Thursday, April 30, 2015

Talking with conductor Hal France about Portland Opera’s production of “Show Boat”

Hal France | Photo credit: Ingrid Arnett
Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat” opens this weekend for a run of five performances from May 1 through May 9 at Keller Auditorium. Produced by Portland Opera, the music will not be amplified but spoken text will. Hal France, who has conducted productions of “Macbeth” (2005) and “Turandot” (2003), returns to Portland Opera to lead the orchestra and singers.

France has been conducting opera for 35 years and interlaces his opera engagements with teaching opera history and workshops at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. I caught up with him at the Hampton Opera Center to find out more about him and his work and perspective of “Show Boat.”

What got you into conducting?

France: I started out as a rehearsal accompanist and decided to work my way up. So I went to school, the University Of Cincinnati College Conservatory Of Music to study orchestral conducting, and I worked in opera throughout that whole time.

How does conducting a musical differ from conducting opera?

France: Almost every American musical reflects a wide variety of musical styles. Some is more dance-oriented and some is oriented toward pop music. American musicals often delve into the vernacular like folk music and jazz or blues. “Show Boat” has a little bit of all of that in it. As a conductor you have to be comfortable with that. An opera background prepares you very well for “Show Boat” – provided that you like all of the different musical styles. A certain part of “Show Boat” is very legitimate opera, but it’s very familiar too because it is based on American popular music.

You recently conducted “Bluebeard’s Castle.” That’s almost on the opposite end of the spectrum from “Show Boat.”

France: I like the variety. For me, the connective tissue is musical storytelling, which I really love. I did a play last year. That is, I played the piano and the role of Beethoven in the theater piece “33 Variations.” It is all about telling a story musically.

In “Show Boat,” the orchestra contributes a great deal to the atmosphere, which starts out as a story about show business people at a certain time in history. One of the serious themes in “Show Boat” deals with a multi-racial woman, and where she works causes a great deal of difficulty. The orchestra comments more on that than almost anything else. The music we play during that very dramatic scene, “the miscegenation scene,” is some of the best music of the show.

I have never seen the conductor’s score for a musical. Are the words for the spoken parts just written into the score?

France: Once a piece achieves a certain level of notoriety, efforts are made to create a score that can be utilized and answer those questions. “Show Boat” is interesting because it was created almost 90 years ago. The premiere was in 1927. It was produced during different eras and as a result has had a lot of changes, like the songs that were added from the film versions.

The original score had a lot of songs that didn’t make it through the try-outs and were eliminated in the final cut. There are songs in the score that have long since been gone. So “Show Boat” has been a hard piece for anybody to wrap their hands around in order to make a definitive version.

For the show at Portland Opera, we are basing our version on one that was done in the 1990s by Hal Prince. It was greatly influenced by music that had been re-earthed – not rediscovered – by a John McGlinn, who had an incredible love for “Show Boat.” In the 1980s McGlinn found all of the original stuff and the original orchestrations, which were different in the 1920s than in the 1940s. It was much more European in the 1920s. What people heard was less jazz-influenced and more classical-influenced. In any case, McGlinn made a complete recording of all of the music of “Show Boat,” and that recording is still available. It’s about four hours of music. That recording influenced the Broadway revival under Hal Prince in the 1990s. Prince had his team work at creating a new version that included a lot of the old music. I wanted to use that version for our production in Portland, because it included a lot of songs like “Misery” and “Room above Her,” which were pieces that had been cut out of the standard version.

Do you own your own score of “Show Boat?”

France: No. This is a very lucrative product. The property is owned by Rogers and Hammerstein, and they keep it under wraps. There is no orchestral score of “Show Boat” available for purchase. Everything is rental. Broadway conductors are expected to conduct from the piano score rather than from the orchestral score. For “Show Boat,” this is a disaster because it is such an orchestral piece. I learned through a friend who worked with Hal Prince, that you could rent an orchestral score on a weekly basis. So I did that, because I had the devil of a time trying to use the piano score to figure out what was happening in the 40-piece orchestra. The piano score almost tells you nothing.

So when you rent an orchestra score for the Portland Opera production, what happens if you write some notes in it in pencil? Do you have to erase all of your instructions?

France: The version that we are doing here in Portland has a lot of changes, and the team of people here at Portland Opera are going to have to undo all of my notes before they send it back. It will be very clean and nice before it returns.

“Show Boat” can meander like the Mississippi…

France: Yes. “Show Boat” was a very problematic piece in terms of the clarity of the storyline. First of all, the story covers a span of 40 years during which the characters change. Getting a good, clear ending to the piece is a directorial challenge

The Hal Prince version that we are basing our production was a lavish one that included a lot of dancers. But opera companies don’t typically invest a lot of dancers. So we are not doing those dance numbers, which had a big scenic element. Ours is more streamlined and focus on the development of the characters and not so much on spectacle.

“Misery” is the reason that I love this version of “Show Boat.” It may have been considered too risky by the original producers, because it was a little too sad. Kern considered it one of the best songs that he ever wrote. He used throughout the underscoring of the piece. You can hear it all the way through the miscegenation scene. It’s a number for Queenie and Chorus I. It is done as a prelude to the real turn in the plot that something bad is going to happen.

The orchestra is on stage for this production. You will see four different levels of a Mississippi boat on stage and the orchestra will be visible on stage. I will conduct from the stage in full costume because I will be Jake the piano player. Jake plays at the Trocadero. And I will be the piano player of the boat. He doesn’t have a name. So I get to wear a costume and I have lines to speak!

From the dress rehearsal - Photo credit: Cory Weaver

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