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August 28, 2009

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August 28, 2009

The Martinez Opera provides high quality opera performances at an affordable cost. I have volunteered for the opera and am always impressed by the commitment of the Executive Director Maria Billingsley. She is the lifeblood of the opera. It is amazing to me that our small town can produce the caliber of performance that we do. We have gotten rave reviews from the San Francisco Chronicle and people come from all over the Bay Area to attend our opera. It is something we're very proud of here in Martinez. We do, however, always need support and funding from the community. Maria stages bi-monthly Dine with a Diva dinner events which draw about 80 people from our community and is a highly successful fundraiser. As a volunteer, I have paritipcated in many events and find each event highly rewarding. It feels wonderful to be in the thick of things and know that I am supporting a community treasure. Fellow volunteers are highly committed as well.

The Great!

I've personally experienced the results of this organization in...

Attending the excellent performances that this local company puts on, bringing quality professionals from around the country to perform here.

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What I've enjoyed the most about my experience with this nonprofit is...

The opportunity to be a part of something that is of high caliber and contributes so much to the community.

The kinds of staff and volunteers that I met were...

Equally committed to ensuring that this local opera company thrives and endures.

If this organization had 10 million bucks, it could...

Find a permanent place to store scenery, costumes and props needed to stage an opera. Further, the Executive Director could be relieved of paying expenses from her own pocket to keep the opera afloat.

How frequently have you been involved with the organization?

About every month

When was your last experience with this nonprofit?

2009

August 21, 2009

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August 21, 2009

Great shows. It's amazing that a little town like Martinez -- population about 35000 -- has an opera. A first-rate one too.

The Great!

I've personally experienced the results of this organization in...

seeing shows, getting to know first-rate young singers

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If this organization had 10 million bucks, it could...

it wouldn't be the same. It needs lots more than it has, but its character is right at the level of a few $100k/year. Which it greatly needs.

How frequently have you been involved with the organization?

About once a year

When was your last experience with this nonprofit?

2009

August 17, 2009

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1 previous review
July 19, 2009

I attended the 2008 perfromance of M. Butterfly on a lark - I had a friend who got me in as a ticketer. I am originally from New York and have attended numerous live performances at the Metropolitan ... more

August 17, 2009

As volunteer I was treated with dignity and respect. The staff is of the highest caliber. More so the performance I was able to enjoy was far beyond my expectations and was a first class opera performance.

More feedback...

What I've enjoyed the most about my experience with this nonprofit is...

The cordiality and the fun of working with them

The kinds of staff and volunteers that I met were...

Great folks

If this organization had 10 million bucks, it could...

Produce lots of great opera performances

How frequently have you been involved with the organization?

One time

When was your last experience with this nonprofit?

2008

July 19, 2009

I attended the 2008 perfromance of M. Butterfly on a lark - I had a friend who got me in as a ticketer. I am originally from New York and have attended numerous live performances at the Metropolitan Opera House there. So when I saw M. Butterfly in Martinez I wasn't sure what to expect. Since I didn't pay for it, whatever it was would have been OK. Instead what I saw and heard made me feel like I was again at a professional opera house. While it is a small company relying on many volunteers and local supporters, the producers really know talent and so there were some of the finest young voices in opera right here in Martinez. Also the small but professional orchestral group was as good as the singers. Actually I was amazed. From my standpoint there is nothing to be critical about in any negative sense. I thought the performance was easily worth spending $50 for. (Note - the last time I went to the Met I spent $110 for an orchestra seat - and that was 20 or 30 years ago. Of course in the wonderful MTZ H.S. performance center every seat is an orchestra seat! Mr. Leslie SPaiser

The Great!

I've personally experienced the results of this organization in...

N/A

Ways to make it better...

If I had to make changes to this organization, I would...

Do nothing different

More feedback...

The kinds of staff and volunteers that I met were...

Exceptionally friendly

If this organization had 10 million bucks, it could...

have more performances

Ways to make it better...

Nothing

In my opinion, the biggest challenges facing this organization are...

financial

One thing I'd also say is that...

