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New Victory Blog

The New Victory Blog is a place to learn more about New York's theater for families and the shows we produce. Find out what we do and what we're passionate about—exploring the arts as a family.

What's that sound? November is International Drum Month, a time to celebrate the huge diversity of percussion instruments from around the world. Percussion instruments are any instruments that produce sound through physical impact—drums beating, cymbals clanking, bells ringing and hands clapping. Along with our singing voices, they're the oldest type of instrument in humankind's musical history.

Through November 8th, Isango Ensemble is on the New Victory stage presenting their jubilant adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Benjamin Britten's Shakespearean opera. Voices raised in operatic song are accompanied by South African music and dance, elevated by percussion all around. The percussionists, many of them also performers, flank the stage and take turns playing multiple instruments. Keep reading to learn a bit about these instruments before you come to see the show!

Marimbas
 
A baritone marimba Marimbas of various tonalities

The first instruments you'll notice onstage are marimbas. Not to be confused with xylophones, marimbas feature wooden bars mounted above tubular resonators, which make their sound more, well, resonant! If you peek under Isango Ensemble's marimbas from the front, you might see them. Nowadays the resonators are made of wood or aluminum, but traditionally they were made from hollowed gourds. Also, where traditional marimbas would have been tuned to play only notes from a specific melodic scale, modern marimbas are chromatic—they feature bars for every note, like keys on a piano.

Just as Isango Ensemble's different opera singers have different vocal ranges (Mezzo-soprano, Countertenor, Bass, etc.), the marimbas they use come in four sizes corresponding to their pitches. Highest to lowest, they are Piccolo, Soprano, Tenor and Baritone, and they're arranged in that order onstage with the Baritone farthest upstage (toward the back) and the Piccolo farthest downstage (toward the front). "What about huge Double-Bass marimbas?" you ask. Indeed! They are the deepest-sounding of all marimbas, but they didn't make the trip from South Africa this time.

Drums
 


Djembe drum Djembe drum with a crocodile carving

You will also hear drums, but these aren't the snare, tom-tom or bass drums of your typical rock band—no. These are djembe drums. Carved from wood and covered with rawhide (often goatskin), djembe drums are quite loud—you won't see many of them on stage, but you'll definitely hear them. While it's the large interior cavity that resonates, the rawhide drumhead is tightened and tuned to a specific note using a series of ropes knotted all the way around. Djembes are a variety of goblet drum, carved with wider drumheads and narrower bases, and resembling a goblet. If you look closely, you may notice lively carvings around their bases—birds, crocodiles, geometric patterns.

CabasaCabasa

When Puck, played by Noluthando Boqwana, shakes her feathery wand onstage, the sound you'll hear is actually coming from a cabasa just offstage. The clacking sound of this handheld percussion instrument comes from a series of ball chains wrapped around a corrugated metal cylinder. Traditionally, like the marimba resonators, cabasas were made from gourds. Just wrap a net tied with small beads or shells around the bulb of the gourd, and use the stem as a handle for shaking!

Fairy Instruments

BroomThe fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream all carry brooms, not just as instruments of magic, but as percussion instruments as well! The brooms sweep and glide across the stage, occasionally smacking it, and all these motions generate swooshes and thumps that add to the soundscape of the show.

The fairies also wear long, beaded necklaces, which softly click and rattle as they move. Puck's costume, though, takes the percussion cake. Her skirt is fashioned from strands of wooden beads, and hung among the strands are wooden kitchen implements—spoons and spatulas—that collide with the beads and give Puck's signature gait a signature percussive accompaniment!

Feet and hands

The oldest percussion instruments of all, and ones that Isango Ensemble puts to excellent use, are our hands and feet. During the show's many joyful dance sequences, the barefoot performers join the djembes in drumming and punctuating the rhythms of Britten's music onto the wooden stage. The stage is inclined and elevated, leaving space underneath for their stomps to resonate (like the resonators under the marimba bars or the cavity under the goatskin drumhead). Resonate they do, and the sound adds a rich vitality to the dancing. After all, dancing's no good without a decent beat!

