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Building an opera: week 10

Designed by Alan Muraoka, the set for The Tempest features two rolling staircases around a center pivot.

Alan Muraoka is a multiple Emmy-nominated set designer who has worked in television, film and theater, and for several opera companies. He approaches his work with USC Thornton Opera as he would for any professional company — the only difference is a longer rehearsal time, which allows him more opportunities to see the singers in action.

In this week’s video, Muraoka talks about his “nonliteral” set for The Tempest that features two rolling staircases around a center pivot.

The assemblage, which rotates around a compass painted on the floor, resembles a piece of nautical equipment. Muraoka said the idea is to imply the controlling nature of the protagonist Prospero, a duke exiled on an island, by building scenery that Prospero uses to manipulate other characters.

The Tempest opens Nov. 14 at the Bing Theatre.

View a two-minute time lapse of the building of the set:

Watch set designer Muraoka discuss his artistic process:


Building an opera: week nine

When putting together an opera, each designer working on the production searches the text and score for specific clues.

Lighting designer Azra King-Abadi zeroes in on the time of day, geography and the emotions of various characters at particular moments during the action. The Tempest is King-Abadi’s fourth USC Thornton Opera production and her third as lighting designer.

In this week’s video, she explains that she starts simply by listening to the music. Next, she might undertake an image search and then she carefully plots the time of day for each scene.

The Tempest, which takes place on a magical island, offers the opportunity to create fantasy effects, King-Abadi said. On the other hand, the set’s angles and stage positions make it a difficult show to light. “It’s do-able, but difficult,” she said.

Tune in next week for a look at the set construction. Deadlines are looming, as the opera opens at the Bing Theatre on Nov. 14.


Building an opera: week eight

Operas create illusion and spectacle, thanks in no small part to the art of the costume design. USC Thornton Opera is extraordinarily blessed to have as its designer Jacqueline Saint Anne, an Emmy Award winner with years of credits in theater, films and television. Drawing on her deep reservoir of sources, Saint Anne creates, borrows and rents costumes that would be the envy of any professional company.

For The Tempest, which opens Nov. 14, Saint Anne is presented with the challenge of melding Elizabethan costumes worn by the shipwrecked characters with the otherworldly costumes worn by the denizens of an enchanted island.

In this video, she fits a long, multilayered dress on Diana Newman, a first-year master’s student cast as Miranda, a deposed princess. Saint Anne then tackles the first fitting of the wild, colorful wig in the shape of a fish fin to be worn by Blake Howard, playing Caliban, an earthy native of the island.

Saint Anne speaks eloquently about the role that costumes play in helping singers learn how to present themselves on stage. In her seven years of work with USC Thornton Opera, she said, she has enjoyed watching students enter as freshmen and then “grow into professionals that I’m very proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with in the entertainment business.”


Building an opera: week seven

USC Thornton Opera Manager Damien Elwood has an apt description of what he does.

“The opera is like a giant puzzle that is handed to me in 1,000 different pieces,” he said.

This fall, Elwood has been handed Lee Hoiby’s The Tempest, a full-length work involving an ensemble of approximately 65 persons. It’s scored for such a large orchestra that all the musicians won’t fit into the pit of the Bing Theatre, so they’ll be upstage behind a scrim.

That’s not the only challenge of the piece. Costumes and sets are especially daunting, as they have to reflect the other-worldliness of the magical island setting

Elwood, who is responsible for all the nonartistic elements of the opera, oversees the budget, hires designers and is the keeper of the all-important week-to-week schedule.

The Nov. 14 opening night is getting closer. Watch Elwood explain how he’s putting the pieces of the puzzle together.


Building an opera: week six

Every director hopes his production is magical, but USC Thornton Opera resident stage director Ken Cazan said that this fall’s opera, The Tempest, which will open Nov. 14, requires magic in every scene.

His concept for the Lee Hoiby version of Shakespeare’s tale involves a mixture of eras, including Elizabethan costumes and contemporary multilevel platforms surrounding revolving staircases. The staircases will move around a black and gold 17th-century compass and astrological chart that will be painted on the floor.

Even though the action takes place on a desert island, Cazan said, he needed to get across the idea that locations change occasionally — thus the moving staircases.

Cazan also said that he and conductor Brent McMunn have been talking about doing The Tempest for years. But with the magnitude of the production and the demanding vocal requirements, “we had to wait until the stars aligned, and we had exactly the right people to do it,” Cazan noted. “And, boy, do we have them!”


Building an opera: week five

She’s a coach, but don’t look for a clipboard or whistle.

Jessica Hall, a second-year doctoral student in collaborative keyboard arts at the USC Thornton School of Music, is the opera-teaching assistant for USC Thornton Opera’s fall production of Lee Hoiby’s The Tempest. She is also one very busy multitasker.

