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Friday, September 26, 2014

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Word About the Viennese Fortepiano

by Craig Tomlinson, Harpsichord and Fortepiano maker

Mozart did not specify if the recitatives in Don Giovanni were to be accompanied with a harpsichord or with a fortepiano. Both instruments were appropriate and both instruments were available to Mozart. His own undated fortepiano had been purchased from the Viennese builder, Anton Walter early in 1780 and was used extensively in his compositions over the next decade until his death in 1791. 
Young Mozart at the piano

Anton Walter’s fortepianos were on the cutting edge of Viennese piano technology. Their single escapement actions incorporated the newly designed back-check, designed to eliminate multiple hammer strikes when a key was struck by an over-zealous player. They had a slightly larger range than many keyboard instruments of the day: a whopping 63 notes, from FF to g3.  Mozart’s piano had a hand lever used to raise the damper rail to sustain the notes played. Only after Mozart’s death were pianos fitted with knee levers and later with pedals for raising the dampers off of the strings.  
In this production of Don Giovanni a fortepiano based on two of Walter’s instruments is being used. Built in West Vancouver in 2004, it has a typical Viennese reverse keyboard with black ebony naturals and white bone accidentals. This is a carryover from the French harpsichord tradition. All of the woods used in the construction are traditional including the soundboard that was cut from spruce logs purchased in the Bavarian town of Mittenwald. As well, European beech and Swiss pear are used extensively. The outer case is veneered in walnut.  

Viennese piano actions are quick and snappy. The sound is clear and very delicate with a relatively short sustain. The force needed to depress a key lever on a Viennese fortepiano is only about a quarter of what it is on a modern piano and the dip of the key is only about half as much. Thus, playing the Viennese fortepiano involves none of the athleticism exercised by modern piano virtuosos but, like harpsichord, it requires an exquisite sensitivity of touch. 

Fortepiano slideshow:

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Friday, February 7, 2014

20 Questions with Katherine Whyte

Get to know one of our Donna Anna singers, Katherine Whyte, as we ask her 20 questions!

Guilty musical pleasure? 
I'm not sure it's guilty but I love anything Jazz, especially vocal Jazz

Where do you love to sing?  
Anywhere! I do enjoy singing in NYC because I get to be at home and work. 

What is your idea of earthly happiness? 
Wow! This is a deep question. Doing what I am created to do well and thereby impacting poeple.

To what faults do you feel most indulgent? 
Ha, ha ha... Where should I start. I'm very sensitive and I probably let that one go a lot because I'm a musician and a woman :)

Who are your favourite heroes/heroines of fiction? 

I really like Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities and Jean Valjean from Les Miserables. These two characters were both normal, flawed individuals who made a difference with their second chances.

Who are your favourite characters in history?

I like Ann Frank, a woman who stood up when it was needed. I think someone like Mother Teresa's life makes me uncomfortable in a good way.

Who are your favourite heroes/heroines in real life? 

I was so impacted by the life of Nelson Mandela. I think he still counts as real life. My sister as well. She's amazing.
Who is your favourite author? 
I was really impacted by Marilynne Robinson and Madeleine L'Engel. 

Your favourite musician?  
I'm not sure I have a favourite, the list of those I admire is really long.  Lets start with Regina Resnik. That woman's singing was flawless! 

Your favourite composer?  
I think I'm going to have to say Mozart.

What quality do you most admire in a person? 
Confidence in who they are. Without being cocky. 

Your favourite virtue?  
I think love, people who show a love that doesn't match their circumstances, who love even if they aren't loved in return.

Your favourite occupation? 
Well singing for sure but I do have my days where I wish I could be a professional tennis player. This is my other obsession :)

What did you want to be as a child? 
I really wanted to be a ballet dancer. My parents took us to the Nutcracker every Christmas.

Your most marked characteristic? 

I'm pretty outgoing. People say that I could make anyone/anything talk, including a fire-hydrant.

What do you most value in your friends? 
Depth, being able to share beyond the surface connections.

For what would you like to be remembered? 

I would like to be remembered as one who loved people. That is true success.

What natural gift would you most like to possess? 

I would love to be able to draw and paint. I feel like looking at nature and taking a picture just doesn't do a good enough job.  

