“The Ring of the Fettuccines is the only opera I’ve ever heard of with a chase through the audience,” said Mockingbird Theater Productions Producer/Director John Hall last week, after a two-hour rehearsal in the choir room of Trinity Episcopal Church.
He describes the oh-so-light opera for children as “a giddy melodrama,” which may be an understatement. Set to some of grand opera’s most famous music, the plot features takeoffs on just about every operatic convention — mistaken identities, a spell-casting witch, near-death scenes, and twin pairs of star-crossed lovers. Prince Riccardo of Fettuccine, betrothed to Princess Angelina of Vermicelli, loves the long, long, long-dying Camellia; Angelina , however, swoons over Alfredo the cobbler, Camellia’s half-brother (or is he?).
Hall started the rehearsal by blocking a scene between Mort Jonas (Riccardo) and Lee Thomas (Alfredo). “Fling your arms out farther,” he calls to the two, encouraging ever-broader operatic gestures. “Blocking is showing actors where to move when,” he explains in an aside. “It’s not really choreography, but it is.”
Jonas and Thomas swoop around the room, scores in hand, alternately singing and scribbling down Hall’s directions. Their voices are impressive, even in the small snatches of song that serve as background for rehearsing their moves. “I’ve brought you your wedding shoes,” sings Thomas the cobbler, and the prince makes a blatant gesture of disgust. “Don’t I go in front of him here?” Thomas asks Hall, as Paprika-the-witch (Jane Potter Baumer) arrives. Hall pulls her into a corner to go over her blocking, while the cobbler and prince carry on, directed now from the piano by Musical Director/Accompanist Vance Reese. Through the door, downstage right, tiptoes a small woman carrying a cardboard box overflowing with costumes, in preparation for a publicity shot later this morning. “She’s Susan Diehn, our wonderful costume designer,” calls Hall from across the room.
Diehn lays a pair of aqua balloon pants and a tapestry top across one step of the choir risers, setting a bejeweled crown next to them. Various actors depart to change into their costumes.
To date, Diehn’s design experience has been limited to working with this troupe. “I have a passion for [Mockingbird],” she enthuses; “I love it. This is my fifth show with John. I never read the script; John calls me and tells me what he’s looking for, so I can get a feel for the characters.” She buys all her fabrics locally, rummaging in remnant bins from Fletcher to Waynesville. This show’s colorful costumes run the gamut from aquas and sea greens to pinks, maroons and peachy tones.
Anjie Grady, a native Ashevillean who plays Princess Angelina returns — wearing a peach gown with a full, loose skirt over a white undergown (her wedding dress in a later scene). “It’s the first time in ages I’ve had a really comfortable costume,” Grady — who’s expecting a real-life baby in two months — tells Diehn, stretching out her elastic waistband appreciatively.
Baumer, it turns out, plays two roles — the witch and the king’s page — which she says is a typical operatic combination for mezzo-sopranos, “a boy and an old hag, except Paprika isn’t old.” She launches into her first song, the opening scene of the opera, in which the page lays out the story and characters and offers the audience lots of hints: The prince was a foundling, she announces, and the cobbler doesn’t make very good shoes, and once there was a woman with a baby who thought, “What if I did a really naughty thing and pretended my son was king?”
“The show’s a wonderful introduction to opera for young people,” Hall says. “It brings them the best of all the great operas in the context of a very fun, silly story.” Among the operas The Ring of the Fettuccines draws on are Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute, Bizet’s Carmen and Flower Song, Puccini’s La Boheme, and a whole slew of Verdi (including Rigoletto and La Traviata).
“It’s for everybody,” offers Hall: “For kids, for people who love operatic music, and it’s a great thing for grandparents to do with their grandchildren. When else will folks have the opportunity to hear this music, at this price, by top-quality professionals?”
And everybody is a professional in this talented cast, which is rehearsing for only about two-and-a-half weeks — that’s 16 rehearsals, tops. “They’re very busy people,” Hall points out; “They don’t have time to mess around.”
Coloratura soprano Wanda Yang Temko, the endlessly dying Camellia, teaches voice at Brevard College and has appeared in Godspell with Atlanta’s Ad Hoc Productions and in The Little Prince with Theater Emory. Chapel Hill graduate Grady, a lyric soprano, recently sang Mimi in La Boheme with the Asheville Light Opera Company. Thomas, a tenor who’s a regular with Mockingbird, played Archibald Craven in the Haywood Repertory Theater’s production of The Secret Garden. A favorite at Asheville’s Playback Theater, Jonas (a baritone) made his operatic debut singing one note in La Traviata with the Florida Grand Opera. Baumer teaches voice at Mars Hill College; her “peak music experience” was with the Robert Shaw Festival Singers, with whom she sang “off and on” for eight years. Mockingbird’s technical director, Dan Henry, has once again conjured up “beautiful lighting effects and sets,” promises Hall. And Reese — a frequent performer with the Asheville Symphony, organist at Trinity Episcopal, and sometime teacher at Brevard College — also “accompanies everybody in town,” according to Hall. (He himself sings the part of the bombastic King Gustav the Great in The Ring of the Fettuccines.)
Mockingbird, now in its sixth season,.is “committed to providing quality professional theater for young audiences, but geared to the whole family,” explains Hall, adding, “I’ve always wanted this company to be an alternative to renting a video or seeing a movie. If folks can’t afford to come, what’s the point? I love being silly and doing over-the-top performances, but at the same time transporting my audience, for an hour or so.”
Still, key questions remain: Will true love triumph? Will Paprika’s spell work on the king? Will you be transported? Will opera ever be the same? At the very least, you can expect Ring of the Fettuccines to be laugh-out-loud fun set to great music, beautifully sung. Opera lite, with a chase scene.