Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Tell-Tale Toe Tap

Last weekend, our opera department staged a production of Handel's "Giulio Cesare", which is Julius Caesar to you and me. But since practically every word in Italian (the language of the opera) ends in a vowel, the conquering hero gets a name change. It takes a bit to adjust yourself to saying "JOO-lee-oh CHEHZ-eh-ray", but it does make it easier to sing.

"Cesare" technically an opera seria, a type of opera from the Baroque period. The characteristics of opera seria are very noticible;

1) the plot is usually historical, and often Classical (in the literary sense). Lots of Romans and Greeks running around, stabbing each other in the back.

2) Unlike later operas, the music is not continuous. There are definite beginnings and ends to each individual "song" or section.

3) There are basically two types of musical unit. Recitative ("reh-chee-tah-TEEV") is usually quasi-improvised, and consists of "talking" on various pitches. There are hints of a melodic line, but the clarity of the text and the rhythm of the line are most important. Recitative propels the plot forward. If people are changing allegiances, hurting others, or finding out what just happened to their parrot, it's recitative.

If it's not recitative, it's probably an aria. Whereas recitative pushes the plot forward (stuff happens), aria halts the plot all together. An aria is a chance for a character to pause and reflect on what they are feeling at the moment. As such, arias tend to get described in terms of particular affects (vengeance, longing, frustration, etc.) This is where people sing about how horrible fate is because they have been separated from their beloved parrot.

In the course of the opera, lots of bad things happen to good people. Because of the minimalist nature of this particular production (staged in a church, where you can't just roll the pulpit and sacristy out of the way), the massive choir of soldiers/harem women was just a few opera undergrads. They were dressed all in black, donning different robes or armor types to indicate who they were supposed to "be" at that moment. Everyone not a principal was barefoot.

The funny thing about being barefoot is that we don't tend to spend as much time thinking about what our feet are doing, compared to, say, our hands. The extras would sometimes come fluttering into a scene, and have to hold a particular position while someone else sings. As they stand there with very controlled faces and hands, sometimes their toes would be flexing. Not in time to the music, but more like an outward sign of anxiety or concentration. This would occur even in moments of extreme shock, where everyone on the stage was frozen. Perhaps they're just used to having some kind of shoe to disguise those movements.

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