It's a remarkable organization

When was your last experience with this nonprofit?

2008

July 24, 2009

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July 24, 2009

My wife and I have been volunteers for the Martinez Opera Contra Costa since its inception. We've assisted in all ways that we could and have been delighted to do so as this organization is totally professional. Its work in community service and cultural output have been exemplary. We intend to continue volunteering in order to assist in furthering its mission.

The Great!

I've personally experienced the results of this organization in...

opera rehearsals and performances and through observing musical direction, set design and manufacturing and costume development.

Ways to make it better...

If I had to make changes to this organization, I would...

try to hire a professional fund raiser.

More feedback...

What I've enjoyed the most about my experience with this nonprofit is...

the opportunity to be a part of all phases of its primary mission.

The kinds of staff and volunteers that I met were...

friendly, talented and professional.

If this organization had 10 million bucks, it could...

be the most successful opera company in the state of California and beyond and maintain its current highest level of standards.

Ways to make it better...

the opera company had its own permanent home and if we had the funds to present operas more frequently.

In my opinion, the biggest challenges facing this organization are...

obtaining enough money to be able to provide more operas and being able to purchase or lease a permanent facility for storage, set manufacturing and rehearsals.

One thing I'd also say is that...

It is a joy to have the opportunity to be associated with Martinez Opera Contra Costa.

When was your last experience with this nonprofit?

