switches for a living. It isn’t much of a living. They go hungry much of the time, and even then berries from the forest stave off starvation.

It won’t do to look for symbolism in Hansel and Gretel, or a moral, or a message. It just isn’t that kind of tale. It’s about two children who get in trouble, mostly because the family is so poor and their mother feels so guilty that there is so little food, and tonight, no food at all. They are not sent into the forest to be gotten rid of, as in the Grimm tale, rather, they are sent to find berries. It comes as a complete shock to the mother that there’s a witch living in that forest. It’s a surprise for the children, too.

mother natureAWhen they realize they are lost and bed down for the night, they are protected by 14 angels, but these angels are rather like woodland sprites and one of them is Mother Nature. The costumes were brilliantly designed by Elizabeth Poindexter, and I stood for quite a few minutes today watching her execute the elaborate hand work these forest costumes require. But the great surprise is in the last scene, when the gingerbread house is revealed and the witch comes out.

The witch is always a wild combination, both comic and terrifying. Few things are as frightening as an insane person who intends to eat you, and this witch does not disappoint. In glamorous 18th-century paniers and a magnificent wig, this witch begins in such a charming way, so pleasant, until she claps Hansel in a cage and sets Gretel to fattening him up. And this witch grows less attractive over time, and when she goes on her wild ride, she does it on a pink Segway (loaned by Segway Santa Cruz), paniers swinging in the breeze!

By the way, I haven’t the mentioned lighting designs by Pamila Gray, as we won’t see this work for a couple of weeks yet. We begin moving into the theatre on October 30, but I do expect to see some lighting magic, as we’ve been talking about what glows in a forest at night…

While we’ve been having weeks of fun building sets, props, and costumes, the conductor, stage director, and singers have been working like Trojans, but they seem all smiles every time I drop in on rehearsals. There is something wonderful about working on very good music; it makes everything worthwhile. We’ve had two treats this fall, with Falstaff, which is a brilliant score, and now with the most performed opera by a German composer, Hansel and Gretel.

Now, we can only hope you will enjoy our realization of this wonderful adventure in the forest as much as we have enjoyed bringing it to the stage. I do believe children will certainly love it, and what better way to show a child how a story can spring to life through music and acting and all the elements of theatre? I encourage you to bring a few children with you to see these two clever children get themselves out of a pretty hot predicament.

Don’t go into the woods at night!

Scenic painting by Renee Jankowski, Liz Palmer, Robyn Winslow, Sophia Smith and Heather Peterson.

Scenic painting by Renee Jankowski, Liz Palmer, Robyn Winslow, Sophia Smith and Heather Peterson.

Don’t go into the woods at night! But Hansel and Gretel didn’t get the warning, and as the sun sets the woods become pretty scary with enormous, looming trees, a thousand twisting branches, and no clear path out. Larry Hancock, set designer for Hansel and Gretel, got the inspiration for this set from a real forest in Ireland, filled with sycamore, ash, and hazel, growing so thick that no undergrowth could survive in the gloom. We painted it warm with fall colors and cool with twilight blues and grays. The muslin on which the color has been painted is translucent, allowing the lighting designer, Pamila Gray, to control the glow of the scenery from behind as well as on the front. Renee Jankowski, the scenic charge artist, created magic, and the carpenters also helped achieve these twisted, opaque branches. The children’s cottage will fly in/out, and all the furniture in the cottage was made from real branches by Lori and Chris Kesel, from the bunk bed to the stools around the table. The candy cane cage where Hansel is held captive and the enormous oven, with a personality all its own, add to the colorful yet sinister atmosphere. All this is leavened with wonderfully colorful, whimsical costumes by Elizabeth Poindexter. In such a setting, the singers can only be inspired to bring this classic opera to life in a very special way that should delight both the grownups and the many children we are expecting to see in the California Theatre. Who knew Hansel and Gretel would be so much fun to produce? Everyone is having a wonderful time creating just the perfect touch, from the angel crowns (very wood sprite inspired) to the gingerbread house and gingerbread children.

