Friday, January 24, 2014

BLO Fondly Remembers Thomson Smillie

Thomson Smillie
Former General Manager of the
Opera Company of Boston
The arts world lost a dear friend this week, with the passing of Thomson Smillie, the former general manager of the Opera Company of Boston under Sarah Caldwell (1978-1980). 

His lifelong career in the arts began in the 1960s at the newly-founded Scottish Opera. After five years as artistic director of the Wexford Festival in Ireland, he served as general manager of the Opera Company of Boston before settling in Louisville in 1981 as general director of the Kentucky Opera, a position he held until 1997. 

His contributions to the performing arts were many, and Boston Lyric Opera pays tribute to a wonderful man and his family. 

Read a full memoriam on Mr. Smillie here: Thomson Smillie Obituary 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Welcome to the Family: Meet Elizabeth Mullins

BLO is thrilled to introduce the newest member of our opera family: Elizabeth Mullins, Manager of Education and Community Program Development. 

Elizabeth Mullins
As an arts administrator and researcher, Elizabeth Mullins has accrued experience across a variety of arts-related settings in which she has focused on understanding how arts organizations benefit and engage youth and their communities. 

She received her undergraduate degrees in Psychology and Music Therapy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and her Master's in Child Development from Tufts University where she is also pursuing her Ph.D. in Youth Development in the Arts. Her work on the YouthBEAT Research and Evaluation Project at Tufts University, which investigates the role music plays in the lives of youth from under-served communities, heightened her interest in supporting and working with arts organizations such as Boston Lyric Opera and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where she interned during her graduate studies. 

She plays piano, flute, and Indonesian gamelan and has traveled around the world performing at venues such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Vatican, and the 2000 Olympics in Australia. Through these experiences she has developed both a personal and professional interest in building arts appreciation and participation among new and diverse factions of the community, and is excited to contribute to Boston Lyric Opera's education and outreach efforts in her new position. 

OPERA FIRSTS: How I Became an Opera Fan

With the new year in swing, we are excited here at Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) to be in the midst of preparations for our upcoming spring productions, Verdi’s Rigoletto and Bellini’s I Puritani. With each of these productions, BLO is pleased to offer free dress rehearsal passes to high school and college student groups. If you haven’t taken advantage of this opportunity before, it is a wonderful way to experience opera for the first time. 

BLO Community Engagement Intern, Melanie O’Neil, writes here about the first time she fell in love with opera.  We invite you to take a moment to read her story and think about your own opera firsts.  What was the first opera production you ever attended?  When did you first fall in love with opera?  If you haven’t had these firsts yet or hope to share them with your students, we invite you to create those moments with BLO.  

If you would like to attend a final dress rehearsal with your students at no charge, fill out a request form online. To supplement and enhance the opera going experience, we are also offering study guides to provide some background information and lesson plans for each of BLO’s spring productions.  Click here to view the Rigoletto Study Guide.


Those who know me find it difficult to imagine “Melanie before opera,” but six years ago I knew so little about opera that I couldn’t tell Wagner from Glück.

I don’t come from a particularly musical family, and the closest contact I’d ever had with opera was through the orchestral excerpts and overtures I played in my high school orchestra growing up. We were in the habit of playing the overture to The Barber of Seville with such frequency that any of us could have played it in our sleep. One day, the title caught my eye in a newspaper ad for a performance at the local theater. I attended more to escape the boredom of an utterly eventless city than because I expected some kind of cultural awakening, but I was surprised to find that the humor was not at all outdated, but quite witty and the singing fantastically agile. The performance was enjoyable, but I was by no means an overnight fanatic. 

By some twist of fate, the language institute I had registered at for the summer of that same year was in none other than Giacomo Puccini’s hometown, Lucca, Italy. I had only a vague idea of who the composer was, but that changed very soon after my arrival in Lucca. Like a patron saint of the city, iconic images of the beloved composer were plastered above shop doorways, and his unrivaled tenor arias were common knowledge among the locals. About 15 miles outside of Lucca, at Torre del Lago, there is an annual festival that celebrates the composer and his ever-beloved operas. Being a guest in his hometown, I decided a trip to the Festival Pucciniano was definitely in order. 

