Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Well, How Did It Go?

I know, I know. It’s been about a week since I left you hanging at the most exciting time.

How did it go? Maybe you’re asking the wrong person. My answer is based on so much more than that of any other member of the audience or cast. I can’t even begin to describe what I felt, but besides the obvious personal significance the premiere held for my family and me, I would say it was more successful than I had ever hoped. So successful, in fact, that it took me until now to get any photos to prove it. All production photos were taken by Jurgis Sakalauskas.

After over a month of daily rehearsals and two full dress rehearsals the day before and of the performance, everyone was more than ready. Minutes before the performance, everyone on the Julius team held hands and paused to reflect on all the hard work leading to this moment. A lot of people were there. All of Julius' children were there. Even the former president of Lithuania, Valdas Adamkus (himself once a DP), complete with his wife and two bodyguards, was there (we had to warn his people of the two gunshots in Act II). After one last shout of camaraderie, everyone took their places and the opera began.

The music opened quietly and slowly as all the DPs, walking past the giant crossroads signpost which anchored the staging throughout the entire opera, gradually came out on stage. After the young Julius, or Juliukas (sung by Deividas Kairys), gave a few shepherd calls, the chorus entered with its train-influenced a cappella section (which all of you have probably heard already) and the story was on its way.

Act I highlighted Julius and his family’s experience in a foreign worker’s camp in Brandenburg just before the end of WWII. There was a bombing. All the men were drinking homemade liquor. The children were playing with a grenade they found. German soldiers marched through the camp. A doctor tried to amputate Julius’ leg.

These scenes (and all scenes in the opera) were typical of the time, and, with only a few exceptions, were based on real-life events from my grandfather’s life as a DP. Between scenes, Juliukas sporadically reappeared to comment on the plot and provide insight into the psychology of the DPs. Two of the DPs, played by a couple of extremely talented dancers (Ieva Svetickaitė and Daniil Kolmin), provided commentary of their own through Marija's choreography.

Having learned that once again they were under Soviet control in post-war East Germany, the DPs made their way to the border between Soviet and British occupation zones to wait for their chance to escape. This chance came at the end of Act I, when Julius bribed three Soviet soldiers (only two soldiers in the real-life version of the story) with bottles of his homemade liquor, after which the soldiers got so drunk that the rest of the DPs were able to sneak past.

Act II, set in Camp Wehnen in Oldenburg, was a little different. Adelina opened the act with an aria describing the torment of stagnation and the lack of free will. Even when Julius showed up with a loaf of black rye bread, the smell of which had him singing an aria filled with nostalgia for home and the hope to someday return, Adelina still knew better the reality of the family’s situation.

During a lively evening of dancing and as this tension between running further and returning home boiled over among all DPs, a young man in the camp shot his girlfriend and then himself. Crippled by their desperation and the shock of such a tragedy, the DPs found a scapegoat quickly: the Jušinskas family. Julius and Adelina were subsequently interrogated by a couple of absurdly malicious agents- the last straw for Adelina.

After a bitter fight between the two main characters in which Adelina insisted they leave the camp, Julius was finally convinced to acquiesce to her demands upon the arrival of a letter sponsorship from “Uncle Joe.” As Julius sang his final aria about the feeling of defeat and pain of letting go, the DPs exited through what must have been a 30- or 40-foot door at the back of the stage. Julius and his family soon followed, and the music faded out.

The audience gave a standing ovation, flowers were heaped on Marija, Ričardas, Daiva, Tomas, Onutė, Deividas, Stasė (the choirmaster), me, and the other performers, and everyone celebrated the success till the early morning hours.

Sure, there were minor things that didn't exactly go according to plan, but only I and the performers knew about them (except for the cell phone that went off at one of the quietest moments of the opera.... pretty sure everyone knew about that). Most everything else was too good to be true. The soloists let go completely, the dancers danced beautifully, the chorus was absolutely solid (as usual!), and the orchestra played with a great deal of both energy and expressiveness. For what more could anyone have asked?

