Chautauqua arts programs to present combined performance of classic

CHAUTAUQUA – Very few places in the world are to be found first-rate actors, singers, dancers, musicians, technical staff, directors, choreographers, and more, all in one single place. Chautauqua is one of those very few places.

Next Saturday, the public is invited to witness an experiment in the arts which will no doubt go down in history. The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, the Chautauqua Dance Company and North Carolina Dance Theater, the Chautauqua Opera Company, the Chautauqua School of Music, a jazz ensemble from the Music School Festival Orchestra, and the Chautauqua Theater Company will join together to perform a unique and very special examination of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliette.” In this production, each of the major characters will be portrayed – more or less simultaneously – by a dancer, a singer and an actor, to the accompaniment of the orchestra.

The most astonishing thing of all is that all of this is being done in the spare time of artists who have absolutely no spare time. On Friday evening, Chautauqua Opera will be opening their second production of the season, Verdi’s opera “Falstaff.” A few days before the production, the dance company will be performing a demanding evening of Pas de Deux. At the same time Arielle Goldman, who is the actor portraying Juliet, was going into rehearsal for this production, she was playing a major role in the New Play Workshop “Dark Radio.”

I could fill the column with the events these people are juggling, but I hope the point is demonstrated. Just trying to find times and places to talk with them, in order to tell you about it, was an Olympic-quality challenge. Much gratitude is owed to Tim Smeal of the Chautauqua Theater Company, who made appointments and changed appointments and begged other offices for photos, on our behalf.

This week, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about the coming Inter-Arts Collaboration. I hope I can get you as excited as I am, about seeing the results of all this frantic effort.

THE PROJECT

In July of 2010, the CSO, the theater company, with singers and dancers, together created a production of Peter Shaffer’s play “Amadeus.” The play was successfully performed in the Amphitheater, and went on to be successfully performed at Artpark, in Lewiston with the Buffalo Philharmonic, and with the Virginia Symphony.

At that time, Vivienne Benesch, artistic director of the Chautauqua Theater Company, was impressed by the richness of the artistic talent which was able to be harnessed to enlarge and enrich what was already an excellent piece of theater.

“I immediately thought of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ I don’t think any other piece of theater has inspired so much creativity in other artists,” she said recently. “I suggested the idea to the Chautauqua administration, and they told me I could go ahead and explore an Inter-Arts Project and see if it would even be possible to harness all the areas which would be necessary to involve, while they are simultaneously presenting a full season of productions in a nine-week season.”

Benesch involved David Paul, a colleague of hers on the faculty of New York City’s Juilliard School. The two created a story board, which analyzed Shakespeare’s play to see what elements of it were absolutely necessary, in order to tell its story, and which might be illustrated in music or in dance, either instead of by actors, or in addition to actors’ work. They examined a huge list of musical works which had been inspired by the play, choosing to incorporate both traditional material based upon the play, and more experimental approaches, such as Leonard Bernstein’s music from “West Side Story,” which presents the classic story set in New York City in the 1950s, and “Star Crossed Lovers,” by Duke Ellington.

Just before the 2012 season, they presented their plans to the artistic directors of all the other programs at the Institution, and gathered their suggestions of what they would recommend, and what their programs might contribute to the project.

“I know all of us sometimes feel overwhelmed by how much we have to do to put on a season of performances, and there is sometimes some friendly rivalry for performance times and places, but I was truly impressed how everyone bought into the idea and graciously cooperated with one another, to make it possible,” she said. Near the end of the 2012 season, Institution President Tom Becker gave her the approval to go ahead and plan on a production for the 2013 season.

The company brought together a cast of professional actors, who gave a reading of the text which had been chosen for inclusion, to be watched by experts on Shakespearean productions. They made recommendations of anything they thought could be left out, or which they thought absolutely must be included in order to do justice to the classic play. In the end, about an hour of spoken text will be used, plus approximately 90 minutes of singing and dance will further examine and analyze the play.

Don St. Pierre of the Chautauqua School of Music was asked to orchestrate the musical works for the instruments from the CSO which would be available for the project. Among the works from which elements will be used in the production are “Romeo et Juliette: Symphonie Dramatique” by Hector Berlioz, “Romeo et Juliette” by Charles Gounod, “Romeo and Juliet – Overture and Fantasia” by Piotyr Illych Tchaikovsky, “Romeo and Juliet” by Sergei Prokofiev, “West Side Story” by Leonard Bernstein and “Star-Crossed Lovers” from the album “Such Sweet Thunder” by Duke Ellington.

Just getting the rights to perform those works, and getting a firm commitment on which of them require that the name of the writer of the lyrics must be included, even if the work isn’t being sung, but is being danced to, or it is being performed by the orchestra to link one scene to the next, and a seemingly endless list of similar possible entanglements had to be waded into by representatives of the Institution. The only place large enough and with enough stage equipment at Chautauqua to present the project is the Amphitheater, but because it serves as the site of religious services and lectures and rehearsals and performances, it was necessary to rehearse the performances in other sites and to do technical rehearsals which began at 11:30 p.m. and lasted all night.

