By Gary Ruschman
As we count down to the opening of the show, the performers are refining the personality and finer points of movements and musical phrasing. Guided by Penelope and Jocelyn’s integrative and collaborative rehearsal style, the relationship between dancers, band, and singing cast is coming into rapid focus.
Penny’s choreography is physically intuitive, through-composed, and dynamic: it has been a pleasure to build in so much movement into the show for the “singers”—very little has been simplified for the singers, and she has been treating the group as capable dancers. Of course, once movement is decided upon and initiated, the primary challenge becomes one of breath management: keeping the breath low enough to enable healthy singing.
Jocelyn’s music is personal and tuneful. Themes for the personalities in the opera (whether Orville and Wilbur, Katharine, or the airplane itself) weave throughout the narrative, and appear in surprising ways in the string quartet, chorus voices, and in the moments where Katherine sings the story. The performers have had the unusual opportunity to participate in the construction of some musical pieces (including some instrumental playing and consulting on vocal lines). Jocelyn was very open to feedback, so the vocal performances are quite tailored to the individuals in the production.
With all the research we’ve done about flight for the production, it reminded me that some of the principles behind aerodynamic lift are integral to both flight and to singing:
Wings are built into a particular shape, which makes air flow faster over the top than the bottom. Lower pressure is caused by increased airspeed over the top of the wing, so with a higher pressure underneath, the wing is pushed upwards. This particular principle of liquid and gas flow dynamics is named after Daniel Bernoulli who published it in 1738.
For a singer, the Bernoulli Effect is what draws the vocal folds together as air travels through them. This closing creates a pressure. Once they are closed, the air stream creates a pressure against the vocal folds until they are blown apart. As the air rushes through the very narrow opening, it accelerates to get through. This causes a sideways suction, creating a smooth wave pattern that continues till the breath is stopped. (Description source: http://www.yorku.ca/earmstro/journey/phon_phys.html)
While we won’t be singing about vocal cords, the male chorus does get a chance to represent the math behind lift, as the Wright Brothers are depicted struggling with an equation that contained an incorrect variable. When the brothers hit a wall, the chorus is joined by Katharine, who leads the cast in a song about courage, in the vehicle of poetry by Amelia Earhart. This encouragement gives way to the breakthrough the brothers need to create their workable flying machine.