Librettist’s Performance Journal: Tuesday

Crossposted from

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Here are photos from last night’s rehearsal, showing the lab cart and a raised platform that I think represents the beach—the stairs must be where Marie and Irène enter the water for the swimming lessons. I’ll have more starting tomorrow or Thursday, after I arrive in Hartford. On the schedule today is the sitzprobe, the first rehearsal in which the singers and instrumentalists rehearse together.

The set for Marie Curie Learns to Swim at the Hartford Opera Theater premiere.
L-R: Susan Yankee (Old Marie Curie), Mark Womack (Pierre Curie), and Elizabeth Hayes (Young Marie Curie)


In addition to the research I did on horrifying radium products like the ones shown yesterday, I read a lot about the Curies. Marie wrote a biography of Pierre after his death, and included with it a short autobiography. I didn’t want to be tied to her actual words too often (given my training in musicology to cite directly, this was a very different writing approach), but there was one place in particular where I felt that Marie expressed her grief over Pierre’s death so beautifully that there was no improving upon it or paraphrasing it. She sings

In the study room
to which he would never return
the water buttercups
he had brought
from the country
were still fresh.

If this were a film, I’d want a long shot lingering over the flowers, perhaps with Marie’s fingers reaching out to touch them and not quite doing so—just hovering above or near them. In the opera, Jessica sets this perfectly: a whole step separates “in the” and then Marie, her voice breaking, goes up a minor sixth for “study” and from there descends through the line to sing the “turn” of “return” her initial starting pitch on E-flat. There’s an eighth rest in the vocal line—completely devastating—and Marie begins the second phrase a whole step lower, again rising, this time a fifth, to “butter;” and she descends to an F for “country.” Another heart-wrenching eighth rest, and then “were still” descends a whole step. Marie then pauses for a quarter rest, obviously so choked up she can hardly speak, before singing “fresh” on a low C-sharp. The accompaniment is dominated by a crawl of eighths in the bass, each measure beginning at the bottom of the cello’s register that refers to material that originated in the section where Marie sings of meeting Pierre, and their duet, which you can hear in MIDI while looking at the score here: I know this will make me cry when I hear it: I’d better remember to pack a handkerchief.

Tomorrow I fly to Hartford, arriving in the afternoon and hoping I can get to the rehearsal to hear it all from the beginning. On Thursday at the full dress we’ll have a videographer and audio recording people in to capture everything. The video and audio from the dress and performance will be edited to create a sample that we can use to promote the opera to other opera companies after the HOT premiere.

To prep for being at rehearsals, I’ve re-read the whole libretto (where of course I found a repeated typo) and am going through the piano-vocal score today. (I thought about printing it out to take notes on, but it’s just too much paper for me to feel good about. This is one time when I really wish I had an iPad pro with the pencil. One of these days.) My role is mostly to answer any questions the performers have about the text, the characters, and the topic as a whole. I hope my being there will be helpful to everyone. In my scholarly work on Shakespeare, I’ve always found the idea of being a dramaturg appealing, and while that isn’t my role with this production of Marie Curie, I could see doing that one day for a production of it. I’m really looking forward to tomorrow’s rehearsal.

Tomorrow’s (Wednesday’s) post will come late in the evening, but I hope to have a lot of photos and observations to share.