2009

July 19, 2009

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July 19, 2009

My Career as an Umbrella Twirler It all began innocently enough, with a stroll through our town’s art festival one summer day. Suddenly a woman leaped out of a booth and accosted us. She looked at us fiercely, grasped my husband’s wrist, and demanded, “Are you opera lovers?” As our hearts returned to normal, we saw that her booth was marked “Martinez Opera Company.” Martinez is the county seat where one goes to deal with jury duty and driving infractions, and the home of smoke-belching oil refineries. We had not, until that moment, associated it with fine arts. In fact, we ARE opera lovers, and we entered into a spirited discussion with this lady, whom we never saw again. Angel fanciers, take note. We learned that Martinez actually has an opera company that mounts one production a year. Excitedly we signed up for email announcements. A few months later we got a casting call for the-most-loved-opera-of-all-time, Madama Butterfly. A chorus was needed. Oh, good, I thought. A chance to sing with lots of other people on stage; I could mingle in the background with the altos and contribute respectable tones to a crowd scene. I responded by email that I had participated in high school and college choirs, spoke Italian, and played the harp professionally. They accepted me sight unseen, or rather voice unheard. I’d neglected to mention that college was decades ago and I stopped playing the harp in 1991. They took me anyway. There’s only one explanation. They wuz desperate. At my first practice, one other woman showed up. The pianist played a few notes. My co-conspirator tried. She searched for the note as a giraffe searches for peanut butter at the bottom of a tall jar. I did a little better, making a mediocre sound modestly better than a squeak. You would ask for my singing the way travelers ask for directions, just to get a vague idea so you can hurry on to your destination. Next rehearsal four other singers showed up. (The giraffe lady was never seen again). Three of them are young ladies with real voices. The other is my age and comes with a heavy Australian accent, a pleasant mezzo-soprano, and a dogged determination to find the correct note. For a month we practiced with a succession of accompanists. Maybe we drove them away. Never mind, I thought, this is a tiny community production and no one will know what a mortifying struggle I’m having. Despite my musical background and love of Italian, I had difficulty learning the lyrics. I couldn’t even find my note. The chorus in Butterfly consists of her friends who come to her wedding carrying their parasols and fans, to admire and gossip. I never realized before how nasty these friends are. They sing, “Oh, this will never last. She’ll be divorced soon. I hope so,” and, “She’s already over the hill” (Butterfly is 15 years old). Other members of the chorus, giving the bridegroom the once-over, say to each other, “The matchmaker offered him to ME first, and of course I said NO!” Our first accompanist tried to convince me I’m a soprano. I nearly laughed out loud. When not anxious about public appearances, I’m rather proud of my deep, throaty tones and think I could creditably belt out the bottom line in an all-girl barbershop quartet. But my upper register sounds like a deflating balloon being held at gunpoint. Trust me, you would cross the street rather than hear me try to sing “Un Bel Di,” though I can do a nice singalong with Linda Ronstadt’s torch songs when I’m in the garage repairing a doorknob. My friend Michael sent me to his voice teacher, who ALSO asserted that I am a soprano. Yes, and the national debt is shrinking. Both teachers explained intriguing things about breathing and anatomy. I hadn’t realized that great opera singers owe a lot to the resonance of their sinuses. I wish I didn’t know that -- it takes away some of the glamour …. But it does give me a new excuse. Of course I’m a modest singer -- I’m not genetically endowed with shapely sinuses. In Madama Butterfly, the chorus’s lines are sporadic outbursts that come out of nowhere and just as suddenly disappear, leaving you to scramble desperately for your note in time for the next outburst. Puccini’s music is rhapsodically beautiful, but it also contains weird chords that took me weeks to grasp. Sometimes I rushed at the note like a defensive halfback trying to catch an elusive wide receiver. I decided to cheat. On difficult passages I would simply mime. Surely the rest of the chorus would show up soon and I could hide among the multitudes. I would be an umbrella twirler, the female counterpart of the spear-carrier. After all, this scene is a big wedding party. But week after week, we five were the only ones at chorus rehearsals. Then one dropped out and we were down to four. Our accompanist denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of tenors and baritones. An uneasy feeling began to sink in that there WERE no tenors or baritones or additional sopranos or (gasp) fellow altos. But we persisted; gradually one could perceive the outlines of our contribution to the wedding scene. Soon we would get to meet the principal singers and rehearse with Michael, who sings the role of the matchmaker. One day the shock came. I learned that the principals are not friendly minor local talents who are grateful for a leading role and sure to be kind to the amateurs. They are solid professionals being flown in from around the country, with respectable resumes and admiring reviews in music publications like San Francisco Classical Voice. Oh, s***. I can’t tell if I’m more upset about ruining the work of these artists with my meek off-key chirps, or of humiliating myself on stage. My husband will overlook my failings, as always, but I have foolishly told our opera pals about this production, and some of them may actually attend. Too late to back out now. I considered it. But there are just too few FOBs (Friends of Butterfly). How can I abandon the other three now? So I gulp and keep practicing. Finally the lyrics begin to come automatically, little burblings of rhythmic gushing gossip. Now I just have to stitch them into the correct sequence and match them to the