IF YOU GO
What: “Carmen,” Opera Omaha season opener
When: Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Where: Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St.
Tickets: $19 to $99
Information: operaomaha.org or 402-345-0606
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Robert Ruffin doesn't start fights. He finesses them.
Ruffin teaches stage combat at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, but he's spent much of the past month in Nebraska lending his expertise to Opera Omaha's coming production of “Carmen.”
“From the moment the curtain goes up to when the curtain goes down, we want the audience to lose themselves in the story,” said the 49-year-old fight choreographer, reciting a typical theater sentiment. Except for him that means rendering raw and real every slap, beat-down and full-bore donnybrook called for in the script.
One of the most popular of all operas, Georges Bizet's “Carmen” is an uncomplicated story about a complicated relationship. In 19th century Spain, a soldier named Don Jose becomes entangled with an alluring cigarette factory girl named Carmen. Drama ensues. Bizet lifted the story from a novella by Prosper Mérimée, but in doing so he wiped some of the grime off the main characters. The murderous Don Jose became, essentially, an obsessive dolt. The lethally immoral Carmen became subject to caricature: a charming gypsy with hoop earrings, off-the-shoulder blouse and flower in her hair.
Los Angeles-based director Lillian Groag says to hell with that. She wants audiences to sense the danger of Don Jose and the duplicity of Carmen, to see their relationship as the ticking time-bomb it is and to feel like what's happening on stage could spill over into the orchestra. And that means scenes of violence that don't look like grownups playing pat-a-cake.
“One of my pet peeves is opera fights,” Groag said, “which don't look like fights at all.”
Enter Ruffin. A couple of Sundays ago, more than 60 cast and crew members gathered at Opera Omaha's downtown rehearsal space for a day devoted mostly to fighting. Across the floor, bright pink and green tape blocked out areas of set design that will become three-dimensional once production moves to the Orpheum. A minor panic developed when it was learned the building's water had been shut off — dozens of artists, a three-hour rehearsal, zero bathrooms — until the water came back on. Styles ranged from accent scarves to sweatpants. Body types from Pavarotti to Baryshnikov.
The Baryshnikovs stuck together: eight dancers from Ballet Nebraska with terrific posture and few or no shoes. In the middle of the room, Ruffin encouraged them to leave behind their innate tendencies toward gracefulness and get nasty. He led them again and again through their piece of a major fight scene, like a positions coach at a football practice teaching his players their part of an offensive play.
“Right here, there's going to be a huge, writhing mass of people,” Ruffin told them, motioning toward an area to avoid.
The dancers started on opposite ends of the room and collided, one pair in hand-to-hand combat and another wrestling on the ground. After a few times through, it still felt a little too smooth to Ruffin. He instructed them to grunt and growl.
“Remember, we're not elegant,” he said. “We're vicious, angry animals, hungry for blood.”
The dancers collided again, this time filling their room with snorts and shouts. Suddenly, the room came to attention, and the rest of the cast broke into applause.
“All right!” Ruffin said. “I lost 80 percent of the ballet just by getting you to growl. Let's get rid of that other 20 percent!”
After 30 years in the business, Ruffin has tips and tricks up his sleeve to draw the appearance of brutishness from performers. Some are physical techniques, other psychological provocations. If someone isn't giving him the necessary aggression, he said, “I get them mad at me. I tell them they're a sissy.”
Ruffin started “doing fights” when he was 18 years old after he fell off an elevated platform during a production and broke both his feet. “I decided I needed to know what I was doing,” he said, and began to learn more about movement on stage and the precise discipline of theatrical combat.
“It's a discipline of inches,” he said, “and inches can be the difference between someone getting injured and someone doing well on a fight.”
It can also mean the difference between keeping an audience glued to the action on stage and losing them the moment a fight looks fake. The entire production is an illusion, Ruffin said, and “if you're not acting the violence, the illusion dies.”
Later in the rehearsal, Groag, Ruffin and conductor Hal France led the cast through the most chaotic moment in “Carmen” when two groups of cigarette girls spill out of the factory and brawl. The scene begins with an off-stage scream. The two groups rush toward each other. Soldiers arrive and desperately try to separate the two sides.
The first run-through sent a charge throughout the room as women shoved, slapped, punched and pulled hair, or seemed to. All the while, the snarling women sang, loud and angry and beautiful. By scene's end, they were out of breath, and Ruffin called for them to repeat the scene again in slow motion so the assembled crew could see the pathways people took entering and exiting.
“You guys who are pulling girls off and piling them here,” Ruffin said, pointing to a spot on the floor, “instead of piling them by the stairs, you're going to pile them here.”
A few adjustments later it was time to go again.
“All right, full speed everyone,” Ruffin said. “Please be safe. Be careful. Keep your eyes open.”
He returned to Groag's side, his arms folded over his chest. The second take began with less intensity, the singing actors more deliberate and rigid in their movements until Ruffin screamed for noise, and suddenly mayhem broke out, calculation turning to chaos as the women flew at one another, and then, as naturally as can probably occur, began to sing.
When it was over, Ruffin let his arms drop to his sides, looking relieved if not pleased.
The director, Groag, walked to the center of the room, soldiers mingling to the left of her, cigarette girls catching their breath to the right, and smiled wryly.
“Everyone in one piece?” she asked.
Mary Carrick, one of the chorus members at the center of the fight scene, walked away from the rehearsal feeling exhausted yet exhilarated.
“The secret is really to follow the director of the fight and just go for it,” she said. “Your job is to be completely in the moment, full-out, no reservation, yet at the same time being in control of your body.”
She looked over to the spot where Groag and Ruffin had been standing during the fight.
“I wish I could see it from the front,” she said. “It's the most fun scene.”