Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Super Captain Chronicles - The Five Senses of Opening Night

The Super Captain Chronicles continues with Jesi Betancourt's look at "The Five Senses of Opening Night."

Opening night is a very special night for every production, but especially for the premiere of a new opera. After weeks of long rehearsals it is finally time to raise the curtain on our production of Moby-Dick. In the front of the theater patrons gather expectantly, looking elegant in their evening clothes, sipping cocktails. Yet what happens on stage is just a small part of opening night. What happens backstage before the first note is played is a feast for the senses.

One of my most favorite times of opening night is a few hours before the curtain rises. The backstage is empty, but with the promise it will soon be teeming with life. For now it is relatively quiet. A few principal singers gather around the rehearsal piano and work with the Maestro on specific musical pieces. Their voices mingle and echo throughout the empty hallways of the backstage. They are joined by the faint sound of a French horn playing practice scales somewhere in the bowels of the theater basement. The opera is full of quirky superstitions and customs. Before a performance you never wish someone “good luck.” That is considered bad luck. Instead you tell them to “have a good show”, “break a leg”, or you symbolically “spit” on them for good luck by saying “toi, toi, toi” (sounds like “toy, toy, toy”). No one is sure where the superstition came from, but everyone likes to hear “toi, toi, toi” before going on stage.

Flowers are always abundant during the first performance. It is a traditional gift in the theater. Floral arrangements of every description fill the dressing rooms and hallway tables. Home grown bouquets of garden fresh roses, exotic arrangements from the florist, together with bunches of spring flowers are given as tribute to the principal singers and supers alike. Their delicate fragrances mixing with each other to create a heavenly scent. Below in the basement the wig and makeup crew set out the tools of their trade; hairspray, foundation, eye liner. Stage makeup has its own perfume. The scent of body paint that create the fierce tattoos on the chest, arms and face of Queequeg combine with the pine wood sent of spirit gum that affixes facial hair to masculine faces adds to the opening night aroma.

One of the many traditions of the theater includes the tradition of giving gifts and notes to each other on opening night for luck. After spending several intense weeks rehearsing together performers form deep bonds, not unlike a tight knit family. The gifts are usually small tokens that have significance for the cast. The notes are short, heartfelt expressions of congratulations and best wishes. Those gifts and notes are held on to and cherished long after the curtain has fallen on the last show.

As you walk around the backstage you can see that opening night is truly about to start. Costumes are hung neatly in the dressing rooms; shoes and hats, waiting to be worn. The backstage is a maze of hallways and dressing rooms, which begins to fill with bustling singers and supers getting ready. The pace picks up as time for curtain draws closer. Playbills are put on every table and are avidly read by all. After weeks of rehearsal a program is evidence that the show is truly about to begin. In the wings of the stage props are laid out and neatly labeled, ready for their turn to appear on opening night. Whale “blubber” is neatly stacked to one side, a hammer, coils of rope, and a gold doubloon; wait patiently in their proper places for when they are needed.

Food is an important part of any celebration. Opening night embraces that tradition whole heartedly. There is always a vast selection of homemade cookies, cupcakes, macaroons, tarts and even authentic baklava which is baked with love and readily shared. Charming whale shaped cookies fill large platters and hungry mouths. Bottles of champagne are given for toasting after the show. What show would be complete without pounds and pounds of chocolate candies, which flows throughout the backstage and devoured by cast and crew alike?

The excitement backstage, which has been building, reaches its peak as the orchestra tunes to the A. Hush settles over the backstage wings as the ringing cel phone announcement is heard. The lights dim and the stage manager wishes everyone a good show and calls “Places, please.” It is time. Standing in the dark of the backstage the first sweet strains of the overture can be heard. Our Pequod has set sail on its grand adventure… opening night.

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