music. Did I mention that those clichés about Italian being such a musical language are BS? Sure, it’s lyrical, but for some reason opera composers have decided it is NOT NECESSARY to match the syllables to the music. So everywhere one finds a single note with three words crammed into it, and in other places one word stretched out over four notes. There is no logic to this random distribution, so there’s nothing for a hapless volunteer chorister to do but to drill the phrases repeatedly – while driving to the store, taking a shower, cleaning out the cat’s litter box…. I bought a pitch pipe, a round harmonica you blow in to get your note (pitch). I should have tried it out at the store. When you blow into this gadget, you receive a vague honking sound that may or may not resemble an actual tone. Hmm, maybe you have to turn it over or blow across the holes the way you did over coke bottles as a child. No such luck. New whistling drones were emitted and they never seemed to be identical to the ones they emitted last time. I blew and breathed and panted into the thing. Oh. Maybe you’re supposed to suck. Tried that. Silence. Now I’ve breathed all over the pitch pipe and don’t want to take it back to the store. I’m a bleeding heart for small businesspeople, so I keep trying and finally get some use out of the thing. But I’m still waiting for someone, anyone, to find me a fellow alto. One week from opening night I got one of those eye-openers that make you wonder where your brain has been. There I was onstage, desperately trying to find my cues by glancing sidelong at my fellow choristers. The conductor tapped his music stand to stop the action and, glaring at me as only a Russian can, said, “You are lookingk everywhere but at me. We do it again, and you are lookingk at me.” Oh. Unbeknownst to me, he was purposely giving us cues. What a concept. We redid the passage, and at the key moment, sure enough, he lifted his baton, looked right at us, and signaled that it was OUR TURN TO SING. Later that night, I shamefacedly described the scene to my husband, feeling like an idiot. I thought of three reasons I never imagined the conductor would actually help us. One, I remembered from my youthful acting days that when stage lights are up and house lights are down, you can’t see the audience. They are a strange, dreamlike, breathing presence you are trying to please, but you can’t see them. I assumed I would not be able to see the conductor, who was there in the blackness to watch the stage and keep the orchestra caught up to the singers. Two, I thought you’re not SUPPOSED to look at the conductor – that doing so would break the illusion of the “fourth wall” (the impression that the audience is secretly peeking into other people’s living rooms). Performers don’t do it in professional productions, maintaining rigorous discipline and looking only at each other. Three, it never occurred to me that we lowly choristers wouldn’t have to flounder unhelped in a shapeless sea of sound. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to seeing my blond self in a black wig, white makeup, and kimono. With parasol and fan, I might just pass as a geisha if you’re a near-sighted person behind a pillar in the second balcony. I think I’ll send a photo of this spectacle to my faculty colleagues and see if they can guess who it is. Umbrella Twirler Enlists an Accomplice A key character is Madama Butterfly’s little son, the focus of his mother’s adoration and part of the heartbreaking finale. One day one of the choristers brought her son to meet the director. He is seven years old and husky, too large for even the most forgiving audience member to mistake for a two-year-old. Certainly too heavy for a soprano to lug around onstage while warbling a lullaby. I wondered if my little neighbor Olivia would do… she is five and part of a family heavily involved in music, theatre, and dance. At her audition, the director just wanted to explain the plot (expurgated) and see how she reacted. He is in his 70s and has interviewed numerous tots. He knows how to choose the one who will steal hearts onstage without picking his nose or starting to cry. Behold, she has been given the role! I’m a little nervous about this, as the job of the child is to sit adorably here and there without moving very much. How can you expect a small child to sit still for so long? But my little friend did splendidly. Maybe it was a test, but the director made her wait almost three hours before he called for her to rehearse. All this time, the principals were singing, the stage manager was taking notes and whispering to various assistants, and the conductor was stopping and starting the action to give comments. Olivia sat on her mother’s lap or wandered around quietly looking at the artificial cherry tree, which was being festooned with blossoms by a woman who would stand back, look critically at her work, then step forward to attach another blossom. Finally, Olivia was called. I was agog to eavesdrop, but I was sitting too far away. (Actually, I was two gogs). I could see her listening solemnly to instructions and dutifully falling asleep on command. By the end of her rehearsal time, she had made such an impression that the director decided to give her extra little things to do. Time passed. After weeks of struggle, I was still rehearsing new apologies and fishing for reassurance from anyone who would listen. I grew up believing that I could (and should) do anything I set my mind to. It was a momentous discovery in my 20s that I could actually utter the words “I don’t know” and live to tell the tale. Even now, it seems anathema to give up on something I’ve truly tried to do. But I simply cannot find those C# notes during rehearsal, no matter how well I nail them at home. If I try to stuff my pitch pipe into my obi (kimono belt) and sneak it out for furtive bleats behind my fan, they’ll undoubtedly spot it and frisk me every night for the rest of the run. Telling myself that I’m losing IQ points by the day doesn’t help. So, recalling the expertise I used as a cognitive therapist in my former career, I conduct an internal interview: How many voice lessons have you had in your life? One. How long ago did you sing in a