So, what’s next? Now that’s an easy question. I didn’t really notice, but someone told me the 537-seat theater was almost full. Still, that amount is hardly a fraction of the number of people and families impacted by this surprisingly little known period of history. People from around the world (at least the parts of the world within relatively easy financial reach of Vilnius) came to see the premiere, but so many just couldn’t.

What’s next is a second performance. And a third. And several more after that. I’ve commented before on the intimacy of the music community in Lithuania, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most, if not all, the performers in Julius were friends even before rehearsals began. But no matter what their relationship was before, surely it was taken to an entirely new level after a solid month of daily rehearsals followed by a such a well-received premiere. Not only have the performers completely internalized the music, but now they are all part of the Julius team- a team eager to play together again and again and confront whatever new challenges might present themselves along the way.

That said, performances of this caliber need support. For the premiere, there was a good deal of support from both private donors as well as public entities, including the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius, but more help is always needed. The premiere generated a lot of talk in Lithuania (there were TV segments, a radio interview, and several articles and ads in various newspapers), so there is no question that a large and interested audience exists for Julius. What my job will be in the coming months is to not only help secure new performances in both Lithuania and abroad (hopefully in the U.S. sometime in the future), but also make them actually possible through fund raising.

It’s been a long process since my first post back in the summer of 2008 and I really appreciate you sticking around thus far. Please stop by often for more production photos from the premiere as well as any other news that comes along. Talk to you soon!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Premiere in Less than 8 Hours!

This will be brief, but I promised I would get back to you before the premiere. I can't believe I have a moment to write even this much.

The first dress rehearsal was yesterday (one more today before the premiere), and for the first time I got to see the production (almost) in its entirety. I can't tell you how exciting it is for almost two years of research, composing, collaboration, revision, and hard work in general to finally arrive at this culmination.

I can't wait to write my next post, when I'll give you all the exciting details. Until then, I'll leave you with a few images from rehearsals a couple of days ago to keep you in wild anticipation (hopefully).

Wish me and all 35-40 (somewhere around that number) performers luck!!!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Rehearsals, Media Coverage, and More!

With less than a week till premiere night, one can imagine how busy things must be. They certainly are.

Often lasting until the building closes for the night (half of the time, we have to be kicked out by the building manager), rehearsals take place every day. When I first arrived at the beginning of this month, they consisted mostly of choir rehearsals and coachings with the soloists, but they have since expanded to include everyone involved in the production, including the orchestra and dancers. There have even been a few rehearsals with almost everyone together at the same time, which still only gives a small, distorted snapshot of what’s in store for next week.

I can’t say enough good things about the performers. Those who have been rehearsing the longest are members of the chorus, some of whom also sing small solo roles in the opera. In number, they are a little over half the size of Jauna Muzika (the choir which sang the excerpt last year at the Vox Juventutis competition), but with the amount of time they have spent with the music and the confidence with which they now sing, there is hardly any difference. Tomas (Julius) and Onutė (Adelina) are amazing! And I may have forgotten to mention the third soloist, Deividas Kairys, the ten year-old boy and absolutely professional musician who is singing the role of Juliukas, the child version of Julius who serves as a sort of narrator or commentator between scenes. Also amazing! ... Oh, and the dancers! The DANCERS!

Let me catch my breath…


The music is sounding great, or, more humbly, at least everyone is singing and playing accurately what I wrote on the page. I’d like to think that the clarity of my instructions in the score has made this possible, but perhaps more important is Ričardas’ dedication to the music. He knows the score probably better than I do and through his conducting is certainly able to better communicate to the performers all the details therein. He may have a reserved personality, but his ease of control of the orchestra and rapport with (and, when needed, authority over) the musicians could be compared to that of the most successful conductors. I mentioned in my first post about him that I felt lucky he agreed to conduct Julius, but now I know how serious an understatement that was. He is working the hardest out of everyone to make the music as refined as possible, and, combined with the enthusiastic performers eager to get into the music, will have the audience’s ear from the very first bar.