What is your motto? 
I'm here for a reason and how I live my life makes a difference.

What non-opera song do you rock? 
"Just the way you look tonight."

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Project Opera

Colleen Maybin, Education and
Community Engagement Manager

Project Opera is a program for elementary students in Grades 4 to 7 based in Metro Vancouver schools and hosted by Vancouver Opera (VO). Students work with VO Teaching Artists and professionals from the opera community to write, stage, and perform their own original work. Sponsored by Odlum Brown Limited.

This week sees Project Opera starting a new session at Douglas Road Elementary in Burnaby BC. We are working with two classes – Mr. Hutton’s Grade 6/7 class (Division 1) and Mr. Milloy’s Grade 4/5 class (Division 3). Our first workshop focused on building a definition of opera based on what the students know right now before we begin. Between the two classes only a couple of students had seen an opera before. Most of them only knew opera based on TV and even then it was mainly the music that they recognized. So we brainstormed some ideas and watched a performance of Largo Al Factotum from The Barber of Seville and then added more ideas to our mind map. It was great to watch them watch the video – both classes were riveted by the performance of Figaro and clapped when it was done. This is a good sign!!

Then the fun began! In both classes we played a game to come up with definitions of seven vocabulary words related to opera. Working at table groups, the students tried to figure out the meaning of the words through clues given to the whole class. There were some very creative guesses that were grounded in what they already knew about music in general. “Recitative” and “libretto” turned out to the most challenging with “Super” leading to the most creative – we brainstormed many variations on “great”, “fantastic”, “wonderful” before the hint that it was a noun led them to actor. 

The final part of the workshop involved theatre games. It was clear that the students already have a great sense of trust when working with each other as they all leapt into acting out their “secret” while trying to find someone else in class with the same “secret”. It is going to be a fun experience working with both of these classes and we can’t wait to see them again next week.

Friday, January 31, 2014


VO's Information Analysis
& Marketing Communications Co-op
The other day, I wandered down to the costume department and found a treasure trove of costumes and accessories and fabrics, all cared for and managed by Parvin Mirhady, VO's Head of Costumes & Costume Consultant.

In the time leading up to the opening of Don Giovanni, it’s an understatement to say our costume department is going to be extremely busy.  

Rented costumes are here, organized and ready for alterations. Fabrics are ready, hats are out, for the most part, basic planning is complete.

A neatly organized costume department


What goes into the process of building a costume? For one, there is a world of difference between costume creation and regular clothing production. Costumes have more layers than regular clothing, a factor that complicates everything from the pattern-making process to the eventual cutting and sewing stages. Costumes must also meet the requirements of fitting the style of production and be easy to alter for future productions.

Parvin discussing design with newbie, Paul
Cutters and sewers need an average of 2-3 years training to begin to master the craft, and often work on a tight deadline to create and alter pieces. Most who work on opera costumes love opera, often turning down movie industry offers to participate in an opera production.

Ideally, costumes for the stage are meant to reflect, not exaggerate. A good costume adds to the overall impact of performances and the set design without distracting audiences.

Sandra Piques Eddy in the 'Carmen' dress,
with Joshua Hopkins in VO's 2012 Barber of Seville
One of the most elaborate costumes created recently is the flamenco dress for The Barber of Seville, built over 2 months with layers upon layers of ruffles entirely composed of small circles pieced together (for texture). Each layer has 50 circles; the entire dress is composed of hundreds and hundreds of circles all carefully stitched together!

For the upcoming production, Parvin is in the process of creating two dresses and a cape for the Donna Anna character. She has already laid out the fabrics and trim needed and has a basic pattern in mind. Estimated time of completion with two people working on one dress is a minimum of two weeks, not including Parvin's design process.

Most completed costumes are stored in the shop, some are rented out to other theatre and opera companies. But no, costumes are never rented out for Halloween costumes (that was my burning question), as they are far too valuable.
Three angles of one Donna Anna costume

Other than that, makeup, hair and other accessories are usually assembled at the end of the costume-creation process. Most of our beautiful hats are made in house, and kept and re-purposed for other productions.

Our costume shop is pretty awesome. Can’t wait to see the works-in-progress onstage!

*The above information is all courtesy of Parvin, who very patiently answered all of my questions and also gave me time take photos.