Opera fans are used to seeing subtitles at productions, but now music lovers in Duluth have the opportunity to experience a new wrinkle -- drawings.
This week the Duluth Festival Opera is mounting a production of "La Boheme," where the singers and musicians will be accompanied by live illustrations.
At a recent opera rehearsal at the Duluth Exhibition and Convention Center, Mike Reed sat on one side of the stage and deftly created a human figure with just a few strokes of charcoal.
"It just happens fast," Reed said. "The singing is more astonishing, to me at least."
During the production Reed will sit at his desk, sketching the characters as the singers perform "La Boheme," Puccini's tale of impoverished Parisian artists. A video camera mounted above will capture his drawings, and the images will be projected two feet high on the scrim at the back of the stage.
Duluth Festival Opera director Craig Fields said the illustrations came about as a result of economic necessity.
"The idea was originally to do a fully staged production," Fields said. "When financial realities changed that picture due to the recession, we decided to do a really top-notch concert production which costs much less money."
A concert production does away with the scenery and props, and has the orchestra and singers on stage. It made sense financially, but the showman in Craig Fields wanted more.
One day he was talking to his friend Mike Reed, who told him about how he had been sketching during St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Opera rehearsals.
"And boom, out popped this idea," Fields said. "'Why don't you actually create the scenes and characters of 'La Boheme' for our concert production?' And we will put them on a giant screen, and we will have something very dramatic visually to focus on."
Reed agreed, and now with just days before the production at the DECC in Duluth, everyone, and especially Reed, is rehearsing.
As the singers work in the middle of the stage, Reed is back at his desk, his fingers flying. He draws the characters in different poses, standing alone or interacting. As quickly as he finishes one, he moves on to another. He's reacting to the performers, the music, and the storyline.
"I am very much into doing gestural type images," Reed said. "And so when I see somebody, I can catch the gesture of it. It doesn't [take] a lot of time to get the gesture, but takes a fair amount of practice to get the gesture. So what I am hoping to do with this production is get the spirit of the thing, without overworking it and being too fussy."
The original idea has evolved a great deal. The performers will wear contemporary clothes, but Reed will draw their characters in 19th century costume.
It will take some 40 pictures to illustrate the opera, and speedy though Reed is, he couldn't draw them all during the production. So some pictures will be prepared in advance and added to the on-screen presentation.
Director Craig Fields said he's never done anything like this before. It's a hybrid, he said, with elements of theater and an art exhibit.
"We're going to be using lighting in a dramatic way," Fields said. "Trying to balance this with the singers and what Mike is doing is going to be a real challenge, and it's frightened me to death."
And of course there are the members of the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Markand Thackar also in the mix. But everyone seems confident they can get it to work.
Singer Michael Mays has done concert productions of operas before. He admits they can be a little static when compared with the full opera, but he says the illustrations will help.
"When you are seeing something, it really bridges that gap," Mays said. "It allows the audience to sort of lose themselves in the piece without getting caught up in the fact that we are all standing around looking very uncomfortable."
The Duluth Festival Opera performs "La Boheme" at the DECC on Thursday and Saturday this week.
Meanwhile, the singers have moved on to another issue with the illustrations.
"Can we put them on Facebook, that's all I want to know," joked Michael Mays. "Can it be my profile picture? Can we tag ourselves in sketches?"
There certainly will be a lot of them, because even as they speak, Mike Reed is sketching and sketching and sketching.