Friday, May 31, 2013

New Fangled Opera Festival

Though the roots go back even further, as an art form opera was invented in the mid 1500s in the Italian city of Florence by a group of musicians, poets and intellects (known collectively as the Camerata de' Bardi) who gathered to discuss and guide trends in the arts, especially music and drama.

Educated in Latin and Greek, the Camerata de' Bardi held high regard for classical Greek theatre and their musings about what original Greek productions would have been like lead them to conclude that they would have been performed with music playing in the background. The Camerata's musical experiments led to the development of the stile recitativo, which resembles sung ordinary speech more than a formal musical composition. Essentially, it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum from the aria that we today associate with opera.

Opera has undergone significant changes over the past 400 years and today we are lucky enough to witness the creation of new operatic compositions thanks to a new, exciting festival at the University of New Orleans – New Fangled Opera.

UNO Festival Brings New Operas to New Orleans

By Phillip McMullen

New Orleans is a city famous for its musical diversity and, this summer, New Fangled Opera embraces this tradition with whole-hearted enthusiasm. Founded by Chris and Shelley Burton, New Fangled Opera's mission is to make opera accessible to a wider audience and showcases the talents of contemporary American composers.  Young singers and directors from all over the country have gathered to present seven fully staged one-act operas on June 7 and 8 at the Performing Arts Building at the University of New Orleans. 

The cast of Quantum Mechanic learning
 the big dance finale.
These operas run the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime; John Bilotta's quirky Quantum Mechanic details the trials and tribulations of Mrs. Shroedinger as her dessert deflates and hilarity ensues as her refrigerator repairman creates a rupture in the fabric of the space time continuum. Aesop and the doowop quark sisters rush in to lend a hand.

An Accidental Affair by Timothy Brown is the classic story of a girl who's mother has decided what's best for her teenage daughter (in this case, to play bugle) but the girl won't see reason and runs away to become a jazz trumpeter. 

Yvonne Freckmann wrote Close Encounter of the Hillbilly Kind after a bus stop encounter in Louisville. This tragic love story features a bright young music student and her Romeo... a toothless 48 year old with a thing for girls with accents wearing hats. 

Another work featuring a classic encounter is Charles Halka's Layover, about two women from very different walks of life finding common ground while waiting for their respective flights.

Got butter? Paula Dean does in the opera
Krispy Kremes and Butter Queen.
Jennifer Jolley's Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens is the hysterical story of what happens when Paula Dean gets her just desserts and chokes to death on the "Lady's Brunch Burger;" a classic hamburger with fried egg, bacon, and cheese served on a burger bun of, what else? Glazed donuts.  Let's just say she has some explaining to do when she gets to heaven.

Also dealing with the afterlife is Jeremy Beck's Review, the deliciously catty meanderings of seven contrastingly clueless people.

Rounding out the program is The Mortal Thoughts of Lady Macbeth composed by Veronika Krausas; a look at the mental disintegration of Lady Macbeth led into her private damnation by the three witches.

One of the most exciting parts of performing contemporary opera is the opportunity for musicians and composers to work together: many of these composers will be present for the final rehearsals and the performances of their works.  Additionally, singers, directors, and composers will be available at a 'meet and greet' cocktail party the evening of June 6 (contact New Fangled Opera for more information on this unique opportunity).

Chris and Shelley Burton's exciting summer festival has brought together some of the most talented young musicians in the country and, with the support of the New Orleans community, has created a musical experience of which this historic “first city of opera” can be proud.  For more information, including sponsorship opportunities, please visit

About the author:

Phillip McMullen is an active performer in the upstate New York area for fifteen years where he currently serves as tenor soloist for St. Paul’s cathedral of Syracuse. Educated at the Crane School of Music under Dr. Deborah Massell, he performs regularly for Syracuse Opera (most recently in Carmina Burana, Tosca, Sweeney Todd and Nozze di Figaro). A sought after recitalist, recent engagements have included Barber’s Dover Beach with pianist Sabine Krantz, Vaughn Williams’s song cycle Along the Field with violinist Joshua Diesti, and Dreams and Desires, an aria program accompanied by Dr. Joseph Downing. Mr. McMullen studies privately with tenor Marcus Haddock.

