Open Studio with Jared Bowen

S8 E33 | FULL EPISODE

"Norma," "Pipeline," and more

This week, Boston Lyric Opera’s final dress rehearsal of “Norma.” Then the play “Pipeline” presented by Central Square Theater, video streaming on the web. Plus, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts on designing costumes for the stage and Reno artist Derek McDonald on painting vintage signs.

AIRED: April 03, 2020 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome toOpen Studio,

WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture

from around the region and the nation.

I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio,

an operatic feat, as Boston Lyric Opera

salvages its long-awaited production ofNorma.

>> You have to have a singer in mind

who you believe can conquer this role.

And it can make or break an artist.

>> BOWEN: Then the new play Pipeline goes online.

>> He was upset, said he was having a bad day.

>> A bad day?

>> He felt harassed by the teacher,

more so than the other students; he felt targeted.

>> BOWEN: Plus, sign language.

>> I try to create

almost like a little fantasy world,

even if it's just one window,

in one storefront,

and somebody's just gonna walk by it for...

eight seconds.

>> BOWEN: And fashioning drama.

>> I think what's really special about this organization

is that it was built on a culture of "yes."

>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.

Welcome to the show.

We are still coming to you from my home

out of an abundance of caution.

Well, the sets were built, the musicians were in place,

the curtain was set to go up on the Boston Lyric Opera'sNorma,

a production three years in the making,

when it had to cancel because of the coronavirus.

However, there is now audio of that rare opera

streaming for all audiences.

And as you'll see, in one of a few rare video clips also shot,

you'llhear that it's beautiful.

(orchestral music playing)

>> (singing in Italian)

(chorus singing in Italian)

>> BOWEN: Esther Nelson,

you're the general and artistic director

of Boston Lyric Opera.

Thank you so much for joining us.

>> Thank you very much for having us, thank you.

>> BOWEN: Well, let's, just to start

for people who don't know the background to this,

Norma hadn't been done in this city in some 40 years.

You took this on.

What was... what were you taking on

in presenting this opera?

>> A great example of what we call bel canto,

which simply means good, nice singing, beautiful singing.

It's a fantastic opera with lots and lots of good melodies,

deceivingly simple in, to the ear, beautiful melodies,

but extremely complicated for the singers to sing.

>> (singing duet in Italian)

>> So you really want to be sure that you have a Norma.

And that's really why it isn't done very often.

You have to have a singer in mind

who you believe can conquer this role.

And it can make or break an artist.

>> BOWEN: What makes this such a difficult role?

What makes it a circumstance

that a city wouldn't even attempt it in some 40 years?

>> You have to have a singer of great technical ability.

Not only do you have to sing the notes,

but you have to relax into them in such a way that you're...

The coloratura, and seems completely at ease and natural.

And for it to sound easy is what's complicated.

>> BOWEN: Well, remind us, for people who don't know,

you know, very succinctly, what is the story ofNorma,

since a lot of us haven't had the chance to see it?

>> The story is actually around the time of Julius Caesar.

And it is the, um... the Gallic Wars, if you will.

But within that story, you have a love complication,

in that one of the, the high priestess of the Druids

had an affair with none other

than the leading general of the opposing,

of the Roman army.

He, of course, begins to assert his power,

his military power.

The Druids are ready to go to war.

She has cautioned them, Norma, up till now not to do that,

to be sensible.

And, but at that point, all hell breaks loose.

(chorus singing in Italian)

>> (singing in Italian)

(chorus and soloist alternating lines)

>> So you have all of these conflicts

between individuals, love triangle...

Personal dramas, against the backdrop of a nation

that, or a group of people that's been conquered,

and a conquering nation.

>> BOWEN: You mentioned that this is a role

that, that is very daunting,

not a lot of people have the conviction to take it on.

It has broken some who have taken it on--

maybe not their entire career, but they have failed.

How did you see that this was

the perfect fit for Elena Stikhina,

who does play your Norma?

>> Well, we, we knew that she had the capability

when she was here singingTosca.