But the music is only half of Julius. I mentioned in a my last post a bit about the scenographer, who, by the way, is crafting the perfect combination of costumes and set design, but I really need to draw your attention back to Marija, especially since the last time I really told you about her was when we had first met back in 2008. Just like Ričardas, Marija is no stranger to hard work. And as energetic as I thought she was as a librettist, nothing could have prepared me for the amount of dynamism, physicality, and sheer force she brings to her stage direction and choreography (that’s right, direction and choreography). All in Lithuanian, English, and Russian (depending on the performer), she is yelling and gesturing wildly at one moment, instantly capturing everyone’s strict attention, and less than a minute later she either is intimately explaining something to a performer or has everyone on the floor laughing. Her constant energy and frequent but seamless fluctuation between sternness and intimacy is exhausting for me to even write about. And most importantly, the results she gets are immediate and always precisely what is needed at any particular moment in the sequence of onstage events in Julius. If for some reason the audience's ears don’t like the music, then surely their eyes will savor the acting, dancing, and scenography.

In other news, Julius is in the news! In addition to a segment with video clips of rehearsals aired on national television, on Monday a press conference was held at the Arts Printing House. Everyone participating in the NOA Festival was able to say a few words about their opera(s) and, in some cases, field questions… all in Lithuanian, of course. To my nervous dismay, a barrage of questions was directed at me, but I did answer all of them using my best Lithuanian. I won’t tell you what “my best Lithuanian” really entails, but let’s just say that some of my answers were in response to questions that weren’t actually asked. Links to the Lithuanian (yes, but there are pictures, too!) online publications are here, here, and here.

Five more days!!!! Things are really heating up, but I’ll try to get back to you at least once before the big night. Now back to work!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Scenographer

Spell check says it’s not a word, but I say it is. Those who work in photography are called photographers, right?

I don’t see Daiva Samajauskaitė (left) very often. Rumor has it that lately she spends the day combing through the dense forests of used clothing at the many second-hand stores throughout Vilnius in search of the perfect costumes for all the soloists, chorus members, and dancers who will be on stage during the premiere of Julius. And I believe it, because when I do see Daiva, it’s usually when she slips into rehearsals with armloads of bags filled with clothing – derby hats, faded pants, old button-up shirts, suspenders, and plenty more. Other times she’s walking around with measuring tape and fabric samples, checking sizes and comparing colors. The photo to the right shows a post-rehearsal costume sampling for members of the chorus.

This is all costume work, but even before I arrived in Vilnius last week, Daiva had already finished with stage designs for Julius. Her designs are being realized right now and should be ready with plenty of time to spare. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I will tell you there are elements of the costumes and scenery that are historically accurate and others that come from Daiva’s imagination. Together, however, I think these elements will achieve the goals of depicting the time as well as communicating the underlying themes of the story.

Daiva graduated from the Vilnius Academy of Art and has since been working as a scenographer and costume designer in opera, theater, and film in both Lithuania and abroad. Her work was a part of last year’s NOA Festival in the opera Izadora, written by composer and singer Jonas Sakalauskas (to give you an idea of how intimate the music world in Lithuania is, consider these 3 things about Jonas: he is one of the founders of Operomanija [the NOA Festival organizers], he is married to Agnė Sabulytė [the soloist in Izadora], and sings alongside Tomas Pavilionis [the tenor singing the role of Julius] in the pop-vocal group El Fuego). Parentheses and brackets aside, these pictures are a sample of Daiva’s work from Izadora. Photos by Marius Macijauskas.

