New Orleans Opera Blog – April 2021

Kathryn Frady, Amy Pfrimmer, Victoria Livengood, and Dennis Jesse

The Making of The Medium

By Clare Burovac, General Director

Live opera production generally follows a regular pattern:  after all the guest artists arrive in New Orleans, rehearsals begin with the opportunity to sing through the entire score on the first day, followed by the start of staging rehearsals.  During the staging period, the stage director will instruct all of the soloists, chorus, and extras (“supernumeraries”) as to how they will act their role, what props to carry, when their costume change will happen, etc., all accompanied by a pianist playing the opera.  This process can generally take anywhere from a few days to two weeks, depending upon the complexity of the opera and the number of performers.  Towards the end of this period, other elements begin to be added into the mix:  a rehearsal with orchestra (called a sitzprobe), a technical rehearsal with piano onstage, a rehearsal with costumes, and finally, the dress rehearsal with all elements of the production a day or two before public performances.  Our recent production of The Medium upended all of that!

In late February, it became clear that city restrictions on the gathering sizes would not be lifted in time for us to prepare for live performances in New Orleans, so we made the decision to create a filmed version of The Medium to share with our audience.  Based on our experience filming the Opera Guild Home concert in January, and following all COVID protocols for the safety of our performers and staff, we knew that this would be a challenging project! 

One of the first decisions we had to make was where to film in order to get the best video and sound.  At this point, Set Designer Nathan Arthur had already completed his design, and the Scenic Studio had begun work constructing it.  New Orleans Opera’s Scenic Studio has a large paint floor that was an ideal area for the filming process, but the roof of the building has skylights that would prevent us from controlling the lighting for the opera.  Technical Director Keith Christopher had the ingenious idea to create a tent made out of plastic sheeting to block out the natural lighting and enable us to create the mood of the opera.

The paint floor at the H. Lloyd Hawkins Scenic Studio with the tented stage built for The Medium.

However, this space was not large enough for us to have both the singers and orchestra together; one of the most important safety considerations for live singing is the size of the space and the distance required between individuals.  Additionally, the Studio is not an ideal acoustic for capturing high quality audio.  And so we turned to our partners at Esplanade Studios to discuss possibilities for creating a recorded soundtrack.  On March 16, the Louisiana Philharmonic musicians joined our five soloists at Esplanade studios for a recording session during which we created our own soundtrack to The Medium.

Artistic Director and Conductor, Robert Lyall, rehearsing with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra at Esplanade Studios.

The artists now had the heroic task of rehearsing the acting for the opera while “lip-synching” to a recording of their own voices, a skill that no opera singer has ever had to learn!  For this opera, the task was more difficult than others might have been, particularly for Victoria Livengood in the role of Madame Flora, which has a large amount of spoken text and ad-lib utterances.  During the next four days, the soloists rehearsed in the Studio with both a live pianist and the recording, and then on Saturday, March 20, Misha Kachkachishvili and his team brought their cameras to the Studio to capture the video.  The singers did one complete run-thru of the 65-minute opera without interruption, followed by a few additional “takes” of certain scenes to make sure that we had enough footage to piece together in creating the final product.  Now, the film rests in the hands of the team at Esplanade Studios, who will be mixing the audio, choosing the video shots for each moment, and synching the audio to the video. 

The final “performance” on filming day was just as electrifying as a night in the theatre – The Medium is such a powerful and dramatic opera.  Thank you to all of the New Orleans Opera artists, staff, and crew for the creativity, flexibility, and hard work that was required in producing this film – all of whom adapted to our COVID restrictions and didn’t let them stop you from producing a beautiful work of art to share with the world.   

We can’t wait to see and hear the result of this most unusual project!