With a ticket to Tosca in my hand, I arrived at the bustling station, Piazzale Verdi, and looked on in horror…I hadn’t the slightest idea which bus I was supposed to be on. I tried to explain my predicament, but it only seemed to confuse rather than help. The bus driver looked at me and seemed to say, “I’m not sure what you’re trying to do. Just get on the bus.” My skepticism did not move him to reconsider my question and begrudgingly I took a seat. For all I knew I was being shuttled to some distant corner of the country, never to be seen or heard from again, but after some time I could see that we were, indeed, headed for Torre del Lago. When we arrived at my destination, I catapulted myself out of the seat and nearly sprinted off the bus. Then I began my walk up the long road leading, at last, to the Festival Pucciniano. 

The city was in bloom and the smell of the sea made me glad I had not let my apprehension get the best of me at the bus station. Yet, what I hadn’t taken into consideration, and fortunately realized too late, was that for all my trouble,  I would not be able to understand a word of the opera. As Angelotti scampered onstage and belted the first words of the opera, "Ah, finalmente! Nel terror mio stolto vedea ceffi di birro in ogni volto!" a light bulb went off in my head: no supertitles. Whether this was because the theater was open-air or because the majority of the audience knew the libretto by heart I will never know, but I swallowed my disappointment and continued watching. As impossible as it sounds, the language barrier seemed to slip my mind and I realized afterwards that, not only were the supertitles unnecessary, but they would actually have been distracting to the total experience.

By the end of Act I there was no question that I had been affected by the irrepressible contagion that I call “opera mania.” The Act I finale was the real turning point for me. It had all the complexities and irony of a great work of literature, the visual splendor of a painted masterpiece, and, of course, the unparalleled passion of Puccini's musical idiom. I was sold!

The biggest mistake people make with opera is thinking that they’re all the same. It’s true that some operas are not for everyone, but I strongly believe there is an opera for everybody. “Seen one, seen them all” simply doesn’t work when there are centuries-worth of musical styles to delve into. Just as with films, books, or albums, the trouble is simply finding your niche.

Melanie O'Neil
Community Engagement Intern

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Meet the Dramaturg

Update 10/19/2015: Please note that Magda Romanska is currently on leave from the position of Boston Lyric Opera dramaturg.
In a January 2014 Boston Globe article, BLO's Dramaturg, Dr. Magda Romanska, was quoted saying that "the rigid division of roles (director/dramaturg/playwright)" or in the case of an opera, the stage director, dramaturg, and librettist
"becomes more and more blurred as people move across boundaries" and begin to work together. When we posted the article on the BLO Facebook page, a longtime fan of the company asked, "
Can someone please give me a definition of a dramaturg and what he/she does?" We thought this was a fine opportunity to formally introduce you to Magda and explain what it is exactly that she does.
BLO Dramaturg, Magda Romanska

Born and raised in Poland, a country with a deep love of opera and theatre, Magda Romanska brings to the BLO a rich background in eclectic dramatic and literary traditions. Romanska graduated with honors from Stanford University and holds a Ph.D. in Theatre and Film from Cornell University. She also studied at at the Yale School of Drama and at the Mellon School of Theatre and Performance Research at Harvard University.

In addition to her dramaturgial experience, Romanska is a critically acclaimed experimental playwright. Most recently, her play, 
, had its world premiere at the City Garage Theatre in Los Angeles. Currently, she is an Associate Professor of Dramaturgy and Theatre at Emerson College and a Research Associate at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies. 

In the Spring, she will be a Visiting Associate Professor at Harvard’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures where she will teach a course on experimental theatre. This summer, she will be chairing the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) conference in Boston. 

We sat down with Dr. Romanska to discuss her work in the field.

BLO: What is a dramaturg?
MR: In its broadest and earliest definition, dramaturgy means a comprehensive theory of “play making.” Originally, the Greek word dramatourgos simply meant someone who was able to arrange various dramatic actions in a meaningful and comprehensive order. Today’s dramaturgs concern themselves foremost with dramatic structure. In the February 2013 episode of the hit TV series Smash, entitled “The Dramaturg,” a dramaturg is referred to as “the book doctor.” His job is to fix the structural errors afflicting the script of the new musical.

The concept of dramaturgy as a separate theatrical function originated with the eighteenth century German artist Gotthold Lessing, who introduced both the actual term and the figure of the “in-house critic” whose role was to assist a theatre in the process of play development. Modern dramaturgs work in all kinds of narrative forms and structures: from opera to musical theatre, from dance and multi-media to filmmaking, video game design, and robotics.

