For the last two months fifty Harvard singers and musicians have been rehearsing Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, an opera that people who know about music insist is too difficult for undergraduates to do. Last Saturday afternoon a small group of students, some of whom were still in grade school when the last grand opera was performed here, wandered down to Leverett House to find out what makes staging a grand opera so challenging.
Isaiah (Jack) Jackson, Philip Heckscher, and Sandy Leon--three roommates from Eliot House who are, respectively, conductor, director, and assistant producer of Cosi--quickly greeted their visitors. After saying yes, they certainly could show why Mozart was so much grander than chamber opera or Gilbert and Sullivan (both of which are presented regularly and successfully at Harvard, they excused themselves temporarily and hurried off to move chairs.
The Uneducated Audience
Cosi's performers expect their performance to go over well with what they term Harvard's "uneducated but intelligent" audience. Last Saturday, however, their audience was about twenty students eating lunch with their dates, and they seem more uninterested than uneducated as the chorus and orchestra trooped in for their two o'clock rehearsal. The musicians pushed tables out of the way and attached the apron to the stage. As the students finished eating, everyone in the room except a few professional singers was moving chairs.
"We can't expect professionals to work on the set," Phil explained. "Although everyone else is painting flats tonight, professionals cause their own special problems. Jack tried to cast as many undergraduates as possible, but Cosi needs six principals. (Gilbert and Sullivan has only one or two principals.) Also, his orchestra is much more complex and much harder to hold and rehearse than a G&S; orchestra. In G&S; the musicians trade off, but they can't here--the parts are far too difficult. In fact, everything in the show is difficult."
Phil said he thought the best by-product of the show was the Camaraderie that has developed during the five weeks of rehearsals. "Everyone has been working so hard that I couldn't believe it when no one showed up the day after Thanksgiving," he added. "I cried."
The singers had stopped moving chairs and were singing. Phil ran back on stage to correct some shoddy blocking, while Jack turned to interpret the mood of a scene to his musicians. "Don Alfonso comes on saying 'It's terrible,'" Jack said, looking as if something terrible had happened. "The ladies ask him what's happening and he finally tells them that the men have gone off to war. Now the audience knows this, but the women don't: Don Alfonso has made a deal with the men to do everything possible to test the women's fidelity within twenty-four hours. If they're faithful, he pays the men one hundred pieces of gold."
One of the violinists made a noise of protest.
"What are they?" Jack asked. "Guilders? Well then, one hundred guilders. Anyway, if the women aren't faithful, the men pay Don Alfonso one hundred guilders. The story is humorous, but this is some of the most deadly serious farewell music I've ever heard."
Jack went back to the music, jabbing his baton at a singer who had lost the tempo and nodding and smiling as friends came into the dining room to see how Mozart was faring. The atmosphere was extremely friendly and informal, rather more like a rehearsal for a children's recital than for a grand opera whose cast had to practice its lines and blocking and learn to keep in tempo by opening nights, now only four days away.
Greg Sandow, one of the opera's two suitors and one of the two undergraduate principals, came off the stage to explain why any Harvard show is hard to put on, why a House show is harder than a show at the Loeb, and why a grand opera is harder than anything else.
"It's easy to see why," Greg said. "The singers sing harder and the orchestra plays harder. Co-ordinating this production is almost impossible. It's not as hard as Verdi or Wagner, but the music never quite fits with the singing. Still, Mozart is real opera. And I want to be an opera singer when I grow up."
Greg, having missed his cue, ran back on stage to sing a belated "What makes you think that women are capable of cuckolding" at Don Alfonso. "See?" Holly Worthen, a chorus member, exclaimed. "This is eight times as funny as either Gilbert or Sullivan! The music is better and the plot's ridiculous, but it's a self-conscious kind of ridiculous. People are always going off on the side of the stage and saying, 'Isn't this absurd?'"
Although Cosi's producers speak of the "professionals" in their cast, their oldest performer is under 30. The female leads are a Cambridge housewife who studies voice, and a recent Miss Alabama who forsook the South to attend Boston's New England Conservatory of Music.