>> (singing in Italian)

>> And we actually took a greater risk,

I would say, hiring her forTosca at the time,

because she had not performed in the United States,

we had actually not seen her in a full role,

though we were familiar with her.

But at that point, um, it was clear

that that was something where she was headed,

where her voice was heading.

And, uh, and she felt, more importantly,

comfortable with the idea that that was a role

she wanted to try.

>> (singing in Italian)

>> BOWEN: There's an aria, the "Casta Diva," in this opera,

which, which so many people know

and so many people try to take on.

Tell me about that moment in this opera.

>> It is one of those great arias

where she gathers her inner forces

and she seeks help, divine help.

>> (singing in Italian, chorus sings in background)

>> And I think it's a human moment,

and that's why this aria, in so many ways,

the music speaks to all of us,

because you, you don't have to understand a word.

You know exactly what this woman needs.

She needs help.

>> BOWEN: One of the people

for whom this opera had deep resonance

was Walt Whitman.

Do we, do we have a sense, do you have a sense

of, of what impact this piece had on him?

>> Well, I think he was not the only one.

This, this opera conquered not only Europe very quickly,

but also in the U.S.

And, in fact, it was brought in many ways,

out to the Wild West.

And that, I think was, was uplifting, probably,

to many, to many of our, of the pioneers

who were out there, stuck in the wilderness.

And that there would be an aria that had been written

not too long before that time in Italy,

giving solace to, to people out in the Wild West,

I think speaks to the power of, of music and opera.

>> BOWEN: Well, we know the circumstances around this

obviously changed with the coronavirus pandemic

entering in our midst.

And, and you had to make the painful decision

not to go forward with it,

because it was to open just as we were getting the guidelines

that we shouldn't be gathering.

But what were you able to do

that we are able to at least hear the opera?

>> When we realized

that potentially even opening night was off,

was at that point in jeopardy,

we decided that we needed

to at least try and capture the dress rehearsal,

because there may not be another opportunity.

As it turned out, the next morning,

that, in fact, was clear, that there were no performances.

And I have to say, that night of the perform...

It's a rehearsal; the recording is of a rehearsal.

And you, you didn't have time to place the mics perfectly.

You have people walking around, singing in opposite directions,

walking up and down stairs.

But the energy in that room was palpable.

So it is... everybody had a sense

that this was so important to capture that moment.

(chorus singing in Italian)

>> BOWEN: Well, Esther Nelson, thank you so much

for taking the time with us today.

We really appreciate it.

>> Thank you, stay well.

>> BOWEN: Next, the same quick thinking

saw the rescue of another show.

Realizing that the production ofPipeline it had underway

might have to close prematurely,

Central Square Theater swung into action,

making a video recording now also available online.

Pipeline centers on a mother

agonizing about when her young, black son is out

alone in the world.

Here's a look.

>> And who he lookin' at when he askin' all these questions, Ma?

Who he lookin' at?

Like I'm the spokesperson, like I'm Bigger Thomas,

like I'm predisposed to some (bleep),

knowing what it's like to be an animal...

>> Omari, watch your mouth. >> You hear me, though?

You hear what he do when he start pickin' me out,

asking me to answer what did I discover when reading the text?

>> He is your teacher;

he is supposed to ask you questions about the text, Omari.

>> Nah, nah, nah, he ain't.

>> BOWEN: Catherine Carr Kelly, the executive director

of Central Square Theater,

thank you so much for joining us.

>> Thank you for having me.

>> BOWEN: So, just to start,

give us a sense of whatPipeline is.

I mean, it really is a story of this moment.

We've been having this national conversation

about the school-to-prison pipeline.

Talk to me about that

and in what direction the play takes us.

>> Sure.

So as much as I hate to talk about another crisis,

it really is a national crisis, the school-to-prison pipeline.

Black students are 3.5 times more likely to get suspended

or expelled from school.

Oftentimes, whatever that infraction was

can lead to, to prison or juvenile detention,

and, and that can often spell the story for kids.

