A Conversation with director Nicholas O’Leary


Making his debut with Guerilla Opera, the young director Nicholas O’Leary brings a host of theatrical skills to the company. He has directed straight plays from Ben Jonson to Tom Stoppard. He has worked as an interactive-experience creator, a board-game designer, scenic draftsman and illustrator. His work has been seen at Actors Theater Louisville, the New York Theater Festival, and at the A.R.T. He can drive a stick shift vehicle.

Nicholas O’Leary is rehearsal for “Chrononhotonthologos” l Photo by Clive Grainger (2017)

SL: You are new to opera! How is opera different from other theatrical forms?

NO: There is definitely a lot of shared DNA between opera and musical theater—and other varieties of live performance!—but there’s nothing quite like opera. We all know that when it comes to opera, the music is the essential thing.

You often find an incredible amount of storytelling and world-building right there in the score. In musical theatre, it’s traditionally the book that tells the story, and the musical numbers flesh out the plot’s skeleton, revealing character and emotional information that can’t be conveyed in the spoken word.

SL: Having heard, along with everybody else in the room, the first-ever reading of Chrononhotonthologos, how did it strike your imagination?  Did the sounds call up images?

NO: Hearing the ensemble bring Andy’s score to life was exhilarating. I immediately began to get glimpses of the kingdom of Queerummahnia and its inhabitants that I never would have found just reading the libretto. And from there it’s been a process of collaborating with our amazing team of designers to bring these images—and the images that they discovered—to life.

SL:  If you perceive any resonances between a 1734 satirical libretto, a 2017 sound world and our current global predicament, will you incorporate them in your staging?

NO: When working with a classical text, I always find surprising resonance with the contemporary moment. In the case of Chrononhotonthologos, it’s helpful to remember that the original play is a satire: Henry Carey is poking fun at bad poets who wrote terrible tragedies, but he’s also going after the arrogance and greed of the monarchy. So, I’ve found that there are moments that shed light on what’s going on in Washington right now—moments that play very differently than they would have in the 1743. (Or, frankly, in 2015!)

The other really brilliant thing that Andy has done here, of course, is that he’s incorporated a final movement adapted from Matthew Arnold’s 1867 poem Dover Beach into the libretto. When Arnold wrote about a world that “hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain,” he never could have anticipated what the 20th century had in store for Europe—and the rest of the world.

When Andy places this text from 1867 alongside another that’s over a hundred years older, and puts them both in this sound world that is so clearly in conversation with our contemporary moment, he’s asking us to draw a line from the 18th century to the 19th and to the 21st. In terms of staging, one of my big questions has been about how to create space for all of those different resonances for our audience: the production has its own specific world, of course, but it vibrates across centuries.

Chrononhotonthologos cast in rehearsal l Photo by Clive Grainger (2017)

SL: What are the challenges for you or anybody staging an opera? Especially a new opera that only we have ever heard? A crazy opera at that?

Every piece has its own challenges. I always try to anticipate them before rehearsals, but I tend to find myself surprised at what comes easily, and what takes a bit more thought to crack.

A big question is always what the staging is *doing* in each moment of the piece: Does the staging need to tell the story? If the story is already clear from the libretto and music, is there another texture or dimension the staging needs to add? Or does the staging need to get out of the way so the singers can do their thing? When you’re at home preparing, you can do all kinds of research and thinking about these questions—but, you never know for sure until you’re in the space with the whole team.

With a piece like Chrononhotonthologos, the possibilities are endless, and obvious solutions are few and far between. Of course, that can be scary! But, it’s also exhilarating to be out there on a limb and take a leap into uncharted territory.

Susan Larson is president of Guerilla Opera’s Board of Directors, performing artist and former music critic for The Boston Globe.

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An Interview with New-Comer Mezzo-Soprano Britt Brown

Britt Brown in rehearsal for “Chrononhotonthologos” l Photo by Clive Grainger (2017)

Britt Brown is one of the newcomers to Guerilla Opera. She will be singing the role of the Queen’s confidante and punching-bag, Tatlanthe.

SL: Britt, tell us a little about your training and background?
BB: I started off in the Rollin’s College (Winter Park, FL) Children’s Bach Choir, believe it or not! I attended Stetson Uuiversity in Florida and went straight into business recruiting; I recruited accountants, engineers, and other mid and high level administrative employees for clients of the firm I worked for. I did this for several years until I decided to hang up my monkey suit and attended Boston Conservatory for voice performance in 2012.

