In most productions of Puccini's maritime opera "Il Tabarro," you do not see a seagull swoop down and mysteriously levitate its way across the stage. Nor do you find singers shifting their balance as a commuter ferry rushes by. But those are the chances you take when you stage Puccini on the deck of an oil tanker.
The Vertical Player Repertory, a small opera company in Brooklyn, is taking the notion of Italian realism to a new level in a new production of "Il Tabarro" ("The Cloak") set on the Mary A. Whalen, a retired 1938 oil tanker docked in Brooklyn's Red Hook Marine Terminal.
During the run of four performances, which begin Friday and continue through Sept. 16, the performers not only must master the vocal and emotional nuances of Puccini's tragic love story – set on a barge on the River Seine in Paris – but they must do so without getting seasick.
"In a normal opera you have so many things – lights, costumes, sets, audiences to deal with. It can be chaotic," says Peter Szep, the company's music director. "On top of that you have winds, boats, tides, helicopters, and just the acoustics of this odd space, which you don't normally have to deal with."
Judith Barnes, a sculptor-turned-mezzo-soprano and founder of the Vertical Player Repertory, says she is drawn to unorthodox venues for their visual appeal. As a student at Indiana University she once sang in a stone quarry. Today, the company performs in her Brooklyn home, a converted factory building near Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal.
Looking for an appropriate vessel, Ms. Barnes contacted PortSide New York, a waterfront cultural group that acquired the weathered, 172-ft.-long tanker last year. The group has been in the process of converting the ship into a floating cultural space. Puccini's one-act opera, with its nautical setting, suggested an ideal match.
"The opera itself is so claustrophobic and it portrays this dramatic world of the waterfront in such a vivid way," Barnes says of Puccini's melodrama. "Then going and experiencing it in a port has been a wonderful experience for us artistically."
Barnes notes that as the production took shape, several longshoremen from American Stevedoring, the port operator, served as impromptu acting coaches, sharing stories of seafaring life and helping the singers mimic their body language.
At a recent evening dress rehearsal, the Lower Manhattan skyline shimmered in the distance while nearby, hulking gantry cranes lifted stacks of lumber onto departing container ships. Behind the dockside seating area, which can accommodate up to 400 audience members, sat an enormous warehouse containing coffee beans from South America. The ship's multileveled deck was strewn with coils of rope, coffee sacks, and drying laundry.
As darkness fell, cast members identified some of the hurdles they face. For instance, staging a knife fight scene is difficult when the tide can raise and lower the ship by as much as six feet. Relentless mosquitoes are another hazard. And despite a steady influx of trendy restaurants and stores, the surrounding neighborhood still feels gritty and somewhat remote.
Nevertheless, the singers seemed to enjoy the setting.
Christian Sebek, a tenor who plays Luigi, says that he finds the dramatic views and open-air acoustics inspiring. "You can have some of the most beautiful halls where you don't get a lot of your voice back," he says. "But here my voice goes out and bounces back to me. I feel like I'm enveloped in my own sound."
"It's mostly a fun adventure," says David Frutekoff, a bass-baritone who sings in the chorus and rides a bike to rehearsals. "After you work on a couple of raked stages this is a piece of cake."
While one accompanist reportedly became seasick in rehearsals, most musicians are unruffled by the rocking boat. "For me as a New Yorker, as a subway rider, it is no problem," says Robert Lewis, a chorus member. "I have my sea legs."