choir? Several decades. Did you get individual instruction while singing in this choir? [Me: smothered guffaw] When you were living in Italy, did you speak regular conversational Italian or poetic opera Italian? Regular conversation. How long ago was this? Several decades. Is opera Italian difficult? Yes, there’s no rational correlation between words and notes. Have you ever sung in the chorus of an opera? No, but I was in the chorus of Finian’s Rainbow for six performances when I was twenty. How did that go? Lots of accidents and illnesses among the cast, most of them onstage. By the end of the run, the head usher was asking physicians to identify themselves at the door. Were you one of the casualties? Yes. What was the nature of your accident? Broke my foot onstage during “That Great Come and Get It Day.” I still can’t do some yoga positions. I tell people it’s an old dancing injury. Could this experience have colored your view of the safety of the performing arts? Gee, I hadn’t thought about that in years. Really? Let your mind go back to that period of your life… At this point I realize I am not dealing with a true cognitive therapist, who would continue the session as follows: How much are you being paid to sing in this chorus? Paid? So, to sum up, you’re doing something you haven’t done in decades, in a foreign language, as a volunteer, with limited rehearsal time, at a higher level of expertise than you’ve ever attempted before. Is this correct? Gee, now that you put it that way, maybe it’s no wonder I’m struggling. I refuse to tell you how Butterfly turned out. We’re doing Carmen next. This reminds me of an interchange I had with a therapy client some years ago. A musician wanted an orchestra job but feared the tryout, saying she hadn’t been practicing enough. I wasn’t sure whether this was true; she was so self-critical that she never gave herself credit for anything. In the weeks before the tryout, she vacillated between extremes of hope and doubt, unsure whether to even attend the audition. One day, she said, oh, by the way, she got the job. “Congratulations!” I exclaimed. She didn’t respond with the happy enthusiasm one would expect. I repeated my congratulations. She shrugged. “They probably gave it to me out of pity.” “Why would they do that? You’re thinking they’re going to fill the first violinist chair in a professional orchestra, someone they’ll have to play with in public – for pity?” “Well, they probably knew it was me.” This really baffled me. “How could they not know it was you?” “Oh, you can tell sometimes.” This was getting mysteriouser and mysteriouser. She added, “Maybe they could see behind the screen.” “There’s a screen?” “Oh, yeah. Auditions are supposed to be anonymous.” “Oh, I see. They have a list of the candidates – ” “Not exactly. The day before, I told them I wasn’t coming. I just went on the spur of the moment.” “Let me get this straight. You believe that people who can’t see you, who don’t even know you are there, who are putting their own reputations on the line, hired you out of pity?” Rehearsing The best way to discover which activities you love is to ask yourself, “What am I doing when time flies by the fastest?” To my surprise, I’m finding this happens during opera rehearsals, despite my fear and fretting. Hours whiz by before I think to check my watch, even when my tiny crew of choristers is not being put through our paces. This is because we get to hear the principal singers practice. They know their roles cold – all of them have done this opera before – so they can stop and start on a dime. Amazingly, they can create the magic of this love story, stop in mid-measure to discuss a vocal technicality or a change in staging, and resume creating the magic. Maybe I wouldn’t have this admiring reaction if we were doing, say, Dr. Atomic, a brand-new opera about the inventor of the atom bomb (now there’s a musical theme for you!) or St. Francis of Assisi, another plot-free modern work that goes on for five hours. It’s hard to believe, but, like several of the other absolutely classic operas, Butterfly was not well received at its premiere. Don’t you wonder what those audiences were thinking? From this distance, it’s easy to sneer at them, but meanwhile we may be turning up our noses at creations that will eventually become classics. Will Dr. Atomic (which got tepid reviews -- deservedly, in my opinion) some day be considered the most enchanting evening in the theatre that was ever composed? I wonder what it’s like to have a really fine musical instrument in your throat. One chorus member has had a death in the family, so we are down to four. There are no men in the chorus and we have been asked to perform some work chanteys sung by the sailors in the port. Finally, a moment in the sun for my deep notes! We’ll be offstage. I rather relish the image of four women in kimonos huddling in the wings, putting out throaty yo-ho-hos. Now they’ve taken away the conductor! Just as I was sinking blissfully into a cloud of relief that I could receive his signals at key moments, I learn that because our performance venue doesn’t have an orchestra pit, the musicians will be backstage, out of sight. We choristers really will be on our own. Tuesday night we had the sitzprobe. This German word refers to the rehearsal when the singers and the orchestra get together for the first time, after rehearsing separately for weeks. There’s no staging, and one is allowed to have one’s sheet music (whew). The rehearsal hall is empty, as the sets have been moved to the performance hall. I greet the harpist, whom I knew years ago when I was playing professionally, and sit in one of the folding chairs facing the orchestra. I love this. I’m sitting right next to these truly wonderful singers, and, just like them, I stand up when it’s my turn to sing. I taste the secret thrill of pretending I am a colleague, not a peon. Hey! They’ve cut my lines! * sigh* The actor’s lament. Just as I was proudly polishing my yo-ho-hos – which were the ONLY parts of the score that magically I could get right the first time, every time – I’ve been informed that they have found some actual men to play the (offstage) sailors. Pooey. Dress rehearsal It’s not easy kneeling in