The Chautauqua Opera Company will have you know that Chautauqua Literary Arts isn’t the only Institution department that can write a decent poem:
We’re doin’ a virtual season,
And it’s all for a very good reason!
While the virus abounds
Singers pre-record sounds,
Piano tracks have the music staff wheezin’!
In the more than 20 summers they’ve worked together, the Chautauqua Opera’s music staff has developed a number of traditions. While this year’s virtual season finds the seven-person team scattered across the country, they’re committed to keeping at least a few activities alive.
“Each year we challenge each other to write limericks about the season and (this year) we’ve already collectively penned about 15,” said Carol Rausch, the company’s chorus master and music administrator. “Sometimes the whole season goes by and we don’t get that many. It’s a way of staying connected and making each other laugh.”
Rausch, Miriam Charney, Rick Hoffenberg, Dorothy Randall, Emily Jarrell Urbanek, Allison Voth and Kristin Roach will appear in conversation with Steven Osgood, the general and artistic director of the Chautauqua Opera Company, and 2020 Composer-in-Residence Frances Pollock, as part of Chautauqua Opera’s Behind-the-Scenes series, which will air at noon EDT, Thursday July 2, on the Virtual Porch.
The group will talk about the work of preparing music for a typical Chautauqua Opera Company season, share their favorite behind-the-scenes stories, and answer audience questions.
In addition to their various administrative duties, all members of the music staff serve as accompanists and music coaches for the company. During a typical season, they work closely with the Young Artists, preparing them to perform as the Chautauqua Opera’s chorus at the breakneck pace of an Institution summer.
“(In a regional opera company) you have a few weeks to rehearse and get used to each other and get your song in place and memorize it,” said Rausch, who also works as the chorus master, music coordinator and education director for the New Orleans Opera Association. “In Chautauqua that happens a lot faster. We come in and we put it together quickly and then we’re on our feet.”
Rausch has been with Chautauqua Opera since the ‘90s.
“When we come aboard, we tend to stay,” she said.
In order to help the Young Artists, the music staff must study each season’s operas extensively. They have a wide variety of language and style experts among them.
“We have to know the text, we have to know the story and we have to know everything about the characters that we can,” said Charney, who teaches voice, opera and piano at Vassar College and the Manhattan School of Music. “We have to know the orchestration, what it’s supposed to sound like and anticipate what the conductor is going to do.” Last year she celebrated her 25th year with Chautauqua Opera.
“All of us have been there for quite a few years,” Charney said. “We get along really well, and we laugh a lot, which is very important in this business where we work very, very hard. You have to have a sense of humor.”
Charney compared the music staff’s role to that of an athletic coach, assisting and instructing their players from the sidelines.
“The singer needs to know as much about (the opera) as possible, but they mainly need to know how to sing this really hard music and memorize it — and they’re going to be wearing a wig and strange clothes and new shoes … so it’s all about preparing (them),” she said. “Figuring out what to do and what to say and what the music and words mean — I find that just as creative as being onstage.”
Hoffenberg is an associate professor and the choir director at Maywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and in addition to his accompanying and coaching duties, he has the laborious task of creating the Chautauqua Opera’s daily schedule. This means compiling requests from the entire company for rehearsals, coaching sessions, meetings, costume fittings, makeup calls and more into one master document, accounting for conflicts, meal breaks and AGMA union regulations.
“He’s a genius,” Rausch said. “There could be a Young Artist who is involved in six or eight different events and (the schedule) has to seamlessly work so that they can go from one event to the next. It’s kind of magic.”
Hoffenberg joined Chautauqua Opera in 1999 and has been coming back ever since.
“I fell in love with all the charms of Chautauqua and the people who work for the opera company, many of whom who’ve been here longer than I have,” he said. “They’ve become like a second family.”
The group keeps in touch year-round, sharing their personal and professional lives outside of the Institution by texting, emailing, and recently, through Zoom meetings.
“We’re really close,” Rausch said. “That’s a really special part of the Chautauqua experience for us, and it’s hard for us not to be with each other this summer.”
As an instructor spending most of her time teaching young students and traveling around for gigs, Charney said she hasn’t had many opportunities to form the kind of long-term, collegial bond she shares with the Chautauqua Opera music staff.
“Everyone brings something different to the table, and we all support and help each other,” she said. “I haven’t heard of other (summer companies) that are quite like this. The fact that we stay in touch all year is always a shock to other people.”
With almost 30 years of experiences, narrowing down what Chautauqua Opera stories to share for the Behind-the-Scenes series has been a point of contention.
“(Osgood) said maybe we could save the last 10 minutes for some stories,” Charney said. “And (Hoffenberg) said, ‘Why don’t we just tell stories the whole time?’”
The group is working towards a detente of sorts.
“We’re paring it down to the top 10 funny moments,” Rausch said.