116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre was halfway through 'The Enchanted Forest” when the pandemic dragon reared its fire-breathing snout and shut down the 2020 Young Artists' elementary school tour.
Company founder and artistic director Daniel Kleinknecht was at a loss for a way to mount the second half of the show's two-year tour. He was surrounded, however, by a team of visionaries who picked up the gauntlet and forged a new collaboration with Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre Co. of West Liberty.
'I was reticent - I was afraid of COVID,” Kleinknecht said. 'I really felt spooked back in September-October when we were trying to assemble something that would fit a life with COVID.”
He credits executive director Lori Lane and frequent opera theater collaborator Stephanie Michalicek with the notion of turning the in-person touring show into an online production incorporating puppet visuals over opera voices.
'I would have just done the video,” Kleinknecht said, '(but) I just did not feel comfortable putting all of this together in a physical space.”
So he 'stepped out of the way,” and let Lane, the cast and the show's music director, Gail Williams, 'create something really special,” he said, 'and they did. I can't wait to see the reaction of the public for this event.”
He won't have to wait long. The video will debut at 7 p.m. Thursday on the company's YouTube channel, as part of the 2nd Thursday Series of free streaming events. After that, it can be viewed on cropera.org and is available free to Eastern Iowa elementary classrooms, distributed through March 31.
Commissioned by the Nashville Opera in 2017, creator Anna Young wrote an original story and new lyrics to the music of Mozart, Gilbert & Sullivan, Bizet, Puccini, Donizetti and Verdi. Viewers familiar with these composers will hear 'Habanera” from 'Carmen,” the Papageno/Papagena duet from 'The Magic Flute,” as well as pieces from 'La Traviata,” several Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and other well-known works. That's a tactic typical of youth opera adaptations as well as children's cartoons.
The new lyrics envelop a tale as old as time, about friendship, teamwork and forgiveness, through the eyes of a princess, her bumble bee confidant, a wizard and a menacing dragon who threatens their very existence.
It's engaging for all audiences, Williams said, including adults.
'Some of it will be familiar to them, like the ‘Habanera,'”
she said. 'They'll get a kick out of the cleverness of changing the words to these opera pieces, making it all rhyme or making a story out of it; seeing the costumes, seeing the funny antics; and they will get the message too, because it applies to adults as well as children.”
Williams, who typically accompanies the outreach performances, said they're a good way to introduce children to opera.
'In these children's operas, it's not all singing. There's dialogue too, so I think that's good for them to actually hear that rather than just solid singing through the whole thing,” she said.
These outreach shows also make the productions fun and offer a story kids can relate to, she added, as well as lots of action, especially the chase scene where the Dragon wants to eat them. That ignites a change of heart all around, leading to the heart of the message.
Reprising their 2020 roles are baritone Jacob Lay as Bumble and tenor Benjamin Burney as the Wizard. Lay is an Atlanta native who studied vocal performance at Simpson College in Indianola and is a master's degree candidate at the University of Tennessee. Burney earned a master's of music degree at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
New to the production are soprano Avery Nabholz, a University of Iowa student from Independence, portraying the Princess, and mezzo Bridget Johnston, a Carnegie-Mellon master's candidate from Waukee, breathing life into the fiery Dragon.
Lay and Johnston also appear as human puppets, and at the end of the show, all of the singers are shown in their human forms, singing one of their arias, as well as the Mozart duet, with Williams at the piano.
The men already knew their parts and didn't need extra rehearsals, but Williams conducted separate one-on-one Zoom rehearsals in November with the women new to the show. They all gathered in Cedar Rapids on Dec. 1 and 2, for physically distanced rehearsals using the Orchestra Iowa choir room, and recorded the vocals Dec. 3 on the Paramount Theatre stage. The puppet portion was recorded Jan. 11 in the Grandon black box space at Theatre Cedar Rapids.
On the video, the actors also discussed their paths to music, as well as their experiences with this production.
'When I was doing this for the recording project, I was often imagining being in front of (the) kids ... trying to channel (the experience),” Lay said. 'Luckily, I had my colleagues with me as well ...
giving each other a lot of energy and trying to be in the scene as much as possible, though we were not staging or technically acting.”
'Doing it a second time gives me the opportunity to see if there's a new perspective or point of view,” Burney noted.
Eulenspiegel co-founder Monica Leo called the project 'a lifesaver” for her and colleague Stephanie Vallez.
'It gave us something interesting to work on in the middle of a pandemic winter when we can't go into the schools,” she said.
Lane contacted them with the idea in the early fall, but with another project on their plate, they worked on the puppets in earnest in November and December.
Leo sketched puppet designs, working off cast photos, to make the puppets resemble the people. Putting a human face on the bee was a snap, but putting a human face on the dragon was not, because of the snout. Instead, Leo zeroed in on Johnston's 'distinctive blueish-green eyes,” and fiery red hair to make those prominent not only the dragon's face, but also on the human puppet counterpart that introduces the 'operatic adventure” and sets up the story about to unfold. Leo also used the same velvet brocade fabric for both of Johnston's characters.
The puppets are a mix of hand puppets, which Leo used for the characters that need to pick up items, and rod puppets for the others. Rod puppets were more practical for Vallez to keep at the same height as Leo's hand puppets, since Leo is about 8 inches taller than Vallez.
One of the biggest challenges, however, stemmed from the fact that these puppets can't sing. So Leo and Vallez had to create enough movement and action to keep viewers' interest during the vocals and transitions.
Working from the recorded soundtrack, Vallez drew on her dance background to create fluid movements for the puppets, and a couple of bouncy rod squirrels entered the picture to add visual excitement, as well.
'It all worked out,” Leo said, crediting videographer Clay Bergren for his work, shooting from various angles over the course of a day. Ed Karr added his sound engineering skills to the project, as well.
'It was fun,” Leo said. 'A mental challenge as well as a creative challenge.”
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‘The Enchanted Forest'
' Presenter: Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre 2nd Thursday Series, in collaboration with Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre Co.
' When: 7 p.m. Thursday
' Cost: Free, donations accepted
' Details: cropera.org/the-enchanted-forest-2021
' For classrooms: Available free of charge to Eastern Iowa elementary schools, distributed through March 31; includes curriculum materials; email email@example.com