a kimono, or getting up. Do not trip over your parasol, I mutter, recalling Spencer Tracy’s gruff response when asked his secret to acting: “Know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.” My other job is to mind Olivia when she’s not onstage. Dennis the Menace in braids! She has me running around backstage like a panting nanny. I keep her from bolting onstage when the singers are doing other scenes, and stop let her from getting lost outside, now that she’s discovered the door behind the stage that leads to the parking lot. A late-night sprinkling system is watering the grass (wastefully, I grumble) and Olivia finds great fun in daring me to stand still while the sprinkler head rotates. I get wet twice. It’s not a bad idea to use up her kinetic energy, but at the end of the evening, another chorister (who has three children) gives me some kindly advice about firmness and bringing crayons next time. Did I mention that Puccini is a genius? How many times have I heard this music? yet even while crouching in the wings and seeing the set from behind (plywood and all), I’m taken to a far land. This music, like the Hubble telescope, justifies the existence of the human species. The man singing the role of Yamadori (a suitor that Butterfly rejects) looks like a biker. Husky, long-haired, muscular – I’d expect to find him repairing cars, and maybe that is what he does for a livelihood. He’s one of the local singers who fill the smaller roles. These folks do not make a living at their art, just as playing the harp was purely gravy for me; most harpists I knew didn’t do it full time. How many people across the country lift their hearts with their dancing, or singing, or acting, or composing, but pay the bills by jobs as administrative assistants, or dental hygienists, or paralegals? There’s a sarcastic line, “Don’t quit your day job,” meant as a sneer about someone’s artistic talents, but I respect these folks who pour their love into the extra things humans do above and beyond survival and nesting. They must sing La Boheme (the opera set among starving artists in Paris) with special poignancy. Years ago when I traveled alone through Italy, I was first bemused, then touched, by the little roadside shrines to saints that I saw propped in plaster niches in the walls at town intersections. Some of these were no more than dolls dressed up in frowsy robes and topped by tinsel halos. My initial snobbery soon gave way to sympathy and gratitude. These are the base of the pyramid of art. They are the first fruits of humans’ impulse to create, to honor, to make beauty. One of psychologist Rollo May’s last books was called “My Quest for Beauty,” and in it he gives an interesting spin on the legend of the Trojan War. Starting a war for one woman was not the point, he proposed: what if Helen represents not one female person but the whole concept of beauty? Would that not be worth fighting for? Could the war represent humanity’s press toward beauty, against all obstacles and worth the price? Rollo was on my dissertation committee and I only wish this book had come out before my oral examination, so I could have talked with him about this intriguing notion. He passed away a few years later before I got the chance. I know less about singers who do achieve a career level in their art, and even less about those who reach opera stardom. How relentlessly focused they must be, to be on the road so much, to guard their voices, to learn new languages, to keep up with lessons and overhead! Are they as reckless as competitors in other fields? I had bulimic athletes in my therapy practice who knew the risks they were taking both on and off the field, but burned with such passion to win the prize that they overlooked the dangers to which they subjected their bodies. Given what I’ve just learned about the unexpected importance of anatomy to singers, would an aspiring soprano get elective sinus surgery? (if there is such a thing). Would a hopeful baritone try some risky trick to turn himself into a tenor, since tenors get all the big roles? I’ve attended vocal competitions where dozens of highly trained singers from around the country perform in front of judges. The outcome can be a gig or a career breakthrough -- or a pratfall and heartbreak. Of course they’re nervous and don’t always do their best. A lifetime of practice and sacrifice boiled down to a few minutes, like the Olympic skaters. What courage! I will never meet most of the artists who dare to pursue their dreams, but I salute them. Second – and last -- dress rehearsal A few days ago I took some of my own advice. I used to tell therapy clients to begin imagining the possibility of reaching some goal – not as a way to whip themselves into a frenzy but in order to “make room in your heart for the possibility that it could happen.” For example, one doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley was panicked about her final oral examination, sure she would do so poorly that her career would be derailed. (Campus was one block from my office, so I saw many Berkeley undergraduates and graduate students). Naturally, this anticipatory anxiety was the real enemy, since I knew from earlier conversations that she was perfectly confident that she knew her field. So I asked her, “Do you know what room the oral will be held in? What does it look like? How many examiners will there be?” Once we had mentally set the stage, I instructed her to imagine she was leaving the room at the end of the session saying to herself, “Well! That wasn’t so bad!” We practiced this for several weeks, and sure enough, she passed. So I have been visualizing and hearing myself singing easily and enjoying it. And lo, it came to pass that at the second dress rehearsal I nailed most of my entrances, and I enjoyed it. And it was good. The green room (where actors and singers wait when they are not onstage) has a bustling life of its own. The sound system has finally been hooked up so we can hear what is being sung onstage. This reduces anxiety about missing one’s entrance. (I almost did that many years ago in Noel Coward’s comedy Hay Fever). So to the background of this exquisite music being produced a few feet away, choristers and principals are