First, she has to quickly learn the difficult score — letting it “get in your fingers,” as she put it — and then work with the singing cast and chorus In addition, she teases out the score’s phrasing, its Shakespearean language and also what the singers should be listening for when the full orchestra is playing.

In the fifth video documenting the preparations for a full-length opera, USC Thornton Opera spotlights an important behind-the-scenes player.


Building an opera: week four

Here’s a statement that can’t be made about many opera productions: The conductor knew the composer personally.

The standard opera repertoire is heavy on the work of long-dead composers, such as Georges Bizet and Giuseppe Verdi. But USC Thornton Opera maestro Brent McMunn believes that students should perform more recently composed works, as well as old favorites.

This fall, McMunn is conducting The Tempest, composed by his longtime friend Lee Hoiby. “His music is in my DNA,” McMunn said. “It’s full of sentiment, but never sentimental.”

McMunn is also a friend of the opera’s librettist, Mark Shulgasser, and has invited Shulgasser to speak at a Visions and Voices event prior to the opera performance on Nov. 16.

In the fourth installment of a series detailing the steps required to stage a full-length opera, McMunn explains why the time was right to stage The Tempest, outlines the challenges of the piece and describes his friendship with the composer.

He also reveals that he is organizing a student recital of Hoiby’s rarely performed songs at noon on Oct. 26 in Newman Hall. The recital will serve as an introduction to the composer’s work prior to opening night of The Tempest on Nov. 14.


Building on opera: week three

Talk about drama. When the cast lists went up for the USC Thornton Opera’s fall production, The Tempest, the full range of emotions was on display — fear, hesitation, anticipation, elation, disappointment, relief, anxiety, triumph.

In the third video of the weekly installments that show the step-by-step process of mounting a full-length opera, USC Thornton’s videographer Clarissa Shan stationed herself by a bulletin board in the Raubenheimer Music Faculty building when the cast lists were posted.

Auditions had been held a week earlier, and singers were discovering their assignments for The Tempest, which opens Nov. 14, as well as singing assignments for “2012-13 Opera Scenes,” a concert to be held in February, and for Dialogues of the Carmelites, USC Thornton’s spring opera.

In the “I’ve Been Cast” video, viewers follow students James Hayden, Alissa Corrao and Arya Roshanian as they discover their fates.

The following are the cast lists for the three productions:

The Tempest
2012-13 Opera Scenes
Dialogues of the Carmelites


Building an opera: week two

On Nov. 14 — just nine short weeks away — USC Opera will unveil the West Coast premiere of Lee Hoiby’s opera, The Tempest, at the Bing Theatre.

Each week, USC Opera, which is part of the USC Thornton School of Music, is documenting the behind-the-scenes work of its student singers, musicians and crew members as they and their professors collaborate on the extensive effort required for a demanding full-length opera.

This week, orchestra manager Josh Roach talks about “seating” the orchestra of approximately 50 musicians. Should they be in the pit or onstage behind the singers? What instruments are placed where? And how do they manage to learn the score so quickly?

As Roach said, the rehearsal timeframe for The Tempest is similar to that given to a professional orchestra. It’s another way the school prepares students for the real world.

For more information, visit

And check back weekly for the latest installment of “Building an Opera.”


Building an opera, step by step: week one

When the curtain rises Nov. 14 on the USC Opera production of The Tempest, Shakespeare’s classic tale of fantasy, betrayals and forgiveness, not all the magic and drama will be on the Bing Theatre stage.

The behind-the-scenes work of 14 singing actors, 16 chorus members and dozens of crew members will provide its own stories of striving, roadblocks, breakthroughs and triumphs.

From now through opening night, USC Thornton Opera is documenting the process of bringing the West Coast premiere of composer Lee Hoiby’s opera to life with weekly short videos.

The first video captures the audition process, which took place during the first week of classes. The next video will detail the work of orchestra manager Josh Roach in “seating” the orchestra.

Future videos will show the posting of the cast list and reactions; maestro Brent McMunn talking about the opera and his long friendship with Hoiby; resident stage director Ken Cazan describing his concept for The Tempest; the trials of the opera coaching pianist; and opera manager Damien Elwood explaining how a complicated opera is produced.

But wait, there’s more. There will also be videos showing the creative work of set designer Alan Muraoka, costume designer Jacqueline Saint Anne and lighting designer Azra King-Abadi. And there will be a video showing the sitzprobe — the first rehearsal that brings the singers and musicians in the same room. The final video will recap everything it took to get the production to dress rehearsal and opening night.

Videos will be posted on the USC Thornton YouTube site, the USC News site and the USC YouTube site, among other locations.

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