Klaus Jantke, a German scholar who studies the dramaturgy of video games, says that, “Dramaturgy is the design of emotional experience.” In every story-telling medium, a successful plot has all the elements in their proper order, culminating in a cathartic purging of emotions. For Bertolt Brecht, famed playwright and theatre director, the dramaturg was “the director’s most important theoretical collaborator.” A dramaturg’s job is to research and clarify the political, cultural, and historical aspects of the drama as well as its aesthetic, formal, and structural qualities, and to communicate his/her knowledge to the artistic team and the audience.

BLO: How did you become involved in the field?
MR: I did my undergraduate studies at Stanford, majoring in Modern Thought and Literature. It was an interdisciplinary honor major for people who had a fear of commitment, as we joked. I was interested in everything: literature, art, theatre, philosophy, and social and political thought. I was looking for a profession which would allow me the freedom to follow my curiosity, and to develop in many directions. Dramaturgy has such a Renaissance quality: you can work in theatre, but you can also work in a number of other fields. I studied Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Yale School of Drama, where my mentors were Elinor Fuchs and James Leverett. Yale’s dramaturgy program was the first of its kind established in the U.S., and it remains the leading program in the country. Elinor Fuchs and her methods of dramaturgical analysis, in particular, have been a driving force behind the development of modern American dramaturgy. I eventually got my doctorate in theatre and film at Cornell University, where I studied dramatic structure, theatre and film history, and political, social, and aesthetic theory.

BLO: What projects have you worked on?
MR: One of my most interesting projects was Café Variations, directed by one of America’s leading directors: Anne Bogart. It was a large-scale music/theater/dance piece, with text by Charles Mee and music by George Gershwin. The dramaturgical input involved finding common threads in a script that was abstract and guided by its own inner logic. The distinct structural challenge involved finding the inner mechanism of a narrative that lacked a traditional Aristotelian arc. It also involved researching topics as varied as café culture, Apache dance, fractals, and string theory. The dramaturgical contextualization involved interdisciplinary research in philosophy, psychology, history, art history, film, music, and dance. It required a multilayered contextual approach that provided depth and breadth to the project via multiple cognitive entry points.

My most recent new play development project was a multimedia devised theatre piece, The Fall, which focuses on the fall of the Berlin Wall—as we approach the 25th anniversary of the event. The project is being developed in New York with a group of international artists, and it involves twelve months of development arranged into four workshops. During the first workshop, I served as the Associate Dramaturg and a Contributing Writer. For this project I used my own experiences, having grown up in communist Poland. It was a very interesting process to research things which I remember as memories.

BLO: As a professor at Emerson College, how do you teach dramaturgy?
MR: I grew up in Poland, which has a very strong and well-established dramatic tradition. Like in many other European countries, in Poland too, theatre often shapes the national dialogue, and the dramaturgs shape what’s shown at the theatres. If you want to influence social and political debate in your country, one sure way is to become a dramaturg or a playwright. (Vaclav Havel, for example, was a writer, dramaturg, and playwright who became Czechoslovakia’s first democratically-elected president.) This is not the case in the U.S.

But one of the most important qualities of a good dramaturg is to be well-read, to know and to understand the social, cultural, and political debates that are happening around the world. I tell my students that theatre is an exercise in radical empathy. It means reading and trying to understand every point of view. Good drama is a complex, multilayered puzzle of visible and invisible, spoken and unspoken. You need to understand all of the layers on factual, intellectual, emotional, and visceral levels.

The Dramaturgy program at Emerson is distinct in that it offers students wide-ranging opportunities to explore the profession. Working with Emerson Stage, our dramaturgy students engage in all the regular tasks performed by production dramaturgs. In addition to studying theatre history, dramatic structure, research strategies, and audience outreach models, our students also learn new dramaturgical methods that can be employed in musical theatre, opera, film, multimedia, and digital design.

BLO: What tips would you give to someone who may be interested in working as a professional dramaturg?
MR: Formally, you need a solid background in dramatic theory and history. The definition of dramaturgy is expanding, and the concept is being redefined as we speak to include many modes of making meaning. In our global, mediated context of multi-national group collaborations that unbend traditional divisions of roles as well as previously intransigent rules of time and space, the dramaturg is also the ultimate globalist: inter-cultural mediator, information and research manager, media content analyst, inter-disciplinary negotiator, and social media strategist. To be ready for this new world, you need to read a lot, you need to write a lot, and you need to see a lot—theatre, film, opera. It’s kind of the opposite of Japanese Sanzaru, the three monkeys. You need to keep your eyes, ears, and mind wide open.

Click here to read Magda's work on Lizzie Borden.
Click here to read her work on The Magic Flute.