snacking, chatting, telling stories, and touching up their makeup. We have only one room, so it must double as dressing room and green room. This camaraderie is so contagious that I understand a friend’s warning: “Beware of singing in an opera chorus! It’s addictive!” Ok, ok, I know. If this were more than a short run, factions and resentments would develop, spoiling the mood. The conductor would glare at me some more, the costumer would bark at us for dragging our kimonos in the dust, the principals would stop being nice to us, etc. But so far the few awkward moments have passed quickly and I’m glad I’ll be able to treasure this whole experience. Meanwhile, I’ve found another way to cheat. Those devilishly difficult passages when the chorus enters actually consist of the same chord repeated in varying combinations. I can’t pick out all four notes of the augmented chord while surrounded by people singing different notes, but I can pick out one. I’ll just stick to that one for the whole four chords. I wonder if anyone will notice. Another trick I might try is to sing other passages an octave lower than written. I asked about this a few weeks ago and was told not to do it. Well, tomorrow is opening night. Even if anyone in power notices, what can they do to me? This reminds me of figure skaters again. They have pre-set sequences of moves and leaps, many of them comprising double, triple and (these days) quadruple jumps. Sometimes in competition, a move that was announced to be a triple unexpectedly turns into a double, to the dismay of the color commentator. I’ve often wondered: At what point does a skater realize that he or she will not make the upcoming triple, and turn it into a double? Is it a split-second thing, or does the skater know five or six seconds ahead of time? Last night we wore inexpensive dime-store wigs which were put on after our hair was pinned and covered by an elastic net. Tonight this was taken a step further. A few locks of our own hair was left outside the concoction in front, pulled back over the wig, and sprayed black. This gives our real hairline and makes the edge look more natural. It looked hilarious, though, at the end of the evening when the wig came off and I had several hardened black locks sticking out like insane icicles next to my fluffy blond hair. The makeup artist, who sports elaborate tattoos on her décolleté chest and arms, gave us dramatically black eyebrows and eyeliner, but not the pasty white faces I had expected. We still looked like ourselves, not transformed into passable geisha wannabes. My friends will probably be able to pick me out of the lineup. The director, by the way, who is 80 if he’s a day, refers to us as “chorus girls.” I’m on good terms with him and can forgive his upbringing during World War II, so I let it pass. Opening night I awoke with Puccini’s music playing in my head. This has been happening all week. I know that researchers have debunked the notion of subliminal learning (learning from audiotapes while you sleep), but this is latent learning (sinking in after a delay). This morning, the inner dawn chorus inspired me to invent a bit of stage business: just after the wedding ceremony, I’ll pull out a hanky and dab my eyes. Uh oh, what if I drop the hanky? Also, I don’t know what kind of handkerchief they use in Japan. Oh, I know – I’ll use the sleeve of my kimono. That silence you hear is my abashed reaction to my performance on opening night. I wasn’t very good, and the memory of every goof stings. I didn’t exactly screech or trip over my kimono, but I missed entrances and didn’t contribute at all to the chorus in some places. Strangely, I wasn’t afraid. Standing there, aware of the audience just a few feet away, I just thought, “Hmm, I wonder what’s going to happen next.” But still I felt guilty and sad for doing less well than I intended – and less well than the professional singers and the audience deserved. Next day one singer, hereafter known as one-who-shall-be-nameless, made a major error in timing, such that all four of us in the chorus simply stood in stunned silence instead of emitting our scripted syncopated gasps of horror. Fortunately, stunned silence fits the scene – Butterfly is being disowned by her family and friends after they discover she has cemented her commitment to Pinkerton by converting to Christianity. After we exited, we stamped around offstage grumbling, consoling ourselves with the thought that at least we had stuck together after the culprit’s error and not dissolved into a chaotic dribble of notes. But when we got to the green room, he asked us jauntily, “Well, what the hell happened to YOU?” Our confidence shaken, we wondered what happened – could it be that we had screwed up? We huddled and went over it and over it, feeling sick at heart, plus stupid. Finally, I decided I couldn’t stand this awful feeling. Screwing my courage to the sticking point, I went up to the conductor (it was intermission by now) and asked, “Did we do wrong?” He shook his head and said quietly, “He was off. He was off in a major way.” Relief! Hurray and vindication. Now I like the conductor. I whispered the news to the others, and soon we all four felt immensely better. I’m proud to say that I had no desire to make the culprit feel bad, just hoping that the conductor had enlightened him about the cue. Sure enough, at the third performance our scene went well. I wondered if he might have had some subterranean uneasiness about his part in it, though, for he greeted each one of us after our scene and said, “We did it!” But at the fourth and last performance, his timing felt off again – only this time the four of us boldly sang our lines and got the rhythm back on track. So my operatic debut is over. I sang well in some places, came in late or early in others, and in some places just moved my lips. I did well in the job of acting friendly, respectful, horrified, etc. The others were kind to me at the cast party and even gave me some compliments, so my dread of being the pariah is fully assuaged. I’ll do better next year. I hear we’ll be doing Carmen. I’ve always wanted to play a tobacco factory worker, or, as one famously mistranslated plot synopsis says, a “cigarette makeress.”

