We had our first day of rehearsal today for this year’s NYFOS@Juilliard show, Cubans in Paris. It’s a tricky process: more than half of my cast is also rehearsing The Mother of Us All by Virgil Thomson, scheduled for performances at the Metropolitan Museum in early February. I cannot imagine what it feels like to alternate the chilly austerity of Gertrude Stein and Maestro Thomson with the pulsating heat of Cuban rumbas and habaneras, but that will be the drill for five out of my eight singers. They’re troopers.
Today and tomorrow we managed to get all eight performers for the entire day, so we are doing our best to stage as many of the big group numbers as possible. “We” in this case means the director, Mary Birnbaum, the choreographer, Adam Cates, and my two side-men: Shawn Chang, a gifted grad student who is my assistant and second pianist, and Leonardo Granados, my ace percussionist. Adam began the day by teaching everyone the basics of Latin dance—rumba, cha-cha, salsa. Adam is a force of life. He worked six solid hours without show a sign of fatigue or impatience. I flagged around 4 PM, but neither Adam nor Mary flickered for a second.
I try to keep out of the way when the songs are getting staged, only piping up when I think something in the lyrics could be put to good use—or if I find something jarring. I want to lend wisdom and decades of experience to the process, but I always fear I might come off as a fuddy-duddy. I am very aware of being a fair amount older than anyone else in the room, and my frames of reference can be a little different from theirs. I needn’t have worried. Adam and Mary welcomed my comments and found ways to incorporate all my suggestions.
It’s a joy to watch these eight opera singers cut loose and do some serious booty-shaking. There was a lot of joy in the room all day, but especially when Jaylyn Simmons worked on her second-act solo “Palmira.” In life Jaylyn is cooperative, hard-working, level-headed, humble. But this fabulous song by Moisés Simons allows her to be someone else—an aggressively sexy, vain girl hypnotizing a chorus of men into submission. It was a treat.
Pictured: Olivia Cosío, Kyle Miller, César Andrés Perreño; Ian Castro, Aaron Keeney, Santiago Pizarro, and Joyce Kang; Jaylyn Simmons learning to do a Cuban fan dance from Adam Cates.