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Heleen Du Plessis: A perspective from the orchestral pit, literally!

Can you spot 'the pit'?
Can you spot ‘the pit’?

Writing to you at 1:00am after our first dress rehearsal of The Magic Flute in the Mayfair.

With my observations from the perspective of an orchestral player in the pit I have to clarify that my point of view is not exactly based on having a viewpoint –with my back to the wall and the stage partly hanging over my head in this ‘lowered’ concert space, I can’t see a thing! As usual I am unable to sleep after a rehearsal/concert since I (pà!) continuo playing, counting, anticipating entries, getting (pà- pà) something stuck in my head – my own part, yam pam pam pam pam , or more adventurously, ha- ha- ha- ha- hah hah … haaaa!.

'The view from the pit'
‘The view from the pit’

Entering the pit I recalled my early career as cellist in the National Orchestra of South Africa, playing for operas in the State Theatre, Pretoria – glamorous décor, costumes, standing ovations, internationally renowned singers, inspiring conductors (although some would have given me nightmares were I sleeping now), but also, a pain in the neck and acute sinusitis.

Turn right and duck your head to enter 'the pit'...
Turn right and duck your head to enter ‘the pit’…

There are a few things pits seem to have in common…a lack of space and a draft! Soon I realised why experienced players brought thermometers to work and threatened to strike – nothing makes up for the discomfort of having to sit with your instrument, the stand and the conductor in 3 different directions while having to play all dynamics, expressive/ articulation markings in the middle of the bow, with little room to move to avoid a collision and nasty stares from fellow awkwardly positioned colleagues feeling the draft!

This and a previous experience in the Mayfair [Heleen played for Opera Otago’s This Other Eden in 2014]  made me come prepared with wearing all the orchestral outfits I collected, making sure my socks are made of pure NZ merino wool. I am pleased with the amount of space, thanks to the small sized ensemble and arrangements allowing us to see, hear, move, and avoid stand lights from glaring into each other’s eyes! I find comfort in the confinement permitting glances, facial expressions and comfortable sitting positions, which might not be appropriate were we to be seen.

The ‘sweetest’ thing was Nick[Cornish – Bassoon]’s caramel slices that made me realise – it is about whom you know, choosing your friends wisely, no matter where you are. Here’s to an enjoyable 2nd dress rehearsal – pure intonation, articulation, ensemble, balance and turning pages in time without too many unwanted sound effects.

Have you got your tickets yet? Opening night is only two sleeps away!

Heleen with her cello,  in the opposite of 'the pit'
Heleen with her cello, in the opposite of ‘the pit’

Post by Heleen Du Plessis, Cellist

Sophie’s ‘Diva Diary’: Preparing for her Debut

Debuting in an opera in the town that you studied in is a great honour and an amazing opportunity. I get to put four hard years of university classical voice training to the test. But it’s only just the beginning hopefully, with many more years of training to go I’ve only just started singing after four years at university.

So a diva diary I will write. People often call sopranos divas and it’s always said with a negative connotation too: a Prima Donna they say. However, if the term diva originates from the Sanskrit word ‘deva’ meaning radiant or shining referring to a god in both Vedic Hinduism and Buddhism, I’m fine with being called a diva!

Performance days are time to breathe and chill out. I would usually sleep in and have a good meal for brunch but nothing that’s going to make me feel bloated or sluggish. I need to feel energised and alive.

During the day I would normally warm up slowly and quietly to get the voice moving and prepped for the big sing about to come. I may head down to the practice room to sing through a song to do some more warming up, just lightly though and nothing that could tire out the voice.

The call time might be around 5.30pm so I will make sure I’ve had another light meal before that that would keep me going through the evening. I find it really hard singing on a full stomach and eating before a performance. Everyone’s very different in that aspect.

While in the dressing room, I like to keep to myself a little bit just to think through my character and what and where the character is going throughout the opera. I would then relax and once again breathe so I don’t feel too stressed on stage.

This time it’s a tad different during the day, as I have exams to prepare for. My lead up at the theatre will all be the same but instead of chilling out during the day and sleeping in I will be at university studying for my accounting exams for the first 3 performances. It may be stressful but it keeps my brain on high alert and active.

No matter what the situation that this diva is in, the opera is so much fun and is going to be a great show! I can’t wait to get into it…

Buy your tickets now if you haven’t already, you don’t want to miss it!

Magic Flute _7

From left: James Adams, Sophie Sparrow and Robert Lindsay in rehearsal

Magic Flute Star_2

Post by Sophie Sparrow, Pamina

Who is Monostatos?

“Girl meets boy and Boy meets girl. Love will fill our hearts with joy.”

This quote from Act I sums up a lot of the action in Opera Otago’s upcoming production of the Magic Flute. But this blog is to introduce you to a much less loved character from the world of Mozart’s Magic Flute, Monostatos.

Everyone knows and loves the good guys. Tamino singing “Dies Bildnis” or Pamina singing “Ach, ich fühls.” On the other side of the fence, the Queen of the Night sings arguably the most famous aria in the repertoire “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen.” But who on earth is Monostatos?

Monostatos is the character tenor of The Magic Flute. Much like Basilio in the Marriage of Figaro [also played by Benjamin Madden in Opera Otago’s 2012 production], Monostatos appears at strategic moments to propel the story forward. When he appears he is a catalyst for action onstage. Isolated from the rest of the cast to a degree, he is equal parts exciting and terrifying.