The Great!

I've personally experienced the results of this organization in...

attracting an impressive crowd of opera lovers to bimonthly dinner and music events.

Ways to make it better...

If I had to make changes to this organization, I would...

pat myself on the back.

More feedback...

What I've enjoyed the most about my experience with this nonprofit is...

Singing in the chorus! It was the most fun I've ever had without laughing!

The kinds of staff and volunteers that I met were...

Talented and professional.

If this organization had 10 million bucks, it could...

Give even more happiness to more singers and audience members.

Ways to make it better...

there had been more chorus members. So all you folks reading this, tune up your voices and show up for the next production.

In my opinion, the biggest challenges facing this organization are...

fund-raising. So everyone reading this, get out your checkbooks!

One thing I'd also say is that...

I'm glad I discovered Martinez Opera.

When was your last experience with this nonprofit?

2009

July 18, 2009

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July 18, 2009

I have had a lot of fun helping to make the costumes, and helping to find homes for the singers. I encourage all to get involved. They are a very positive group to be with. Loved the operas I attended, and the home events. Noralea Gipner

Ways to make it better...

If I had to make changes to this organization, I would...

More feedback...

What I've enjoyed the most about my experience with this nonprofit is...

meeting new people and seeing an opera come together.

Ways to make it better...

more of the community would get involved

When was your last experience with this nonprofit?

2009

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