After working on Julius in relative solitude for the last few months, I can’t tell you what a treat it is to suddenly be in an environment filled with so many people this familiar with the music, story, characters, and so many other details, and who are working so hard (every day since I’ve been here, in fact) to make the premiere a success. It’s really taking a sizable army of artists and performers to bring this opera to life and I couldn’t be happier to be in the midst of it all.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Venue

Again, I’ve neglected to keep everyone up to speed on the many exciting pieces of news that keep coming in. Sorry! Now I have to deal with all the backed up stories and present them to you in a logical order. Let’s begin with the premiere venue: the Russian Drama Theater of Lithuania (Lietuvos Rusų Dramos Teatras).

Since its completion almost a hundred years ago, the theater has changed hands and functions several times. It opened as one of the most important cultural institutions in Vilnius and began hosting productions on a regular basis. Famously, and according to the plaque fixed to the building a few years ago, a conference on Lithuanian independence led by Jonas Basanavičius, one of the most important figures in the history of Lithuanian nationalism (and for whom the street outside the theater is named), took place here in 1917. In 1925 the famous Polish director and experimental theater impresario Juliusz Osterwa brought his company, Reduta, to its new home in Vilnius. In 1948 it became the home of the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theater, and in 1974, the year the LNOBT moved into its then brand new opera house, the Lithuanian National Drama Theater took up residence here (until it moved into its new theater in 1981). Finally, in 1986 it assumed its current title of the Russian Drama Theater.

Today it is used as both a theater and an opera house, and during my stay in Vilnius last year, I saw several brand new operas staged there, including Jonas Sakalauskas’ Donoras (The Donor), Vidmantas BartulisAušrinė (The Morning Star), and Algirdas MartinaitisPasaulio Dangoraštis (The World Skyscraper).

The building itself was designed by architects Waclaw Michniewicz and Aleksander Parczewski and built from 1912-13. The design is inspired by a collection of styles, most notably both Baroque and Romanesque (one article mentioned the “Krakow-style” two-tiered, red tile roofs), and has undergone several renovations, including one in the last ten years. But before I reveal my utter lack of expertise in architecture, let me refer you to the pictures to the right and at the beginning of this post.

The main hall, in which Julius will be performed, is a large but intimate space that seats 537 people on an orchestra level and two tiers of balconies. The stage is big and there is even a pit for the orchestra!

On the night of the premiere of Julius, in the theater lobby will be a historical photography exhibit documenting the life of Lithuanians living in DP camps after WWII, courtesy of the Lithuanian World Community and the Lithuanian Institute of Emigration. This was a brilliant idea on the part of the organizers (more on them in a later post), as it is sure to place the audience even deeper into this often neglected period of history. And given that Act I ends with the family escaping the Russian zone of Germany into the British zone and Act II picks up about five years after the family settled in Camp Wehnen, the exhibit will provide effective continuity to the opera’s plot.

I’m anxious to see how the scenographer (set and costume designer) will use the space to recreate the era or present her own interpretation. In fact, she’ll be the topic of my next post. Stick around!

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Soloists

I have some exciting news this week! The two principal soloists for Julius have been confirmed.

First is Adelina. The opera is named after my grandfather, but it could just as well have been named after my grandmother. Adelina may have been a soft-spoken person, but she was often the driving force behind many of the family’s biggest decisions, including the final decision to emigrate to the U.S. Similarly, in the opera she may not sing as often as Julius, but her role is crucial to the plot.

Singing the role of Adelina will be the rising young Lithuanian star soprano, Ona Kolobovaitė, who recently was catapulted to headlines across the country by winning “Triumfo arka,” the Lithuanian counterpart to American Idol or Britain’s Got Talent and focused almost exclusively on opera arias and numbers from musicals. A quick YouTube search will yield several results, including videos from the competition.