Monostatos singing while Pamina sleeps – early stages of rehearsal

A lot of his time on stage is spent trying to force himself upon a certain female lead. Poor old Pamina (Sophie Sparrow) spends plenty of the first act running from the terrifying Monostatos. Monostatos isn’t a comedian, but one finds oneself laughing at the sheer outrageousness of his character and the silliness of some of the things that happen to him!

Monostatos is challenging character to portray for many reasons. The character is angry, and resentful. Mozart marked all of his music allegro to emphasise the energy he brings to the stage. There’s no time for thought on stage. His impulsive manner of moving through the world is aggressive and balancing this with the demands of singing is at times difficult. Time as Monostatos flies by in a storm of syllables and chase scenes, but it has been a pleasure learning to juggle the many facets of performing as Monostatos. From the moment he bursts into the world of the Magic Flute, Monostatos is a firework on stage. Come to Opera Otago’s Magic flute and enjoy the carnage that follows in Monostatos’ wake. [Buy tickets here!]

Post by Benjamin Madden, Monostatos 

Charming the Ear: A Perspective from our Musical Director

Each time one opens the score of The Magic Flute, one discovers a freshness and energy that is both immediate and profound. Add to that a storyline full of magic, mystery, drama and wit, and you begin to understand why it has become one of Mozart’s most beloved and popular operas.

Being the last member of the team to join Opera Otago’s production of the opera this week, I was excited to see John Drummond’s ‘renovation’, bringing the 223-year old work into 21st century New Zealand. The incorporation of modern-day technology, Shakespearian nods and contemporary humour were aspects I particularly enjoyed, and the delivery by a wonderfully talented cast made me laugh my way through most of the first run.

What I didn’t expect I’d enjoy most though, were the New Zealand accents throughout the dialogue (with the exception of our imported Papageno, Tyler Neumann from the U.S. via Palmerston North). Being around down-to-earth Kiwis reminded me of just how much I miss New Zealand whilst abroad, despite my first earthquake experience and extreme flooding within days of arriving in Dunedin!

It has been a privilege and joy to explore the music with the orchestra, to whom Mozart has given a vibrant and virtuosic score. [Read more about this in Tessa Petersen’s post and Kurt Murphy’s post]. Aside from the fun, there are real moments of heart-racing drama – the rollercoaster-ride of young love, heartbreak and loss, and the struggle of revenge and reason.

Even in these more serious moments, Mozart’s music never seems to succumb to despair. He famously said himself: “Music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music.”

Mozart’s The Magic Flute still speaks to us today because it reminds us that we all need a little magic in our lives, and that perhaps music is the most magical art of all.


Post by Tianyi Lu, Musical Director

P.S. Have you bought your tickets yet?? Opening night is only a week away! Buy them here 🙂

A bird catcher in a modern world

For me, Papageno is one of those characters that you can’t help but love. In many ways he’s the classic bumbling and reluctant sidekick, but his sheer quirk and ultimately self-preserving nature puts him at the heart of the opera’s comedy. In a story full of strong-willed, duty-driven characters, his rather “liberal” approach to morality sees him put at odds with nearly everybody around him.

As such, many of his moments of comedy gold stem from his uncanny ability to point out the finer and all-too-convenient aspects of the plot. However we as an audience can’t help but laugh at Papageno’s oddly intellectual attitude to the fanciful story he finds himself in. The Magic Flute, after all, is a fairytale.

But where does that leave Papageno in a renovated opera for the modern world? A simple man assigned to capture birds for a mysterious sorceress seems like a plausible enough character in a fairytale, but such a profession would seem rather more out of place on a modern CV.

This ultimate question was a source of fascination for John Drummond and I from the moment Papageno made his first appearance on the rehearsal stage. Maybe he grew up on the rugged West Coast, becoming well educated in the ways of the land if not in social etiquette or academic smarts. In any case, he one day finds himself earning his keep catching birds to act as playthings for a mysterious boss obsessed with control.

He’s content enough, being far more at ease out in the open with plants and animals than he is with his fellow humans. At least until he meets a strange traveller and his simple life is turned upside down. And amongst the ensuing chaos he earns a new lease on life at the prospect of having a “bird” of his very own..

Post by Tyler Neumann, Papageno 

Don’t forget to book your tickets!

Introducing Kurt: Player of the ‘Magic Flute’ 

As a musician, preparing for an Opera presents a unique challenge. Obviously parallels can be drawn to the preparation of a regular orchestral work, in that the musician must know the music inside out, upside down and backwards. 

 Of course I exaggerate (slightly) but each musician must understand the work intimately before the orchestra is able to sculpt a unique interpretation and begin work on portraying that interpretation to the audience. Where do the melodic lines lead? Where are the unexpected harmonic shifts? Rhythmically, what was the composer trying to achieve?

In the case of an Opera, a somewhat trickier element also comes into play when live action is added. The Orchestra is now no longer alone and is instead frequently used to provide musical accompaniment, dramatic tension and release, and narrative drive in conjunction with the happenings on stage. As with any live show, anything can happen and therein lies the excitement of a production such as this.  

I’m excited to return to the pit (following The Marriage of Figaro in 2012) for this musical and dramatic adventure, playing a small role in helping to bring life to Mozart’s fantastic setting of Schikaneder’s text. The Magic Flute is a monumental work in the repertoire of any flautist and always an absolute privilege to play.

  Post by Kurt Murphy, Flautist 

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