Behind the Scenes with Opera Philadelphia featuring Tancredi. Video by Jose F. Moreno/Gannett
Stagehands smoothed the white tablecloths and adjusted the prop place settings behind a transparent black scrim separating them from the colonnaded red and gold auditorium of the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.
Performers filed into the wings, warmed up and in costume. The lights shone, the orchestra was tuned and the stage was set for the culmination of just over four weeks of work by numerous teams across the city, the dress rehearsal of Opera Philadelphia’s “Tancredi.”
“There is something magic about the opera,” said Corrado Rovaris, the “Tancredi” conductor and Opera Philadelphia’s music director. “You have so many ingredients and when they come together in the right way, it’s wonderful.”
Though the opera made the decision to perform “Tancredi” four years ago, work began in earnest only last month.
Separate rehearsals with the chorus, the orchestra and the principals, who travelled from around the world to perform, commenced in early January in a cavernous hall tucked away on an upper floor of the Academy
“Tancredi” started its journey at the Opera de Lausanne in Switzerland before moving to Santiago, Chile, then to Philadelphia. The costumes, sets and props were designed in Switzerland and shipped to the subsequent locations.
“This is sort of a ready-to-wear production,” said Millie Hiibel, the costume director at Opera Philadelphia, who oversaw alterations of the existing costumes and construction of a few new ones.
Fittings were done in the opera costume shop on Walnut Street in January. Racks of “Tancredi” costumes with fitting notes pinned to the sleeves sat among the cutting tables, industrial sewing machines, bolts of fabric, boxes of corsets and stockings and the hard-working stitchers and tailors.
Between the 34 members of the chorus and eight principals, Hiibel estimated there are about a hundred costumes in the production.
Allegra De Vita was one of the performers who required a new dress. Hiibel imitated the design of the original costume, sourcing a floral-print silk and cotton voile in New York City and hand-dyeing it the same coral shade. A muslin mock-up of the dress was fitted to De Vita with steel sewing pins.
Kara Morasco, a draper, held a cream-colored fabric up to the voile as a lining possibility; the stiff fabric rustled under her fingertips. “It may be a little noisy,” she said.
The team has to make carefully considered choices when it comes to the functionality of the costumes. Many singers don’t want fabric around their throat. Some may like the feel of a corset while some feel it restricts the movement of their diaphragm.
“You have to get a feel for the individual artist,” Hiibel said.
While “Tancredi” traditionally is set in medieval times, Stage Director Emilio Sagi, who has traveled with the production, set it in the 1910s, He thought a more modern setting would have more resonance with the audience.
Sagi decided what aspects of the production he wanted to highlight and met with the costume, set and lighting designers to communicate his vision.
“When I do a new project I have a clear idea where to go, but not very fixed,” Sagi said.
After all, though the scenic elements of “Tancredi” may not change, every performance and every cast is different.
“It’s not the same show, because the moment you change the characters, it changes,” Rovaris said.
And while the chemistry between the singers is key, so is the energy between the cast and the audience.
“It’s not math,” Rovaris said, "but you feel it.”
The sets arrived in shipping containers from Chile at the opera’s 20,000-square-foot scene ship in Northeast Philly in mid-January. Only a few adjustments were needed, said Stephen Dickerson, the technical director, though they did have to repair some damage the sets sustained in transit.
Dickerson loaded the original, scale renderings into AutoCAD computer software to analyze them in dimensions of the Academy, taking the additional steps of translating them from meters to feet and Spanish to English.
“Thank God for Google Translate,” he said.
Unlike the previous theaters, the Academy doesn’t have automated fly systems to control the movement of sets and lights, so motors were needed. It does have a larger stage, which required an extra piece be built to bridge a gap in set pieces, as well as brand new floor panels.
It took six trucks to transport the set to Broad Street, where the Academy stage had been cleared out to create what is called a “four-wall house.” Two dozen workers unloaded the trucks and used clamps and cables to secure the lights, which can weigh up to 80 pounds each, onto rails above the stage.
“It takes about a week to focus all the lights,” said Bill Ringland, head carpenter at the Academy of Music. “That takes the bulk of the time.”
The lights are focused and adjusted using “walkers,” he added, people who stand on the stage until the focus is perfected.
The rails are hooked up to a counterweight fly system, controlled by ropes along the catwalk, high above the stage, which allows for the movement of the lights and sets. The original system used sandbags as counterweights, Ringland said, but was modernized in a 1996 renovation.
Likewise, changing out old wooden beams for steel ones allowed the theater to accommodate heavier modern scenery. With thousands of pounds of scenery and lights hanging above the performers, safety is of the utmost importance.
By the first of February, the cast was rehearsing on stage with the set. Dress rehearsals, with all components in place, began the following week.
Scenery and lighting cues, as well as cues for performers, are called during rehearsals and performances by Stage Manager Becki Smith, who communicates with the rest of the staff and over the dressing rooms intercoms via a headset.
Monitors set up in the wings and out in the house allow the performers to constantly see the conductor even when they can’t see the orchestra pit.
Rovaris said he always hopes to still be working through the problems during rehearsals, so that the production is at its best on opening night.
“In our job,” he said, “the moment you give up, you’re in trouble.”
Sagi likes to remain on stage during the performances, seated in the wings. He can’t bear to leave, he said.
Once, Sagi recalled, while working on another production, he left for a coffee and got word there was a bomb scare at the theater. He immediately headed back. “I said, I have to be there.”
“Like the captain of the ship!” Rovaris said.
Shannon Eblen: (856) 486-2475; SEblen@gannettnj.com
If you go
Performances of "Tancredi" continue at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. in Philadelphia, through Sunday, Feb. 19. For tickets and more information, call (215) 732-8400 or visit operaphila.org.