Toward Handel's "Teseo" | Documentary

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(somber music)

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(woman singing in foreign language)

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[Gary] Walking through Lincoln Center and seeing the theaters all closed is a very, very sad thing, but coming into Juilliard and feeling this activity and this kinda beehive of theatrical activity in the Sharp Theater was wonderful.

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[Megan] My standard answer about what it feels like to be involved in a production right now is that it's a bit of a cyclical emotional roller coaster of extreme gratitude and excitement and thrill that I get to walk into a theater when I know so few people, especially in the United States, that are able to do that, followed by frustration that it's not going the way that it would be going in a normal time, frustration that it really isn't a production in the sense that we know it.

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[Gary] She's kissing and we're-

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(harpsichord flourishes)

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Don't wait.
[Student] Will do.

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She can go on kissing. She can do whatever she wants. She's over there. 

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Well, I've spent, I don't know, going on 40 years doing Handel operas and I love them since I was a kid. So I find them riveting and always have.

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(Megan singing in foreign language)

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[Megan] What I love about playing Medea is it's really fun to play a villain, first of all. It's really fun to pursue her mental state and what brings her to do these atrocious acts, and what I've come to learn about her is that she just wants to be loved and she wants to be accepted and she wants to find a place where she's appreciated and she's needed. And I think that that's really relatable.
Handel was the great psychiatrist, so he understood the human psyche I think better than any other composer.
You're not resolved. You're not able to say, "Okay, lady." You're still a little bit... You've got this news of-
The COVID precautions at Juilliard are extremely strict and extremely regimented. We're only allowed to sing if there's only one other person in the room, we're 20 feet away both parties are masked and we leave the room after a half an hour to let it stand empty for an hour. Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine that my singing would be considered so lethal, but here we are.

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[Stephen] The school is trying to give as many opportunities for the students as possible, but also maintaining a really strict health protocol. I was extremely worried about that and about taking the leap and saying, "Okay, fine. I'm just going to do this." And then just leaving home. I mean, making sure that you have a mask and now we're double masked and I wore a face shield a lot of the time, especially initially. It was exhausting. It was exhausting.

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We are now in one of the rehearsal rooms where we are producing our production of "Teseo", except it's not really a rehearsal room, it's someone's office. Here, we're in a funny situation where we have two windowed inner offices which singers can come in and take their masks off and sing in for up to an hour. In this set up, we're able to put one singer in this room and one singer in the room to the left and through technology, they can hear each other, and through that technology, we the instrumental group can hear them on the outside of these two rooms. This is nice. It enables us to be able to work collaboratively and that it's live at the same time, but what we can't replicate here or on the PJS stage is the live collaborative acoustic experience.

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[Gary] We got tested at least once a week and they provided the testing, which was terrific. I felt perfectly safe here. I felt safer here than going to the grocery store.

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(Megan singing in foreign language)

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[Megan] It's nerve wracking really to expose yourself at any time in performance and then to expose yourself to an empty stage, to instrumentalist that you can't see sometimes, can't even hear as well as you want to. Not only is there no audience, but there is no one, not a soul in the house, so I'm singing to a completely empty theater and the only soul in the theater. I can't quite explain how the setup between the orchestra and the singers worked, because I think it was a technological feat that should be applauded very much. But I stood on the stage in front of the fire curtain. The orchestra was behind the fire curtain. I always liked before I went on the stage to peek back and look at them and just... because, you know, we long to collaborate with an orchestra. A lot of trust was involved because you kind of have to leap off into the unknown to make it work.

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(Megan singing in foreign language)

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Orchestras played together by breathing together, by watching each other, by watching them bow strokes, by sensing a communal energy, and the minute that you spread that out, it becomes more difficult. 

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The freedom of singing without a mask in the Peter J. Sharp Theater must have been incredibly freeing for them, and I feel it took a few days for the walls of the Sharp to start waking up to what we were doing... I'm sorry.

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(instruments playing recitative)

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(Megan singing in foreign language)

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The idea was we don't give up because of the students experience is the most important thing. I offloaded the director weeks ago, and I focused on pedagogy and on the people, on the souls of these kids who, as I said, are in the... They're in a lot of flux and a lot of sometimes pain, and you can see that moving through them in the work, even if they put a brave face on it. But putting a brave face on things is so important now in COVID to get through the day.

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[Gary] We had a couple of COVID scares and we had to quarantine once and we came back. And then we had another COVID scare and we lost our oboes and bassoon, and we also lost the singer playing Teseo. Luckily, everybody was fine, nobody got sick, but they were all contacts, and so they had to quarantine during the production.

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We had to change singers twice actually. Teseo kind of an important role, the title role, the cover had to step in, but just similarly to when the violin stepped in for the oboist, the students here are amazing. You know, they pulled it off. They knew the music, they stepped in, and they totally own the situation. And I think that's a true to life situation. That's always exciting, I think, and something to celebrate when a cover comes on and nails it.

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(woman singing in foreign language)

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Through persevering through the pandemic, they can become even greater artists and this is something that has literally happened through out history, art has survived wars, pandemics, illnesses, horrible tragedies, and it has survived even stronger. I think as artists, we're no strangers to struggling for our dreams and struggling for our artistic voice and for finding a place for it. We're also no strangers to the unknown. So in a sense, nothing's changed.

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Great, great de capo, that was-

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(dramatic music playing)

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[Gary] Music is the most primal art form. Performing music increases your endorphins, listening to music it makes you happier, it makes you healthier. So in a pandemic when we are so stressed just getting up in the morning, to have music to turn to and to find this primal connection is so important. So what better time to experience opera?

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(woman singing in foreign language)

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[Megan] I think as artists, we want to communicate and the past year has felt like screaming into the void, I think. On the other hand, I think it's important that we draw people into the theaters when we're able to again, we make theaters open and accessible to wider communities. We make theater an accessible place for people to want to be a place for them to feel they belong. And I think if we use digital content to that end, it can serve a really powerful purpose.

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[Stephen] Live audiences, why are they important? Because the theater serves the same function in society as a place of worship. It's a place where people go to confront, to experience in some way a conversation about the biggest things in life.

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[Gary] It was a really wonderful experience that I think brought a lot of happiness to a lot of people and points a way forward that we are going to get out of this pandemic eventually.

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I would say when the blood and sweat and tears are wiped away, I'm extremely grateful to Gary and Steven and Andrew and Emily and Brian and Ari and everyone that never said no. I never felt given up on, and that means so much to a young artist, and I'm so grateful to Juilliard for that and I really ask that of consumers of art and culture to remember that we're here and we are so excited to connect with you and we can't wait to see you in the theaters again soon.

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(Megan singing in foreign language)

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(Megan resolves)

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(music fades)