This blog was written by Carol Ann Cheung, a member of the Metropolis Ensemble that is currently performing in The Firework Maker's Daughter.
Performances are in full swing for David Bruce's The Firework Maker's Daughter at The New Victory Theater, so we chatted with the composer and Metropolis Ensemble musicians to get an inside look at this fantastical and whimsical opera.
In case you haven't seen the impressive theatrics in-house yet, the show keeps kids and adults glued to the action with its seamless and constant transitions between acting and innovative shadow puppetry. The singers disappear behind screens to let shadows reveal the elaborate internal world of the characters. Meanwhile, our nine-person chamber ensemble and singers remain onstage for the entire, two-hour music marathon.
Percussionist Britton Matthews comments on the unique experience of performing on stage during the opera: "The music is extremely complex and demands every ounce of attention for the duration of the production. Also, it can be distracting because you want to watch what's going on; but ultimately, it's a different energy on stage and you feel more connected to the action and the audience."
Luke Rinderknecht, another percussionist in the production, adds: "The important part for us is to stay focused, even if in the corner of your eye you see an elephant charging towards you."
In preparation for the opera, the musicians practiced together in a rehearsal space for several days before moving over to The New Victory to rehearse with the British cast of singers, who flew in for just a few rehearsals before show time. After setting up on stage, the ensemble faced an obstacle they hadn't prepared for: they were spread out on opposite sides of the stage behind all the action, with limited sightlines of the conductor, Andrew Cyr. The solution? "The theater staff did a wonderful job setting up video monitors to help us work through the issues," explains Britton.
This opera being David Bruce's fourth major collaboration with Metropolis Ensemble, the composer calls it a "close and loving relationship... the group really understands my work now." When talking about his inspiration for the opera, he explains that he was ultimately drawn to the "color, wit and fun" of Pullman's original children's book.
The music carries nondescript influences from Far Eastern countries. Harpist Bridget Kibbey explains that "one of David's many gifts is crafting a language that evokes another land, but the cultural references are nuanced to a degree that the listener can't quite pinpoint the location." Beyond these references, David explains that his main compositional concerns were "balance, proportion, cohesion and perhaps more than anything, making the characters speak and the drama unfold in a natural and unforced way."
If you haven't seen the production yet, the show plays its final performances in New York this weekend, May 10-12. Flutist Lance Suzuki explains why this is the perfect opportunity to introduce your children to opera: "Kids today are growing up in a reality television and auto-tune kind of age. Opera is about real, un-amplified voices and live, unmixed instruments. This makes it a very human art form. And with The Firework Maker's Daughter, this is not exclusively a 'children's' opera; the music is gorgeous and the story is uplifting, making it great entertainment for people of all ages."
Carol Ann Cheung is a pianist and writer from Washington, D.C. She is on the Editorial team at Carnegie Hall, where she edits and produces online and print materials.
Ms. Cheung holds a Bachelor of Music degree in piano performance from Indiana University, where she studied with pianist-composer Emile Naoumoff. After graduating, she moved to St. Petersburg, Russia to teach English language classes to high school students. Her interests lie in Eastern European culture and playing unusual instruments, and sometimes playing normal instruments unusually.