As for hands, Isango Ensemble leaves that up to you. "Give me hands if we be friends," Puck says, inviting applause from the audience as the show ends. So put your hands together, percussionists, and clap out a celebratory rhythm of your own.
 
 
Kudu Horn Corrugaphone

When you come to see A Midsummer Night's Dream, pay attention to all the instruments you see and hear. The kudu horn and the corrugaphone (sometimes called a whirly tube) lend their unique sounds to the performance, too. They're not percussion instruments—they're winds—but keep an ear out for them anyway!
Posted by Zack Ramadan

You, too, can become an opera fan! Lots of people immediately write off opera, saying that they don't understand it, or that opera's a highfalutin' art form that feels irrelevant. We at the New Vic are rethinking these stereotypes and offer invigorating re-interpretations of classics in our season—Isango Ensemble's adaptation of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream is a shining example of just that! But there are also a number of ways to make traditional opera feel fun, exciting and accessible.

If you and your family will be attending your first opera at the New Vic this month, but are feeling trepidatious about your ten-year-old's reaction to Titania and Oberon, read our Ten Commandments for Watching Opera below. A little preparation will help you to get the most out of your experience!


I. Thou might already be a fan

Opera pops up everywhere—from Skittles commercials to internet memes, so there's really no reason to feel intimidated!

Mozart portrait meme: If you ever feel back about procrastinating, just remember that Mozart wrote the overture to Don Giovanni the morning it premiered.


II. Thou shalt honor the music

The great part about opera is that the music says it all! Even if the set design, costuming or lighting is gorgeous, opera is first and foremost about the music, and painstakingly composed works communicate emotions and story through music alone (the rest is just extra!). As The New York Times put it, "in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first."


III. Thou shalt not worry about hearing every word

Many operas are in foreign languages, but even those sung in your native tongue can be tough to understand. Opera singers do their best when it comes to diction, but part of opera singing technique requires singers to modify spoken pronunciation in order to sound their best (especially on the high notes). Let the music tell the story if you're feeling lost.


IV. Thou shalt not listen to stereotypes

"It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings." Ugh... When you become a fan, you'll realize that opera is way more than some stereotypes make it out to be. The prima donna is not necessarily temperamental—she's just the chief female singer—and her fellow divas may well be humbled by their fame!


V. Thou shalt get to know the classics

As an opera beginner, your best plan for getting to know the art form is to start with the classics. Find a playlist below that we curated, and have a listen. You'll hear favorite songs, many of which we'll bet you've heard before!

 

VI. Thou shalt have an opinion

Sometimes there's the misconception that just because something is lauded as a "classic," you have to like it. Listen to or go see a few operas and decide what you like—a crisp Mozart tune is very different from a undulating Puccini score.


VII. Thou shalt know the singers

It's hard to go wrong when seeing any trained, professional opera singer perform live. But hardcore opera buffs will go to shows just to hear certain singers. Here are a few names to get you started: Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Maria Callas, Renee Fleming, Anna Netrebko.


VIII. Thou shalt know the vocabulary

Here's a list of terms that will help you on your first trip to the opera (click to enlarge).


IX. Thou shalt know the composers

Most of the famous composers that you can name probably wrote an opera, but there were a few that really perfected the medium. While Beethoven wrote one opera, symphonies were more his specialty. Who are considered the best opera composers, then? Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Rossini, and Puccini are recognized as a few of the greats.


X. Thou shalt avoid snobbery

When you've become an opera fan, make sure you spread the love, and help people understand that opera isn't high-brow and stuffy! There's nothing wrong with getting your Wagner knowledge from the Looney Tunes episode when Elmer Fudd sings "kill the wabbit" to the tune of "Die Walkure."
 

Editor's Note: This post was originally written by Hillary Reeves and first appeared on our blog during our 2014-15 Season, in advance of Isango Ensemble's The Magic Flute.
 
Posted by Zack Ramadan
Tags: 2015-16, opera
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