SL: What is it like to be the new kid in the ensemble?
BB: It’s killer. Everyone in the core group is supremely talented and hilarious…I feel so lucky.

SL: You do seem to be laughing a lot, in the spirit of the piece! Have you done much new music before?
BB: I have! Most recently, I premiered a super cool opera by Amber Vistein, Man will not outlive the weather, for mezzo soprano, quartet, and electronic instruments at Brown University in February. I also premiered a gorgeous and hilarious song cycle, Dream Songs, with Juventas New Music Ensemble during the Boston New Music Festival thsi past September. I’m also looking forward to starring in the Boston premiere of As One with Boston Opera Collaborative in January 2018.

SL: Awesome. So, what is the most fun and the most terrifying thing about doing Chrononhotonthologos?
BB: The most fun is how silly it all is. I feel like we’re in a surreal Monty Python movie. The hardest part is not cracking up the whole time…and the counting. Woof. The counting.

Britt Brown in rehearsal for “Chrononhotonthologos” l Photo by Clive Grainger (2017)

SL: Anything else you would like the opera-going public to know about you?
BB: I live, breathe, and eat (or drink coffee out of a themed mug) STAR TREK. Also, I’m the general manager of a video game studio and the finance administrator for the Newton Cultural Alliance.

Susan Larson is president of Guerilla Opera’s Board of Directors, performing artist and former music critic for The Boston Globe.

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A Conversation with Guerilla Opera’s Artistic Director, Mike Williams

Mike Williams in rehearsal for “Chrononhotonthologos” l Photo by Clive Grainger (2017)

Mike Williams is always up for a challenge. He loves to boldly go where none have gone before, to seek out new composers, with new ideas, to explore strange new sound worlds, and play them for us; to his and to our delight.

SL: Tell us about the unusual instruments you play in Andy’s new opera
MW: The score for Chrononhotonthologos includes an assortment of eclectic things. Not out of the ordinary for me in Guerilla Opera, however, in this piece all of the instrumentalists are asked to play something unconventional. For much of the opera the saxophonist performs on a sopranino, the highest (and rarely utilized) voice of the saxophone family. Both the violinist and clarinetist are asked to double on bass harmonica numerous times.

As for percussion, there’s an array of small instruments: ratchets, flexatones, vibrasplaps (the modern version of the Biblical “Jawbone of an Ass”), tin cans, a pop gun, as well as various drums and cymbals. The most unusual for me is the inclusion of a toy piano. None of these on their own are particularly unusual in contemporary music but taken together they make up a big part of the sound world of this opera.

SL: What are the biggest challenges in the score? How does this ensemble learn to play a score with so many ostinati and other complications?
MW: Most of Andy’s score is quite tonal and really beautiful, but always colored by his bizarre instrumentation. Some of this sounded peculiar at first, but it is totally in keeping with the libretto. So one challenge is performing lyrical music on instruments that are essentially noise-makers and sound effects. You’re forced to embrace that and find how this changes the nature of the material itself. Carey’s play is quite old (1734), but it has a surprisingly contemporary tone.

That said, the biggest challenge of this piece, as with any of our productions, is really the chamber music component—being attuned to each other and in sync with the cast. All of that comes from being super familiar with the score and knowing what’s happening musically all the time.

Photo by Clive Grainger (2017)

SL: What is the most fun and amusing thing you do?
MW: Aside from the minutiae of performing on my instrument, I have to say that my favorite part is always the process with Guerilla Opera. Especially in this piece, it’s great to see how the musical eccentricities connect with the libretto and how all of this marries with the production. The director and designers react to the music throughout rehearsals and these reactions end up on stage as part of the final product. Because we work with so many of the same performers and designers, we have developed a sort of shorthand in rehearsal. We’re able to achieve some things really quickly. It’s always amazing to work on a new piece of this scale with a group of regular collaborators.

SL: What are the pros and cons of the new space?
MW: The main distinction of the new space is that it’s a hall and not a black box theater. The obvious plus is that it will both sound and feel good to perform in—it’s a larger space while still being intimate. Guerilla Opera has produced so many works in one venue so this will be a new experience for us. The advantage is that we knew the opera would be performed there before it was written, which is a huge plus—we’re confident this production will work very well there.

Susan Larson is president of Guerilla Opera’s Board of Directors, performing artist and former music critic for The Boston Globe.

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