How to build a Snow Dragon in 3 easy steps!

(Ok – many, many steps and lots & lots of pattern pieces, but still really fun!)

dragon blog 1 Guest Blogger, Skylight Properties Director Lisa Schlenker

What an exciting project to fabricate! To start with, our scenic designer William Boles and I traded many images and research materials before he presented this final design concept for our snow dragon puppet. Much to discuss when planning for a 24 foot long prop that has to smoothly move with only 4 singers operating it. How long is too long? How short is ungraceful? What are the qualities of the materials we can afford to use? (Inexpensive to free, inherently flame retardant, light weight yet strong.) What are the qualities we need for this prop to move beautifully and look great? Light weight, resilient, flexible, strong yet delicate, floating, UV reactive, diaphanous, ethereal, dreamlike, and graceful; all these adjectives and more were important descriptors and considerations in the initial phase of planning and budgeting. After trading fabric swatches and in close collaboration with the costume designer Jason Orelnko, William and I made the final surface treatment and materials decisions. I bought a pile of fabric and foam core, and we were off to the races!

dragon blog 3dragon blog 2What now? The pattern. William’s design for the dragon body was relatively simple, and I assigned the patterning of the body to our Prop Apprentice Madelyn Yee, who built a 3’ = 1’-0” scale body mockup. Notes, sketches, and planning on paper is always a great first step – we call this the step list and we do one with a tentative schedule assigned, for every complicated project.

Next is the Head – the brains of the puppet, as it were. William’s fascinating design for our Dragon’s head was inspired by a sculpture by Toby Zeigler. Here’s the research on style and surface texture we needed to reproduce:dragon blog 4

dragon blog 5I would like to say that getting from the design sketch to the decision on the head structure was a quick and easy process. The fact is, it took many hours of painstaking geometry and flat patterning by our master prop artist Jennifer Lyons to get from point A to point B: from the designer sketch to a complete geodesic polyhedron structural plan.dragon blog 6 dragon blog 7 dragon blog 8

Then came the neck frills planning and patterning:

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And the scale model almost complete:

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From the rough scale model we could then trade opinions on the look of things back and forth with William, and also with our stage director Matthew Ozawa. Changes at this stage of the game are much more easily accomplished that in the final phase of construction! The team of fabrication artists became used to my daily comment “this is probably subject to change – ok this is how we’re changing the plan now, and this impacts the next step of the build process in the following ways…” This is the trouble shooting phase of our planning process and we were able to problem solve a number of structural and operational issues in the small model format, saving huge amounts of “Oops – do over” style mistakes in the full scale build. The result was that when we cut into full size materials and began real time real materials construction on the actual puppet we had very few unforeseen concerns, which made for a smooth build process, a happy team of prop artists, and a very happy designer and director.dragon blog 12 dragon blog 13 dragon blog 14 dragon blog 15

Some assembly required, of course. The light weight foam core components comprising the head needed to be thoroughly sealed against moisture before Carri Dahl, our Scenic Charge, gave the head the necessary painted texture and ultra violet light reactive paint treatment. Assembly followed, with Velcro, cloth ties, a variety of nuts and bolts, and some press fit pieces on the side plumes as well. All this fastener variety is necessary because our dragon needed to travel from the prop fabrication shop to the stage. This path goes through a number of doors and a passenger elevator that are all too small for the completed puppet. It’s not practical to fabricate something this large on stage from start to completion since so many other departments need to use the space, so to build it in our prop shop requires advance planning for assembly – also a part of the mock up process that we used our scale model to help with.dragon blog 16

Dragon test flight: The first time with the cast, our singers were very game for anything we suggested they try in terms of our dragon’s flight path. Skills more choreographic than vocal were necessary right at this point in rehearsals for this opera. We give our cast huge credit for making her look so elegant and beautiful onstage! Ian Toohill has the guns to manage our dragon’s head with ease. Erin Sura, Eric Madson, and Leigh Akin coordinate the sinuous weaving flight of the body smoothly. The entire effect our cast achieves is brilliant!dragon blog 17

Once we delivered her to our stage space fully assembled, she needed a clean resting place to live during scenic notes and other less than clean theatrical processes during our load in and tech process. Her she is, resting comfortably in the Cabot house.dragon blog 18

If you’d like to see Her Majesty in action, looking otherworldly and fluorescing under David Gipson’s incredible lighting design, come on down the to Skylight this week and catch a performance. We run through Sunday March 29!

The Snow Dragon puppet team:
Scenic Designer: William Boles
Properties Director: Lisa Schlenker
Master Prop Artist: Jennifer Lyons
Prop Apprentice: Madelyn Yee
Properties Artists: Andrea Alguire and Meghan Savagian
Scenic Charge: Carri Dahl
Scenic Art Apprentice: Nerissa Eichinger

From the Grammys to a World Premiere, the weird life of an opera singer.

Dan Kempson 2014Guest Blogger, Dan Kempson

The life of a modern opera singer is weird. We are on the road for months at a time, living out of suitcases, creating a home in a hotel room, and showing up at our first day of work to sing loudly with some strangers, maybe pretend to be in love, and often for myself (as a baritone), pretend to kill someone.