Artist Profile: Lisa Chavez

chaveznewA“I am so happy to be singing in a West Coast company!” mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez says. “I spent ten years in New York, which was wonderful, and a tremendous career experience, but I am a Bay Area girl, happy to be close to home.”

Born and raised in Hayward, CA, Lisa says, “I have always sung. Mom and I used to sing in the car, and I sang in choir starting in fourth grade.” Her high school had five different choirs and she sang in most of them. “We went on tours and entered competitions. The Show Choir won some of them, too. In my senior year we went to Hawaii and won a gold medal.”

Lisa went to Cal State East Bay for her undergraduate degree in music. It was while enrolled at East Bay she had her first personal voice lesson and her first experience singing opera. “Although I enjoyed performing in our “Broadway” shows, I quickly became focused on opera.” In addition to singing lessons, preparation for her singing career involved diction lessons in English and in other languages, chiefly Italian, German, and French. “I like doing many things. I sew, make jewelry for myself and for gifts, knit, crochet, make cards. Being creative at home centers me.”

Immediately after receiving her BA, Lisa continued her studies for two years at the Manhattan School of Music. She took master classes with Martin Katz and Lauren Flanagan. She continued to work in New York and elsewhere on the East Coast. She met her husband, tenor Michael Boley, when they were both singing in the same show.

IDVAC 2013 - Opera San Jose“Two years ago I heard about Opera San José’s auditions. I was interested because I wanted to get closer to my family, but I couldn’t stay for the competition.” In Spring 2013, Lisa was able to compete in the Irene Dalis Vocal Competition, and was named Third Prize Winner.

“I am thrilled to be a first year resident. I had already sung in San Francisco. Last year I sang in Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, and Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti for Opera Parallele. Her first OSJ role was Meg Page in Falstaff. “There is lots of interplay in Falstaff, which is fun. I am looking forward to singing Hansel in Hansel and Gretel,“  adding that mezzos often sing male parts.

“Opera San José is awesome,” Lisa says. “Being part of the residency program means a chance to bond with the other singers and make good friends. The entire group is fantastic. We have get-togethers and potlucks, go hiking. The productions are deluxe and we appreciate Irene Dalis’ dedication and involvement with rehearsals.”

“Opera can’t support itself without donations and other outside money. We also do outreach which often introduces people who had never experienced the art form to our work and our company. Earlier this year we went to the local Ebay campus and several employees subscribed after they heard us. People’s expectations change when they see how glorious opera is. We need to increase public commitment to opera that is accessible and educate young people to the wonder of the arts.”

Lisa’s favorite female singer is the late Tatiana Troyanos. Of the men, she admires Caruso and Corelli. “In earlier days there was less specialization,” Lisa says. “People sang a wide repertoire. Now, we have a narrower view of what people should sing. A good singer must communicate with the audience, no matter how small that audience is. In any live theater good communication is the whole point. A performance must leave the viewer with that ‘lingering something’ that you remember. The listener should feel touched, and a tug at his or her heart. If one doesn’t get that out of a performance, why not just buy a recording?” Lisa believes a person would not invest in singing lessons and coaching or singing professionally without a good voice, but the ability to touch the audience is just as important.

Lisa does not have to worry about language when preparing for Hansel, as the opera will be sung in English. “The role has some difficult passages, key changes, and tonal shifts that can be tricky to learn. The back story for this opera is dark and twisted, more typical of real life in those days than Disney’s portrayals.”

Choosing a career in opera not only involves studying, auditioning, and relocating, but overcoming financial difficulties. Young singers must find jobs to pay off large student loans and bills, and their jobs must be flexible enough to allow performing. Lisa worked six months of the years in New York restaurants. At Opera San José, her residency is made possible by fellowship grants from Prof. John M. Heineke, Prof. Catherine R. Montfort, Phil Park, and Izzy Lewis.