So the playPipeline by Dominic Morris...

Dominique Morisseau,

is, um, is about, a story about a woman,

a black mother who's a teacher in an inner-city school.

She and her ex-husband decide to send their son Omari

to a private school in upstate somewhere.

I think we get the feeling that it's New York,

but where he is one of just a few, a handful of kids of color.

So it's, it's...

It's setting up for a very difficult situation.

>> He was upset, said he was having a bad day.

>> A bad day?

>> He felt harassed by the teacher,

more so than the other students.

He felt targeted, and wasn't in the mood for any of it.

>> It's no excuse. >> I told him that.

>> Where is he now? >> Home-- I think home.

>> You think? >> I...

Yes, I left him at home-- he is suspended.

>> BOWEN: First of all, I want to ask about the mother here.

I think that anyone who's a parent--

and anyone, frankly, who isn't a parent--

is going to identify with the concern

that she has about having her young son,

who is a person of color, just out in the world,

simply out in the world,

and what happens to him when she can't be there,

which, most parents can't be there

for most of the time when their, their kids get to be teenagers.

>> One of the important things about this play is,

it helps people understand it in a strong, emotional way.

I mean, we definitely heard from a lot of patrons

who saw the play prior to it going dark

that, that this hit them in the heart.

And that's a big part of figuring out,

"So what do we do about this? How do we change it?"

You know, you really have to understand

what it feels like to walk in her shoes.

>> BOWEN: So then this, of course, takes a turn for you.

You have the production up and running for about two weeks

when the coronavirus grip really takes hold here in this country.

You had to shut down, and you did something

that I think so many theaters in the region

wish they could have done,

which is, you were able to record this

and now stream it-- how did that come to be?

>> (laughs): Well, you know,

I think it was some forward thinking

and some luck, honestly.

So we're, happen to be next door to CCTV,

Cambridge Community Television.

So once we realized we would have to shut down,

we called them.

They got a crew over to do a two-camera shoot and...

And they did the shoot the very last performance.

So it's, it's a great performance.

It's very emotional, actually, for the actors, too,

knowing that they were cutting this short.

It was their last, it was their last time

to be onstage and really be telling a story

that's deeply important to them, as well.

So that was great.

>> I think I'm in love with you.

(audience murmurs and chuckles)

>> I think I'm leaving.

(audience laughs)

>> Challenging, because they didn't actually get a chance to,

you know, typically, as you know, on the shoot,

you know, they watch the play, they read it.

There's, you know, there is a lot of prep work to do a shoot.

They had none of that, so... (laughs)

We were lucky we were able to edit it.

And I'll say that, you know, the unions...

You know, we work with a lot of unions in professional theater,

and they've all come together, I would say, really thoughtfully

and as quickly as they can move, as large unions,

to give us permission to move forward with streaming.

>> BOWEN: I was also struck by, I didn't...

Okay, true confession here.

I didn't necessarily expect it to work.

I'm so used to being in your theater

and having to watch something on your stage--

which I know so well--

to have to watch from the remove of a screen,

I didn't have high expectations, I guess, honestly,

but I was struck by how much it actually does work.

>> My (bleep) Oldsmobile hasn't failed me yet.

It's like having an ugly, faithful husband.

Nobody wants him but me, and that's good for us.

>> (laughing)

>> You know, it's true, it's... I mean, it's not live theater

and it's not going to replace live theater.

I think what we've heard from some of our patrons,

and what we ourselves have noticed, as well, is,

you do catch some things that you don't catch

unless you're, like, really, maybe in the very front row.

I mean, there are times that, when the actor playing Omari,

I mean, he's actually crying, and I hadn't really caught that.

So you get those close-ups of their face,

and you see things that you haven't seen before,

which is, which is a bonus.

And that's kind of makes up for everything else,

I think. (chuckles)

>> BOWEN: Let me just end by asking,

what do you imagine this is going to be like

on the other side of this

for a mid-sized theater such as yours?

