A production of Aida choreographed by Jessica Lang. Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The Sweetest Choreography Gig You've Probably Never Considered

For many choreographers, opera is a mysterious world. Though operas often employ concert dance choreographers, they operate on an entirely different scale than most dance productions, and pose new challenges for dancemakers. Here's what you need to know to tackle your first production.


How Do I Get Hired?

Seán Curran working on The Daughter of The Regiment, Photo by Ken Howard, Courtesy Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Getting your start as an opera choreographer is often a matter of connections and luck. Jessica Lang, who has directed and choreographed for the Glimmerglass Opera Festival and choreographed Aida for San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera, was recommended to director Francesca Zambello, who hired her for subsequent productions. Seán Curran, whose credits include Salome at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Roméo et Juliette at the Metropolitan Opera, was recommended to a director by a costume designer. "I just met a young Juilliard graduate who is about to choreograph his first opera, because the director liked his dancing and took a risk on him," Curran says. He recommends approaching a director you admire, and dancing in operas if possible.

How Does Dance Function Within an Opera?

Dance can push the story forward in opera, or be just for fun. Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

"There are operas where dance pushes the narrative forward, and others where dance is a divertissement," says Curran. "Sometimes dance is used as part of a character. That's one of the ways a choreographer can be useful to a director: clarifying movement as human behavior."

The amount of dance and the style can vary widely between productions. "In a period piece, you might need to know about historic dance," Curran says. "If it's set in the future, you have to come up with something new."

What's the Process Like?

Seán Curran always comes to opera rehearsals very prepared. Photo by Ken Howard, Courtesy Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

The major artistic difference for concert dance choreographers coming to opera is the presence of a director. Curran suggests arriving to rehearsal very prepared. "I listen to the music 100 times. If there's a book, I read it, and I'll watch other versions to see how choreographers have problem-solved," he says. "You need plans A, B, C and maybe D, and you have to be able to change them because the director may want something different."

Lang stays focused on the director's vision, the story and the music, reiterating that the director, not the choreographer, is in charge. But it's okay to ask the costume designer what the dancers will be wearing, or talk to the technical staff about the floor. "I make sure that the team understands certain ideas could pose a problem for dancing," Lang says.

What's the Timeline?

Operas have longer rehearsal periods than most choreographers will be used to. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Choreographers will need to adjust to the extended timeline—usually around a month of rehearsals, plus tech time—of a much more elaborate production. Huge sets and dozens of cast members can mean operas have extensive technical rehearsals. For concert choreographers used to running through cues right before they perform, this might be a welcome change. Budgets are bigger too. "The cost of a wig could pay the salary for one of the dancers in my company," Curran jokes.

How Are Dancers Hired?

Curran looks for dancers who can act. Photo by Ken Howard, Courtesy Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Regional productions often want to use local dancers so that they don't have to fly people in or pay a per diem, says Curran. During auditions, Curran teaches a contemporary class and may ask to see the dancers do a bit of acting. "You need dancers who are idea-driven, who know they're not the star," he says.

What's It Like to Work with Singers?

Singers and dancers perform together in Rusalka. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Curran attends as many non-dance rehearsals as possible and works to build trust with singers, who, he says, tend to be anti-dance. "If I can convince a singer that in addition to vocal projection, they can have physical projection, I know I'll get more out of them." He also works to understand when the singer needs to "park and bark," that is, stand and sing during parts that require tremendous breath control.

What Can I Learn?

Curran wishes more dancers would see opera. Photo by Ken Howard, Courtesy Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Working within the parameters of a plot-driven show might be a new experience for concert dance choreographers. "When I first came to opera, I had my love of showbiz and my postmodern-choreographer's toolbox," Curran says. "But then I started learning about narrative, character and text. It also helped me think like a musician." He wishes more dancers would see opera, and learn from it. "There's so much to understand," he says. "The theatricality, the scale and grandeur. It's nourishing."

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July 2021