NOVA Center for the Performing Arts -- Billings, Montana

 

Billings Outpost Story by Shari Pike

tosca_chorus 

The chorus relaxes for a moment during a recent rehearsal.

Photo by Shan Cousrouf

By Sharie Pike for the Billings Outpost

Don’t for one minute believe that in “the good old days” the theater avoided violence. In Rimrock Opera’s spring production of Puccini’s “Tosca,” look for torture, suicide and murder.

The piece opened in Rome on Jan. 14, 1900, to indifferent reviews, and, in 1956, Joseph Kerman called it a “shabby little shocker.” However, more than a century of enthralled opera aficionados have loved it. Though the famous Enrico Caruso didn’t perform for the premiere, Cavaradossi became one of his favorite roles. “Tosca” employs a cast of more than 120. Soprano Cassandra Norville sings the title role of Floria Tosca. Jeffrey Kitto plays her young lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi.

Rounding out the doomed triangle is heroic baritone Douglas Nagel, playing the wicked Scarpio. Mr. Nagel is also the artistic director and producer of Rimrock Opera. The score of “Tosca” demands much of each performer, even chorus members. Puccini composed the opera in one piece, meaning that one aria, duet or chorus often segues into the next with little or no musical interlude. In keeping with Rimrock Opera tradition of staging one of its two operas per year in the original language, this year’s “Tosca” is sung in the original Italian. An English translation scrolls across the screen over the stage at Alberta Bair Theater. “We want as many community people as possible,” said Mr. Nagel. “It’s a chance to improve your singing and learn another language. That’s especially important for young people.”

All the stars, even in rehearsal, could trill their Italian R’s while singing. Those R’s are always difficult for native English speakers, but they added one more delightful embellishment to the music. While the star performers wow the audience with their talent and training, the chorus provides both backup and even stage decoration. The chorus is an opportunity for anyone to be a part of the opera. Auditions take place twice a year for major performances.

Chorus member Janie Rife joined Rimrock Opera two years ago for the production of “Carmen.” She is studying vocal performance at Rocky Mountain College. “I like classical things,” she said. “And I love the connection with history.” Ms. Rife sings soprano.

Nate Piptak, a tenor, is a senior at Montana State University Billings. “I started out with the Chamber Singers (at MSU Billings), and auditioned for ‘Carmen.’ I’ve been with it ever since. If you love to sing, I’d recommend it. You grow as a singer and it’s just so much fun.”

“Tosca” has attracted some newcomers as well. “This is my first opera. It’s just great! An awesome experience,” said Karla Stricker, 33. “You don’t have to have lots of training to sing in the chorus. The only thing I had was high school chorus and a little bit in college. I do sing with the church choir and help out with it a little.” Mike and Shelly Ryan are seasoned veterans. They became interested when their daughter joined ROCK, Rimrock Opera Chorus for Kids.

“I like opera,” said Mike. “I like the stories, and it’s totally different from what I usually do.”

Shelly agreed. “We like the music, and you become like a family. Rehearsal time revolves around how much the chorus is needed. Sometimes it’s every night. This one is just two nights a week. The leads do more.” The Ryans roped their friend, Debra Gloor, into trying out this spring. “I auditioned and got in. I think singing with this group is a delight,” she said. “There are so many strong singers. It’s the first time I’ve sung in a foreign language, so that’s been fun, too.”

Not all the volunteers tread the boards. Dodie Rife volunteered with the opera when her daughter Janie joined, more to keep an eye on her than anything else. To keep busy, she helped with props and found she had a talent for it. She’s now a paid employee.

“I’m in charge of all the props and of finding things,” she said. “It’s very, very enjoyable, but very challenging. I love it!”

Just a little more than two weeks before the performance, she’d found a brown portfolio. “I’ll take out the plastic flaps inside and dull up the outside.” For “Tosca,” 110 to 120 costumes were made to measure by a source out of state. They arrived three weeks before performance, but sometimes costume director Loretta Wittmer has less time to get ready.

“They’re all made to order and come with the person’s name on it,” she said. “We fit everyone. Sometime I have to take them in or let them out. I’m also in charge of jewelry.” Since all the costumes must be returned, none of the alterations is permanent. As the costume director, Ms. Wittmer is also responsible for getting the entire wardrobe to the Alberta Bair and then shipping costumes back after the final curtain.

“This is my fourth opera, and I love it. I’ve met a lot of nice people and it’s a lot of fun,” she said.

And you’ll love it, too. “Tosca” plays at the Alberta Bair on Saturday, April 30, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 1, at 3 p.m. Tickets range in price from $21 to $46 for adults and $11 to 18.50 for students. Call the box office at 256-6052 for reservations.

 

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