Benesch herself is the principal stage director, in association with Katherine McGerr. The choreography for most of the dancing is by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, artistic director of the Chautauqua Dance Program, and by Mark Diamond, associate artistic director. Sasha Janes is supervising the dancers, in learning the choreography.

Timothy Muffitt will conduct the CSO for the production. Lee Savage will design the set. Scott Bolman will design the lighting. Tracy Christensen will design costumes. While the costumes were still being created, at the time of my interviews, Benesch said that her understanding was that all three Juliets would dress in the same shade of yellow, all three Romeos would wear the same shade of blue, and so on, giving the audience an easy reference when so many performers would be on stage at the same time.

David Hunter will be responsible for audio supervision, James Latus will stage manage the production while B. Bales Karlin will be stage manager, and Diego Valleda will choreograph the fighting. Just a quick glance at this long list of professionals gives you just a hint of the quality and the size of the production, and there are pages of other names of people whose contributions are significant.

“I didn’t want to turn this production into a collage, in which this part is spoken and that part is sung, etc.,” Benesch said. “I wanted the performers to acknowledge their other selves on the stage, to perform independently, yet to maintain the reality that their character is also being embodied by other artists.”

“Frankly, this is one of the most thrilling and exciting things I’ve ever worked on,” she continued. “The source material is so wonderful, it gave us the bones of the production, and by trusting the bones, I think we’ve produced something truly historic.”

I had the idea to get three Juliets together and talk with them about their portrayals, and then three Romeos. It turned out that was laughably more complicated than was possible. Instead, I spent an entire day, 14 hours in length, talking with as many individual artists as I could. The one salvation is that it was a day spent with people who were absolutely gorgeous, without exceptions. Then, that turned into a second drive out to Chautauqua on another day, to speak with a pair who weren’t available on that long day.

I considered showing you adjacent photos of three portrayers of the same character, to illustrate this column, but that turned out not to be possible either. The politics of who is portrayed and who is interviewed have potential to be lethal, but I think the event is going to be the single most important artistic event in this county, during this year, so let me give you what I have, and hopefully it will at least help you to create an idea of what will be done and lure you to the Chautauqua Amphitheater next Saturday at 8:15 p.m.

JULIETS

Shakespeare’s Juliet is a young woman in her very early teens. One famous actor who has portrayed the role many times has famously said, “By the time a woman is old enough to understand Juliet, she’s too old to play the part.”

Next Saturday, the ingenue will be acted by Arielle Goldman. She will be sung by soprano Rachel Sterrenberg and danced by Anna Gerberich. Since none of the dancers were available for interviews while I was there, I learned the role dance would play in the production by speaking with Sasha Janes, who is staging the choreography, as mentioned above.

I wondered if Goldman found it a bit claustrophobic to share a role. Were there times when she felt her character should behave in one way, while the other portrayers had different ideas?

She replied that she had gone into the project with a concern about that, but that up to the time we spoke, she had found it delightful to hear her character take to song, or to watch her to spell out her feelings in graceful movement.

A graduate of the University of Michigan and a holder of a degree from New York University, she comes to Chautauqua to play the daughter in “Dark Radio” and a minor role in “The Comedy of Errors,” which will close the season for the CTC.

She told me she has loved her time at Chautauqua, and has found everyone so friendly and welcoming. She has found her classes and her professional responsibilities to be valuable and extremely worthwhile, and the opportunity to interact with artists in other disciplines to be stimulating and exciting. She has found her long and demanding days to be a bit daunting, although they came as no surprise to her.

“I feel that the acted parts of the project communicate the heart of Shakespeare’s play, and the singing and dancing only enlarge and enrich it.

Rachel Sterrenberg is a native of Madison, Ga., and a graduate of the University of Kentucky. In 2011, she sang the role of Juliet in Charles Gounod’s opera “Romeo and Juliet,” and much of her singing in this project will be from that opera, although she will also sing the role of Maria in the famed quintet from “West Side Story.”

She told me she found everyone in the cast and on the production staff of the project has been extremely talented, and she also feels her portrayal of Juliet has been enhanced, rather than limited by sharing it with other.

This is her third year of study at Chautauqua with Marlena Malas, the chair of the Voice Department in the School of Music, and she and her Romeo are deep into rehearsals for a production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” which I couldn’t find on the Chautauqua Calendar, despite searching diligently, but which I believe is over, by the time you’re reading this.

“Today was my first opportunity to work with piano and conductor, although I’ve been working with Arielle on staging. This is really shaping up to be something very special,” she said.

ROMEOS

Romeo will be danced by Pete Walker, acted by Brian Smolin, and sung by tenor Yu Joong Kim. Since Romeo is a role which requires its portrayer to be both a skilled lover and a skilled brawler, perhaps the interaction of the three is even more pronounced for these young men.

Kim has been working on his role since March. This is his first year of study at Chautauqua, which he has found to be both enjoyable and very stimulating. “There may be no other place in the world where it would be possible to put such a project together,” he said about the Inter-Arts Project. “This is a unique experiment, and one which could change the face of the arts forever.”