About the festival founders:

Shelley Burton, a native of Plano, TX, holds a Master of Music from Loyola University New Orleans and a Bachelor of Music from Baylor University. Shelley has a passion for new operatic works; she has sung in two world premieres: Virginia Snow in the Lionel Lackey’s “mini-opera” From Little to Less and most recently Alita Allegra in Chris Burton’s The Self Portrait of Jonathan Jenkins. She has appeared in productions of Les Pecheurs de perles, Un ballo in Maschera, and Carmina Burana with the New Orleans Opera Chorus, and as a soloist for the company’s popular casual concert series “Opera on Tap.” Recent roles include Ein Sklave in Strauss’s Salome, Wanda in Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, Venus in Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers and Berginelle in Offenbach’s Le Perichole. She has been seen onstage as a soprano soloist in Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s Cantata No. 51, Dubois’s The Seven Last Words of Christ, and Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and has performed opera and recitals in Germany, France, Texas, Kansas, and Louisiana.

Chris D. Burton is a composer and conductor.  He studied composition at Baylor University under Scott McAllister and at the Florida State University under Ladislav Kubik.  Burton’s works have received performances on three continents and have received a number of awards including being a finalist in the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composers Competition.
Burton’s love for opera began after meeting Shelley.  His first opera, The Self-Portrait of Jonathan Jenkins, was left unfinished in 2010 and completed the summer of 2012 for its premiere at the New Orleans Fringe Festival in November.  Under Burton’s baton, a cast of 12 put on the production with its full orchestration over 4 nights of performances.  Since then, he has begun work on a number of short operatic works and has plan for another large-scale work in the near future.
Burton conducts for New Fangled Opera.  He studied choral cunducting under Andre Thomas at FSU and has directed ensembles in church choirs since then.  He loves to work with other musicians in collaborative projects and looks forward to helping new music come to life through New Fangled Opera.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

'Stellaluna' in the news

Slidell Little Theatre's production of "Stellaluna" was recently highlighted on New Orleans ABC-affiliate WGNO TV. Travis and Kellie Brisini and the cast of Stellaluna are featured in this brief clip.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Bringing 'Stellaluna' to Life

Making Puppets for SLT's Production of 'Stellaluna'

by Travis Brisini

As part of Slidell Little Theatre’s efforts to reveal some of the “behind the scenes” labor that goes into mounting our productions, I’ve been asked to write a brief piece about the process of designing and constructing the puppets that we’ll be using in Stellaluna, the spring show in SLT's Theatre for Young Audiences series (May 18, 19, 25 & 26).
The process of creating the puppets has been the most difficult, time-consuming aspect of preparing to stage this piece. The experience might be of interest to other folks who are thinking about putting together a puppet-show, or people are interested in what exactly it took to get these characters from the page to the stage.

Fig. 1 (Stellaluna)

The process of constructing the puppets begins with a pattern. We began with commercially available puppet patterns (see for simple, downloadable patterns), and altered them to resemble the sort of characters we needed for the show. Some of these changes included lengthening the patterns, making them wider, increasing their size, and a number of other alterations. Once we laid out the patterns for the puppets, we also had to improvise patterns for the elements that are unique to our puppets: the wings, feet, beaks, ears and hands. Now, with patterns in hand, we moved on to construction.

Our puppets have a semi-rigid substructure “skeleton” made out of reticulated foam. Reticulated foam is firm, open-cell foam used in industrial applications as a filter, and occasionally as upholstery filler. Our foam came in 6’x3’x1/2” sheets. It holds up really well to the rigors of stage use, and is firm enough that it fills out the fabric bodies of the puppets. Using our patterns, we cut out foam skulls and foam bodies (Fig. 2), and bonded everything together with contact cement (we used a TON of contact cement for this project).

(Fig. 2 – Reticulated Foam Skeleton)

 With the foam skeletons constructed, the next major task is creating the fabric “skin” that will stretch over the foam and make the character look the way we want. For this show, we’ve chosen to acknowledge the materiality of puppets, rather than attempt to make them as realistic as possible. We aren’t trying to hide the puppeteers away from audience view, and we think that it’s important that the audience acknowledge that these are, in fact, puppets. With this in mind, we selected fabrics that are obviously fabric, rather than attempting to find materials that would make the puppets look like real animals. While the majority of the puppets bodies are colorful polyester fleece, their accent colors were chosen to acknowledge the fact that they’re made of material. Stellaluna has patchwork wings, Mother Bat is bandana pattern, the young birds are accented with various colors of seersucker, the Big Fruit Bat is blackwatch plaid, and the Owl is felt. Nobody will mistake these puppets for real animals, and that’s just the way we wanted it!