For a long time this has meant a healthy diet of Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi, with a little Bizet or Wagner thrown in to spice things up.  But today’s world of opera seems to encompass two spheres: the previously mentioned circle of Bohemes and Carmens, and another one of freshly created, new works.

While the first sphere contains centuries of history and beautiful music, I find myself drawn to the second.  Here, modern composers and theaters are harnessing the power of opera to tell stories that have a resonance for modern audiences – stories that speak to the world in which we live. Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Somtow Sucharitkul’s The Snow Dragon, itself adapted from a short story written in the 80s, follows a boy named Billy Binder who is struggling against his mother’s physically abusive boyfriend, Stark. Billy’s rage allows him to escape to a fantasy world called The Fallen Country, which is bereft of emotion and ruled by a shadowy figure known as the Ringmaster. In the Fallen Country, Billy meets the Snow Dragon, who guides Billy on his journey to defeat the Ringmaster and to find peace and safety in his own world. I have been given the enormous challenge of playing the dual roles of Stark and the Ringmaster.

I’ve spent a lot of time with new works so far in my young career.  It started with Philip Glass’ Hydrogen Jukebox at Fort Worth Opera four years ago, and by the end of this year will have included three world premieres, three American premieres, and two world premiere recordings.

Dan at GrammysOne of these was the first recording of Darius Milhaud’s monumental 20th century masterpiece L’orestie d’Eschyle, on which I sang the title role of Orestes.  110 players in the orchestra, more than 350 in the chorus – it was a huge undertaking and to be involved in any way was a thrill. Then, last December, I got a text from a colleague – the recording had been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Opera Recording category, and I was a named nominee alongside the conductor and other lead soloists!

So, in February, I traveled to Los Angeles to attend the Grammys with some of my cast mates and our conductor. It was a whirlwind weekend of parties, presentations, and ceremonies. I even got to walk the red carpet (Madonna is a very tiny, person, by the way). While we unfortunately did not win, being present at the weekend’s many events gave me the chance to reflect upon a great deal.

At the pre-telecast Grammy Ceremony (where 90% of the awards were handed out), the power of creation and the importance of storytelling were twin themes anchoring the evening. From jazz great Chick Corea collecting his 21st and 22nd Grammys to World Music winner Angélique Kidjo, every winner talked about the creative process, about the experience of being in a room with collaborators and working together to usher into the world a new piece of art.  They talked about inspiration in molding the stories they wished to tell. And because opera is inherently a narrative art, we must put the focus on storytelling even more strongly.

I had a drama teacher who once described the creation process as sculpting, but I think that’s wrong. We don’t chip away at a stone until we have David standing in front of us. Rather, theater is more like building a house. When we are handed the score, we are handed the blueprints. In our music rehearsals, we build the foundation.  With our staging rehearsals, we build upward, floor by floor. We have the full framework, but we still don’t know how the house will look. Then we leave the rehearsal space and enter the theater. The set – drywall. The lighting – a tiled roof. Our costumes are the fixtures, our makeup the paint, our props the furniture. And suddenly, we have built a house.

It’s pretty easy to jump into a role like Figaro in The Barber of Seville.  We already have pictures of what the house looks like. I might decide to paint the shutters blue instead of white, but there isn’t a whole lot of leeway with a 200 year old piece like that. Playing a dual role like Stark/The Ringmaster in The Snow Dragon is entirely different matter.  How do I approach the role of a violent child abuser? If I make Stark a stock villain, he loses power because he isn’t real; conversely, I have to find a place to feel empathy for him, but never sympathy for his actions. Challenges like this are why new opera is so fascinating to me.

Ringmaster 2Putting a new piece of theater on its feet is like forging a trail in the woods – you have to walk over the grass many times before it becomes the expected path.  And sometimes in rehearsal, we discover that we’ve been walking the wrong way for a while. For example, it became clear that a scene change in Act Two required more time than was given in the original score. Somtow obliged by adding 45 seconds of music that covered the scene change.  This is the benefit of working with a living composer – we can’t email Puccini to ask for any edits.

Our amazing director Matthew Ozawa said that with The Snow Dragon, “we are creating and telling a story together with the ultimate goal of making the invisible visible.” The subject matter is difficult, and we have fought to tell this story that faces it head-on, not shying from its realities while also telling a story that is universal and which forces our community to have a dialogue about something which is often swept under the rug. The Snow Dragon, in using fantasy to illuminate and attack the cycle of violence which destroys so many lives, somehow manages to bring it closer to us than a mere story on the news.

Legend says that Mozart finished writing the overture to Don Giovanni just before curtain, and the orchestra played it as the ink was still drying on the page. At that performance, everyone – the orchestra and singers included – was hearing that music for the first time. I can’t wait until our cast gives that first glimpse of something new to Milwaukee audiences.

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WELCOME to Skylight Music Theatre’s new blog! We tell amazing stories on-stage and now we want to share with you some of the incredible stories we have off-stage as well. In addition to regular posts from our Artistic Director, Viswa Subbaraman, we will have lots of guest bloggers – cast members, directors, designers, and more. We plan to share photos, videos and other juicy behind the scenes tidbits so stay tuned as we get this ball rolling!