Just like the conductor, Kolobovaitė is only 25 years old, yet she will be adding this recent award to an already impressive list of significant and diverse accomplishments, including performances with the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theater (Cherubino in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Annina in Verdi’s La Traviata), roles in plays and musicals such as Terrence McNally’s Master Class (based on the life of Maria Callas) and Vilnius composer Gediminas Gelgotas’ Musicality of Life, and, on five separate occasions, 1st prize in the “Dainų dainelė” contest, one of the longest running vocal competitions in Lithuania. She even stars in the Lithuanian soap opera Nekviesta meilė (Uninvited Love).

As one would correctly assume, however, the most active and important character in the opera is Julius, and boasting an equally impressive list of accolades is Tomas Pavilionis, the tenor who will sing the role. This 26 year-old from Kaunas made his debut at the Chicago Lithuanian Opera in 2005 and has since gone on to perform in several operas, concerts, and other projects in Lithuania.

Pavilionis’ roles have included Gherardo in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, Lyonel in Flotow’s Martha, as well as such important roles as Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata and Buratinas in Jurgis Gaižauskas’ Buratinas. Currently (and in addition to playing the role of Julius, of course) he is preparing to sing the roles of Almaviva in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi. His performance in Julius will be his second appearance at an NOA Festival.

But Pavilionis’ musical activity is not limited to opera. He has performed with the St. Christopher Chamber Orchestra, was a prizewinner in the 2009 Stasys Baras Vocal Competition, and routinely performs with Jonas Sakalauskas and Eugenijus Chrebtovas in the pop vocal group El Fuego (similar to the multinational group Il Divo).

With soloists as accomplished as Pavilionis and Kolobovaitė and the artistry and talent they will bring to the roles of Julius and Adelina, I know Julius has just made a huge leap towards a successful premiere performance in March.

Monday, January 4, 2010

About the Conductor

Many people have asked if I will be conducting the opera, and this is a good question, as many composers are also active conductors. The answer is no, but I am happy to elaborate that answer by telling you a little about who will be conducting. I never actually met him during my time in Vilnius, but I certainly remember his performances.

Ričardas Šumila is a young Lithuanian conductor originally from Kaunas, the interwar capital and the second largest city in Lithuania, and began studying music when he was five years old. By the time he was in the 8th grade, after gaining a solid foundation at the piano and in music theory and history, he was ready to begin conducting as well as composing. After studying conducting with Audronė Marcinkevičiutė and composition with Algirdas Brilius and Zita Bružaitė, in 2003 he graduated from the Juozas Naujalis High School for Music and entered the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theater (LMTA) in Vilnius.

In Vilnius, he studied choral conducting with Povilas Gylys and orchestral conducting with the renowned Gintaras Rinkevičius, and it wasn't long before he won the LMTA's prestigious Senate Scholarship in recognition of his outstanding work and his commitment to concert performances.

In the spring of 2007, Šumila finished his undergraduate studies by winning 1st place in the Jaronimas Kačinskas Young Conductors' Competition and in the summer of that same year entered the master's program at the LMTA, continuing his studies with Rinkevičius.

The last couple of years have been especially busy for Šumila. Beginning at the end of 2008 with his work leading the rehearsals of the Pucinni opera Gianni Schicchi, he went on to conduct several opera and musical theater performances throughout 2009, from such well known works as Carmen and Sweeney Todd, to new works such as Rita Mačiliūnaitė's opera, Nebūti ar Nebūti, which he premiered at last year's NOA Festival.

He has been equally active in chamber and orchestral concerts around Vilnius. In the spring of 2009, he conducted both the LMTA Symphony Orchestra as well as the Lithuanian National Philharmonic, including the world premiere of Rūta Vitkauskaitė's Stabai. Also in 2009, he led a unique chamber ensemble for a project titled "Neįprastos istorijos" (Unusual Stories) that consisted of several performances of chamber music and which resulted in a permanent relationship with the ensemble under the new name "InSpe" (pictured below with Šumila).

At only 25 years old, Šumila already has a promising career as a conductor and I am incredibly excited that he so enthusiastically agreed to conduct the premiere of Julius.