 Sewing together the fabric into the skin and wings of the puppets is a process of tracing patterns and mirroring those patterns so that we get two sides to every piece. Then we machine stitch the pieces together, and we’ve got a head and body, with a couple of wings sewn into the sides. Most of the puppets require additional hand sewing (the bird’s beaks, in particular, are extremely challenging and time consuming) to secure the custom elements such as ears, beaks and feet. This is done with clear polyester thread, so the stitching is invisible.

Once the fabric bodies are complete, the puppet’s arms and feet are stuffed with polyester fabric fill, to give them some heft, and they’re sewn shut. After the ears and beaks attached, we turn the puppets inside out to attached the foam mouthplate and skull to the inside of the fabric skin The puppets get turned rightside out, and once the foam skeleton is inserted into the body-sleeve, they’re almost done.
Fig.3 (Featureless puppet head w/ foam skull inserted)
The final step in constructing the puppets is giving them the facial details that help define their character, and attaching their control sticks. In the case of the bats, this includes little noses and eyeballs. The noses are stuffed-animal noses we picked up at a craft supply store, while the eyeballs are ping-pong balls that have been halved, with fleece eyelids and foam accents cemented to them (see Fig. 4 for close-up of Stellaluna’s eyeballs). The pupils of these eyeballs are “animal eyes,” also purchased as a craft supply in the doll-making section.  As for the birds, they receive complete ping-pong balls and little beady pupil inserts. The eyeballs for the big puppets (Mother Bird, Mother Bat & the Big Fruit Bat) are larger Styrofoam balls, while the eyes for the tiny Baby Stellaluna puppet are hand-sculpted foam modeling material. We attached the sticks to the puppet’s arms by hand-sewing a piece of elastic to the back of the puppet’s wings and contact cementing dowel rods into these sleeves.

Fig.4 (Stellaluna’s eyeballs w/ pupils & accent foam)

 As I stated earlier, the process of constructing these puppets has been the most labor-intensive element of putting this show together. We’ve been working on the puppets since late February, and are just now coming to the end of the construction process. All told, we have 8 sleeve puppets and one umbrella puppet. The amount of time it takes to create each puppet  is hard to estimate; somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 hours per puppet is probably a good average, with two people working on it. Puppet shows, it turns out, are not for the impatient or the faint of heart!

 Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the immense contributions of my wife & assistant director, Kellie, the chief puppet-maker. Without her creativity, logical-thinking skills, sewing ability, and patience for my bumbling, this puppet show would never have happened. The puppets are really her babies, and she deserves most of the credit for how truly spectacular they’ve turned out to be. With so much of this show resting on the puppets, their construction has been an enormous burden to shoulder, and she’s done so with her usual aplomb.

We hope you’ll come out and see Stellaluna when it opens next weekend; it’s a great little musical number, and is appropriate for all ages (even the very young). You can even come and take a look at the puppets firsthand after the show, and ask any questions you might have about their construction to one of us. We’ll be there…puppets in hand.

Fig. 5 (Flitter & Flap)

About the authors

Kellie and Travis Brisini
Travis and Kellie St. Cyr Brisini live in Slidell, Louisiana.  They met in graduate school at the LSU Department of Communication Studies, where Kellie received an MA in Communication Theory and Travis received a PhD in Performance Studies.  Kellie is from Slidell and a proud product of SLT’s YATS (Young Acotrs Theatre of Slidell) program. She also holds a B.F.A. in Dance Education from the University of Southern Mississippi, and presently teaches speech, broadcasting, and dance at Slidell High School.  Dr. Travis Brisini is originally from Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  While at LSU, Travis wrote, directed, and performed in numerous productions at the Hopkins Black Box Theatre.  Since moving to Slidell, Travis has been seen as Willy Wonka himself and Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest.  Kellie and Travis have previously worked on SLT's Theatre for Young Audiences shows, directing and choreographing Pinkalicious and starring in A Year with Frog and Toad.