San Diego Opera turns to Shakespeare’s famous tale of star-crossed lovers for its second major opera since returning to live performances at the Civic Theatre. The classic French opera “Romeo and Juliet” heightens the drama of the original piece in typical operatic fashion.
Love and Hate Fuel the San Diego Opera’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’
The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is fueled as much by the love shared by the main characters as by the hatred displayed by their feuding families. Perhaps no one in the San Diego Opera’s new production understands these dueling passions better than Doug Scholz Carlson.
“I’m the director of intimacy and the fight choreographer,” Scholz-Carlson said. “The director of intimacy is quite new, especially in the world of opera. The director of intimacy will manage those moments of physical intimacy, like romance, but it can also be parents and children together. It can be non-consensual, so assaults can be part of what an intimacy director does. A lot of intimacy directing grew out of combat directing, and a lot of the principles are the same. The biggest difference is that the direction of intimacy is really very much concerned with affirmative consent so that the performers have the chance to consent to everything that they are going to do during the performance.”
In the case of Romeo and Juliet, it’s a progression from flirting to touching to kissing. And, in director Matthew Ozawa’s production, the singers shine on a beautifully designed but very understated set.
“The gestures that are made by the sets and the lighting are beautiful, but they’re really austere and that means the performers can really shine,” Scholz-Carlson said. “So for intimacy, when they get together, they don’t have a lot of scenery that they go through or anything. You watch how the two of them touch each other and how they’re getting close and how they kiss The whole story is in what the performers do.
This also goes for the intimacy of close combat in fight scenes.
“When you just have an open space and they say, ‘Tell the story, use the movement to tell the story on that open space,’ I find that really exciting,” Scholz-Carlson said.
It’s also exciting for singer Sarah Coit, who has a “pants” role in “Romeo and Juliet,” meaning she plays a male character.
“Very typical of opera,” Coit said. “I’m what you call a mezzo-soprano, and a lot of mezzo-soprano roles are male characters.”
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But what isn’t typical for her is having to play with a sword.
“So we walked around the room at the first live rehearsal, and they asked what kind of experience we had, and I was the only one who didn’t have any,” Coit recalled.
It was good for Scholz-Carlson: “She doesn’t have the specific physical vocabulary for using a sword, so she needs to learn, and it’s going to take us a little longer because her body is ‘get used to all those specifics If someone had more vocabulary with the sword, then you could choreograph something that was a bit more complicated just because they were able to execute it. But you just have to take it step by step.
“It’s kind of like dancing,” Coit said. “It’s very, very choreographed. And so it’s just a matter of making sure you’re focused and remembering what you’re doing and staying calm.”
Coit sings the role of Stephano (a character created specifically for the opera who does not appear in Shakespeare’s play). His antics lead to the great battle between Tybalt and Mercutio, which involves members of the choir running around like the panicked crowd. That’s why Scholz-Carlson holds a call to fight before every performance.
“In the Tybalt-Mercutio fight, we have about 40 people running at full speed in different interlocking patterns around the stage. So everything is complicated,” Scholz-Carlson said. “Everyone has to do their job, right? So before every performance, we run it all at half speed and check in, and then we run it at full speed so that when we come into performance , so they tried that night and we know it’s all right.”
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Choreographing a fight for opera requires close collaboration with the conductor — in this case Yves Abel — and the score.
“Usually when you’re choreographing a fight for a spoken word piece, you’re going to put music underneath, but you always throw it in after the fact,” Scholz-Carlson said. “In opera, you have a set time frame defined by the music. The music gives you a lot of the story you want to tell. For example, in this piece, the music gives you exactly when you want that the punches happen. because there are musical moments that you have to hit, which is really fun. There are several chords at the end of the Tybalt-Mercutio fight that could be the final stab where Mercutio gets done stab, and Abel had a strong opinion about that.
The challenge is that the fight choreography may not play at full speed until just before the opening, which means adjustments may be needed at the last minute.
Abel, who described the conductor as “the musical leader”, said: “Everything has to fit my tempo – so the speed of the music. And so if we find in the final stages that he there just isn’t enough music, say, to cover all the different moves in the battle, so of course something has to be cut and it won’t be the music.”
Abel collaborates with Scholz-Carlson, the director Ozawa and especially the singers to ensure that the opera unfolds in the best possible way.
“It’s also my job to push the boundaries as much as possible,” Abel said. “I’m very attached to that, seeing how far a singer can go, sometimes to the point where he looks at me like he wants to hit me or something, but never beyond that point. But I believe very firmly that going to that limit is what creates great performance.”
And going to the end of his passion is at the heart of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.
“Romeo and Juliet” opens Saturday, March 26 with four performances at the San Diego Civic Theater. Additional performances are March 29, April 1 and a matinee on April 3.