>> I think, well, the stimulus package that passed,

I think, is helpful.

There are things in that that I think will be

significantly helpful, like payroll protection

to help keep people on staff.

I think that when people are allowed to come back out again,

they're gonna be excited to see theater.

(laughs)

But I, but I do think that it's going to take

a little bit of time.

I think that, potentially,

if we're up and able to run in the summer,

the summer in Boston could be super-exciting for theater.

There are a lot of companies that have moved, you know,

that are moving their plays to the summer,

which normally wouldn't happen.

So that could be a whole new opportunity.

>> BOWEN: Catherine Carr Kelly, thank you so much,

and congratulations on what, as I said,

was just a terrific production

that I myself didn't get to see in person

and was so struck by on camera.

>> Thank you.

And take care, Jared. >> BOWEN: You, too.

Next, we follow the signs to Reno, Nevada,

where sign painter Derek McDonald goes all old-school

in his focus on vintage design.

>> I describe my work as traditional, vintage-inspired,

and historic.

I pretty much keep it, for lack of better term,

all old-school.

My name is Derek McDonald and I'm a sign painter.

I was the quintessential creative kid

that would flip over his math test

and draw silly pictures on the back,

and I was also and still am into old cars.

So I started going to all these car shows,

and I saw lots of pinstriping on motorcycle tanks

and hot rods and lowriders.

And I started getting really into that,

and that led me into the world of lettering signs,

because they're very parallel worlds.

And that's basically how I dived into it.

I just genuinely was really into anything with a historic feel

or, you know, a vintage kind of feel to it.

When I begin to work on a project,

the most important step is

breaking into my reference material.

I've got really old rare sign painting manuals

and trade books and magazines, old yellow page books.

They have great illustrations.

I collect vintage matchbooks.

Right now, I have over 700, and each one of them

has awesome, really inspiring artwork on them.

I'll jot off three or four sketches,

I'll refine it, and then I make the sign.

Materials I work with vary.

Of course, my main thing is paint.

And that's a very specific paint designed for industrial art.

So it's oil-based.

It's called lettering enamel.

When I work with glass on a storefront window,

I try to create almost like a little fantasy world,

even if it's just one window in one storefront

and somebody's just gonna walk by it for eight seconds,

at least I created that little tiny fantasy world

for just that short amount of time for that person.

And they might look at something I made and go,

"That's the way they used to do things."

So it all kinda comes back to that nostalgic feeling.

Not only do I go paint glass windows onsite,

but I'll also do pieces in my shop.

My shop is based right here in Reno.

So let's assume I'm going to make

your traditional wooden sign

that's going to hang over a storefront.

I'll have to go to my scrap wood pile,

which is in my garage right now.

I've got tons of old signboard.

(wood clatters)

I'll hand-cut the boards.

I'll edge-seal them, prime them, and then base-coat them.

These were blue-collar,

get-it-out-the-door things back in the day.

Some of these shops were union,

and they would have, you know, ten sign painters all in a line,

and they were knocking out these.

And you can see they developed these techniques

over years and years and years,

where they can get a really efficient sign

or a really efficient letter painted

in a very short amount of time.

There's just a certain feel to some of these signs

where you go, "That's a 1930s sign right there."

You'll see these certain characteristics in the letters

where they'll pull the brush and flick the brush out

at the very end,

and you'll see these little brush flick-outs.

That was a speed and efficiency technique.

You only see that in those old vintage signs.

One of my favorite things to work on is old vehicles--

up-close and personal with, you know, old truck doors,

doing lettering jobs on old trucks.

I have a buddy who's a vintage truck collector,

and he bought this truck from an old fellow in Idaho.

It's a 1959 Chevy stepside truck.

So I'm gonna paint "Declo Cattle Company"

and a big black-and-white cow.

Then I'm gonna do the process of aging the sign back.

So the process of creating an aged sign or a distressed sign

is a multi-step process.

I kinda thin the paint down a little bit,

I put a little bit of talcum powder into the paint.

