When I think about where we were on Day 1, clumsily going through the Bon Odori motions, and in my case, cringing in fear at the prospect of singing—really, it's kind of hilarious. The production is seriously almost there.
On Day 7 of Opera Camp, Kalani, the Blackfeet tribe member, came to work with us again. His lesson was truly a gift: he explained that the tribal movements had long been passed down from teacher to student. His mentors had granted him special permission to impart his knowledge to us. At the beginning of the session, Kalani taught us a chant, and then organized us into concentric circles. As we strode around and around, with him singing one phrase and us singing the next, one camper asked what the words meant. Kalani replied that it didn't matter. We were creating our own intention.
In my opinion, that was the main lesson he bestowed upon us. After the chant, Kalani went one by one to each group of desert animals, helping us develop more convincing portrayals. At that time, since we weren't even wearing masks, we felt that we had to try extra hard to make sure we were understood. Thus, we ended up creating caricatures of the animals: those playing winged creatures dramatically flailed their arms, and others, representing coyotes, made a big show of wrinkling their noses and snarling. Kalani noticed this, of course. He told us that we didn't have to behave as our animals. Instead, we had to really get inside the animal. Our actions should spring from that, not from an idea of how our chosen creature “should” look. The audience might not understand the meanings of our gestures and glances, but they will believe it because we believe it. Again, we have to create an intention.
We gave Kalani a huge thank you for the great lesson. The rest of Day 7 consisted of rigorous rehearsals. We didn't get as much staged as we would have liked. Our director, Eli Villanueva, then reminded us that this isn't really a “camp,” where children run free screaming. This is a professional production.
We took this message to heart. Four rehearsal sessions later on Day 8, we had finished staging the entire opera. Sure, we were a bit shaky on cues and transitions, but as Eli said, we had all the puzzle pieces completed. Now, we had to fit the pieces together to form a tight, cohesive whole.
That day, Day 8, was also our last day in our wonderful rehearsal space, the Colburn School. It was a bit sad to say goodbye. However, we were all excited to finally practice in the Barnsdall Gallery Theater the next day.
Today, which is Day 9, everyone arrived at the theater a bit too early. I guess I wasn't the only one paranoid about getting lost and missing the upcoming field trip. (For the record, that didn't end up happening to anyone.) Around nine o'clock, we squeezed into the bus and headed off for the Autry National Center of the American West.
Unfortunately, when we arrived there, it hadn't opened yet, and the temperature was already climbing higher and higher. To pass the time, one of our counselors, Garrett, organized us in a circle, sat us all down on the grass, and announced that we were going to play a fun game: Duck, Duck, Goose. Luckily, we were saved by someone's decision to take a group photo.
We waited a little while more after that then entered the museum. Our group was split up. The younger children went one way, and we older campers the other. First, my group's docents presented a demonstration of Native American instruments. They were mostly percussion, as the emphasis of Native American music is rhythm, not melody. There were drums, clapping sticks, and many, many rattles, including a turtle-shell one to be tied to one's waist. One of our campers had to demonstrate. He strapped on the shell, dancing and shaking his hips to coax out a noise. I have to say, it was wonderful entertainment. After the lecture was over, we made our own clapping sticks with two pieces of wood, cardboard, yarn, and beads. They don't look like much, but when tapped on one's palm, they make a surprisingly loud noise. Rhythmically slapping the sticks got so enjoyable that our creations almost had to be confiscated.
Next, we went upstairs to tour a special exhibition: The Katsina in Hopi Life. Besides getting a glimpse of the Hopi daily life, learning about the Katsinam was also extraordinarily intriguing. (Yes, the plural is Katsinam.) The Hopi believe that the Katsinam are spirits who visit during a certain season, participate in festivals, educate the people, then return to their homes in the clouds, reverting to non-corporeal forms. Of course, we campers had many questions for the docents, mostly fed by skepticism. Our docent declined to answer some of our inquiries out of respect for the culture. I guess I'll have to wonder about the Katsinam for the rest of my life. I think we invoked some sort of spirit, though--when we returned to the bus to fetch our lunches, we found our belongings rearranged, with some bags even slightly open. It was probably just a staff member clearing up the space, or perhaps the bus driver, but I like to believe it was the Katsinam, angered that we doubted their existence.
I'll be honest: after the tour, a lot of us were wondering about the connections between our field trip and the opera. I thought about it a little, and I realized that there are many. First of all, learning about the purpose of Native American music pretty much explains the 5/8, 12/8, and 11/8 in the opera's score. The unusual meter draws equal focus to the rhythm as to the melody. The docents also told us that Native American songs often repeat the same musical phrase over and over again, as their purpose is not storytelling. Only now have I realized that the animals, which partially reflect Native American culture, pretty much sing a single line throughout the opera: “Everything breathes with the Great Spirit. We all breathe as one.” Come to think of it, I'm glad we've gotten the Native American perspective on the not only the music, but also the plot. Since the opera mostly follows Akiko and her experiences in the camp, we never really see the Mojave Boy's story. The Opera Camp staff members explained to us early on that Poston is essentially an internment camp in an internment camp. Situated in a Native American reserve, the camp was actually run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I feel like I've grasped that concept more, now that I've gotten a taste of Native American life. In the opera, the Native Americans no longer seem vague and elusive to me.
We ate lunch at the museum's picnic tables, and then rode the stuffy, sweltering bus back to the Barnsdall Gallery Theater. I swear, the cool air conditioning in the building felt like a gift from the gods. We went through the lobby and finally saw the space we'd perform in. I instantly loved it, from the mellow blue color scheme of the auditorium to the inviting stage, already housing the assembled set.
As I stepped onto the stage and looked out, I already began to feel nervous. Nothing can prepare you for the sensation of being onstage singing for the first time. No matter how much you practice, you almost forget everything when you feel the shifting heat of the lights, or stare into the black hole of the auditorium. Also, the dimensions of the space disoriented me. While in Colburn's rehearsal room we could ooze all over the place once “offstage,” it wasn't so in Barnsdall. The wings are extremely small at Barnsdall, and they clog up very easily. We had to constantly remind ourselves to get out of the wings, pack together tightly, and retreat all the way into the dressing room. I'm glad I've pretty much figured it out. Though we didn't review the entire opera today, I at least feel like I've gotten to know the place.
The performance is only the day after tomorrow. The last puzzle pieces of the production are settling into place. It's time to review everything, quit speaking, and hope for the best.