Until I spoke with the three gifted musicians performing with Intimate Apparel – music director Steven Osgood, associate conductor and pianist Nathaniel LaNasa, and pianist Brent Funderburk – I had never thought of theater as geography. But geography, as defined by Webster’s, is “the relative arrangement of physical features,” and that, of course, is exactly what staging is. Osgood made the idea concrete when describing himself and the pianists – who are the opera’s only instrumental accompaniment – and their placement on Intimate Apparel’s stage.
“We are 16 feet up in the air, behind the performers’ playing area,” Osgood said. “We have two Steinway Model D pianos, gorgeous gigantic instruments. I think of them as peninsulas opposite each other. Over on the Alaskan peninsula I’m conducting, near Nathaniel, and on the Russian peninsula Brent is on his own. We’re facing each other across the Bering Strait, which in this case is 30 feet apart.”
Each pianist has a monitor next to him, giving him the audio for the other pianist. “It’s remarkable,” Osgood said, “how present the sound is through the monitor. It sounds like you’re next to each other.”
I asked the pianists, both of whom are products of Juilliard’s graduate program and both of whom have active careers as performers, accompanists, and vocal coaches, whether musically they’d done anything similar to Intimate Apparel. “Never,” LaNasa replied. “Initially, until I got into this opera, I felt like complaining about our pianos’ end-to-end set-up. I like to be next to the person, watching the fingers and arms.” LaNasa once performed a Debussy two-piano piece – “En blanc et noir” -- for the graduation recital of his friend Dimitri Dover. He remembered: “It was really fun,” adding “but we were end-to-end and I wasn’t used to being so far away from the other person.”
“For me,” Funderburk answered, “it is very new to be performing in an opera. Generally, the pianists are there for rehearsals and then they hand it off to the orchestra.”
Intimate Apparel also represents a new experience for Osgood, who is the General and Artistic Director of the Chautauqua Opera Company in southwestern New York state. “Ordinarily, with an opera I’d be in the orchestra pit with the orchestra right in front of me. The singers are at a distance but at some kind of eye level.” He added, “In rehearsal for Intimate Apparel, we spent weeks with me looking the singers in the eye, cuing them, and developing an immediate personal relationship with them. This allowed me to go into public performances not having that immediate relationship but pretending that I have it.”
Like LaNasa and Funderburk, Osgood has a monitor as a companion. But his is visual. And there are four of them. “All through my life,” Osgood said, “I’ve dealt with monitors. But they’ve always been behind me. In this case, I’m facing them. I’m watching myself conduct. It’s a bit of a mind game.” Further: “Like most monitors, these are a split-second behind. Big choral moments need precision so I personally conduct ahead and watch myself in the monitors doing it.”
It's easy to forget that even though the vocal demands of Intimate Apparel are stringent for the singers -- opera singers rarely sing eight shows a week – they are even more time-demanding for the production’s pianists. LaNasa essentially plays for all the evening’s two-and-a-half-hour (with intermission) running time. I asked him whether the experience was draining.
“I don’t get tired in my hands and arms,” he replied. “But my back sometimes gets tired if I forget to be flexible in my torso. It’s all about remaining flexible in my body and my brain. Because we have a lot to concentrate on. But the music flows so fluidly and the dramatic pace is so compelling that you want to go with the story and find ways always to have a fluid control not a solid control.”
Funderburk acknowledged the opera’s physical and mental demands, sharing how he approaches them. “I find it really important to find something different every night to latch on to, so that I don’t zone out. It’s great because I can feel the singers also challenging themselves every time to do something a little different.”
Osgood, LaNasa, and Funderburk concurred that the experience of Intimate Apparel will probably stay with them. Funderburk said: “It has taught me so many lessons about how much you can find within one piece.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com