Three years into parenthood, I still yearn for more opportunities to take in live music – ideally with baby in tow. Mostly for my own enjoyment, but also to introduce it to my child. To teach her that this is important, and to demonstrate the stillness, consideration of others, and focused listening that are part of the concert experience.
Attending daytime rehearsals appears to be the solution to this quest. There must be a thousand going on each day in New York, though they are rarely open to the public. What if a generation of families got in the habit of attending performing arts rehearsals, so that evening concert going, when the children were old enough, would be the next logical step?
At the same time, the rehearsal period is a production’s highest sunk cost, with not one ticket sale to offset a dime. What if you threw open the gates to rehearsals, showing the world what the process is like and perhaps recruiting some new donors or ticket-buyers? I’ve fantasized that this is my path to the Nobel: monetizing the fallow rehearsal times while spawning vast new audiences.
With Orlando, Whitebox art space and stage director R. B. Schlather attempted this experiment, though family-friendliness was likely an unintentional effect. The results demonstrate the limits to the idea, and reinforce the fact that, alas, this is yet another offering that would require more money than it would earn.
Nearly all Orlando rehearsals were open to the public. Surprisingly, open opera rehearsals are exceedingly rare. That explains the publicity that Orlando generated, similar to the Alcina that Whitebox presented in a similar manner in 2014.
It’s no wonder that rehearsals are generally under wraps. It needs to be a safe space for performers to take risks, make mistakes, take breaks from singing when needed, and perform for their own benefit.
“We all found it a bit stressful,” says Drew Minter, who sang the title role. “No one is on all the time.” One singer marked her arias without knowing that an opera director was in attendance, missing a chance to show her full talents. The baritone Hadleigh Adams, who spent most of the show wearing nothing but briefs and body paint, probably felt more vulnerable than he had bargained for.
The open rehearsals forced everyone to work harder than usual; Minter concedes that this probably made the performances better. There are times during long rehearsals when you want to rest your voice, but when lots of listeners were in attendance, “it would have been churlish not to sing” fully, Minter says. He also describes the full houses that appeared for the dress rehearsals, effectively turning them into formal performances.
If bringing in an audience makes rehearsals more demanding for performers, they will feel well-compensated for the extra effort if they are… well-compensated. So much for freebie outreach by opening up the rehearsal process. This model would require its own fundraising efforts over and above what is needed for a standard opera production, and donors might not readily understand why higher fees are needed.
Moreover, all performances and rehearsals of Orlando were free, though donations were accepted. It wasn’t clear to me why there wasn’t even a modest ticket price requested for rehearsals, especially since the listeners I saw during one rehearsal looked more like people who had read the blurb in The New Yorker and less like local Chinatown residents.
So how did this work as an event for kids? Fantastic! Opera in intimate spaces appeals to all ages for its immediacy, for the thrill of being close to human bodies producing those sounds, for feeling enveloped in it, for feeling like you are part of the show. My little one sat alert and attentive in her stroller, and exclaimed “good singing!” as we left.
But oh the stink eye you get when you rattle a pram into a rehearsal! I visited toward the end of the process, so maybe the crew was exhausted to see yet another interloper, with a potential screamer in tow no less.
Still, I couldn’t help but think it reflected a missed opportunity. If you’re going to open yourselves to the public, make a point of connecting with them. Couldn’t a volunteer have stood at the entrance, encouraging me to sign the mailing list, pointing out the donation bucket, and asking me how I found out about it?
All types of people must have passed through the rehearsals. Surely some of them, able to take in Handel in the middle of the day, are worth following up with. This is outside of the artistic goals of the experiment, but it’s worthwhile for artists to think about. Forming a connection with the audience can’t just happen from the stage, and if you’ve created an environment where deeper connections are possible, take the next step and connect.