It actually flattens the sheen, so it won't be super-high-gloss,

and the paint will be kind of diluted,

so it's not very opaque,

so it's already kind of translucent.

Once it's dry, then I just start wiping back with some solvents,

like acetone or mineral spirits.

And you start rubbing back on the letters,

and you follow the same direction

that your brush strokes go.

That way, you reveal back the actual brush strokes.

What I really get out of the end of the day

is creating that nostalgic feeling.

And when I think I've really nailed that,

that's the biggest reward I get.

>> BOWEN: Finally now,

the Denver Center for the Performing Arts

is where you will find the consummate costumers.

>> I love telling stories, and I think it's so much fun

that I get to come to work every day

and play make-believe and dress-up, so... (laughs)

>> This is one of nine costume storage rooms that we have here.

On this side are women's costumes,

the other side are men's costumes.

You know, ladies' five to five-and-a-halfs,

are all in this section and labeled.

And men's tens and men's 11s

are all right here.

Also, this is just our show rack when we're building a show.

The actor has a nameplate with their name on it,

and the costumes that actor will wear

are directly behind the garment bag.

>> I think what's really special about this organization

is that it was built on a culture of "yes."

If the artists can envision it, we can manifest it.

When you first start thinking about a show,

you're thinking about the design,

the visual design of the whole thing,

and that's all tied in to the core of the story.

A Doll's House, the original--

that's the one that I'm working on--

I wanted it to happen in 1879, when it was written.

I wanted it to be photographic.

>> Sometimes we shop things, sometimes we thrift things.

Usually for contemporary shows,

we tend to kind of shop and thrift

so it looks more authentic.

For period pieces, there's not a store that sells things

forA Doll's House,

so we're fortunate to have the skills of our costume shop

to build more of our period pieces.

>> I will, once I fit this,

do a whole bunch of hand- stitching to make sure

that this all stays in place.

>> When we build a costume from scratch,

we work with a team of people.

It really does take a village.

The process for designing an entire production

starts about six to nine months before we even hit the stage.

>> The costumer will bring you renderings,

sketches of the costumes.

>> This is the sketch that Meghan has done

and this is the skirt, the overskirt for that sketch.

>> And then we talk to a team of drapers,

who make women's clothes,

or tailors, who make men's clothes,

and they kind of figure out how to translate

that two-dimensional drawing into a three dimensional outfit.

>> We do the pattern-making, we do all the fitting.

We have to figure out

how to make an actual garment from the page

to an actual person.

>> So they'll do a mock-up,

which is basically like a rough draft

in an inexpensive cotton fabric called muslin.

And we fit that to the actor and make all the changes

in the, in the rough draft, essentially.

>> Easy to work with. >> Inexpensive is the key.

>> And then we make it out of the real fabric.

So it takes a few steps,

but that's how we get the great product that we do.

>> It's actually quite comfortable.

>> One of the most fun moments in the process

is when you actually see the costumes on stage,

on the set for the first time,

because that's the first time

that the whole visual world comes together

and it feels like you're actually stepping

into the story.

>> I'm sorry, I've just become so bitter.

I have to think about myself all the time.

>> I love seeing it happen from page to stage,

all my work up there on the stage, helping to tell a story.

>> Nora, believe me, this will be the best thing for you.

>> We do keep all of our costumes,

because they're a huge investment, and it's kind of fun

to repurpose garments from another show,

and give them a new life in a different show

five, ten years down the line.

>> There are very few costume departments in the country

that can equal what the Denver Center can do.

>> The Denver Center has always been kind of this, like, beacon

of arts and things like that,

so it really is a dream come true

to get to work here and be part of this incredible place.

>> BOWEN: And that is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.

Next week, a visit with a violist.

>> (playing classical piece)

>> BOWEN: Plus, the actors willing to go home with you.

Remotely, of course.

Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.

Thank you for joining us.

And, as always, you can visit us online

at wgbh.org/OpenStudio.

And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter,

@OpenStudioWGBH.

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