Shakespeare wrote “If music be the food of love, play on!” And you can’t stage an opera without the music. We first experimented with using musical storytelling in Bury Me in Paris, our twelfth Master Mystery Production, in Spring 2017 with our jazz musician who would use his saxophone as part of his dialogue. But Exit Prima Donna takes that idea to a whole new level. How did we choose which operatic pieces made the cut? And how do these classical pieces fit this original tale? Writer/Director, Daniel Stallings will unveil the secrets behind these murderous melodies.
MALICIOUS MELODIES: The Making of Exit Prima Donna (Part 2)
Opera is a challenge to write, direct, and produce. Even more so when we created the kind of opera we wanted to create. We envisioned a love letter to the 19th century opera powerhouses, a kind of jukebox musical full of Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi. Not a simple task. We wanted to use well-known arias and choral pieces mixed in with lesser known songs to create this otherworldly sense of familiarity and uniqueness. And each choice had to make sense with the original story as a whole. Each song was carefully selected and their placement rigorously shuffled about to create the combination that worked the best.
Each song has a specific purpose in the narrative. Some are for character development. Some are for thematic development. And some are for mood development. Character development deals with revealing more about how a character moves and thinks and feels through the world and the story. Giuseppe Rodolfo, our tenor, has a large amount of character songs. Leonardo, his dresser, has one as well. Thematic development deals with unveiling or reaffirming the themes of the show. Exit Prima Donna‘s signature song, a famous aria from Puccini’s Tosca, exemplifies this perfectly in a version we titled “I Lived for Art.” And mood development is about directing the primary emotion of the play through the music. When there is celebration, there are peppier arias. When there is tragedy, the songs are slower and more sober. Some songs combine the two to reflect the double-sided nature of life. Pleasure and pain. Joy and sorrow. Love and hate.
In terms of placement in the story, each song is balanced between the different styles we present to create a harmonious whole. We open with “I Lived for Art (Vissi d’arte)” from Puccini’s Tosca, a song of regret, bewilderment, and questions. We counter this by following up with “Brindisi (The Drinking Song)” from Verdi’s La traviata, a lively, comedic piece that employs most of the cast and which is full of wine bottles, drunken antics, and a fierce battle royale the last sip of wine. From there, we mellow out just a little with the “Flower Duet” from Léo Delibes’ Lakmé, an ethereal, almost melancholy number. The songs reveal the mood of the scene and the feelings of the characters.
As the show progresses the music continues to shift between more lighthearted numbers such as “Papageno Papagena” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute and the heavier pieces like “If You Don’t Feel Pity for Me” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto and “When I Am Laid in Earth (Dido’s Lament)” from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. But a huge factor with all the music for the show is that none of it is presented in the context from their original operas. They’ve all been staged to fit the world and story of Exit Prima Donna. For instance, “I Lived for Art” is presented as a concert piece. “Flower Duet” is staged as a remembered music lesson. “Old Coat” from Puccini’s La Bohème is a kind of eulogy at a funeral. And “Woman Is Fickle,” a recognizable aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto, is presented in a whole new way as the aftermath of a vicious, adrenaline-fueled attack. Each song’s lyrics were studied to ensure that, no matter the language, the piece could transcend their original work and belong in Exit Prima Donna.
Staging musical numbers are tricky, but one of our chief objectives was that they were all well-acted. It’s not enough that the pieces were sung well; We wanted them to covey whatever emotion was present in the scene. Many of the songs in the show are delivered at moments of high tension, distress, tragedy, or trauma. So we wanted our performers to go for broke on the emotion, to lose themselves in the jubilation, pain, terror, or heartbreak they are experiencing. Who will be able to forget the heartbreaking eulogy in “Old Coat?” Or the disease-riddled yet still grand farewell performance of a dying diva in “When I Am Laid in Earth?” Or even the panic-strewn, tear-filled, desperate cry for help in “If You Don’t Feel Pity for Me” performed acapella and prefaced only with the mournful sound of the St. Marks bell tower in Venice chiming the hour? We certainly won’t. And we hope you won’t either.
If music be the food of love…and passion, obsession, and revenge, play on! We can’t wait to hear how our talented performers tackle our opera. But who are these performers and who are their characters? Now it’s time for the cast to tell us about how they created their troupe of opera stars in the final behind-the-curtain post–Paper Faces: The Making of Exit Prima Donna (Part 3)!
And we’ll see you at opening night on March 24th! Be sure to buy your tickets from the Amargosa Hotel and Opera House Front Desk by calling them at 1 (760) 852-4441.
–Master Mystery Productions