A week before the opening night of Mannes College The New School for Music’s production of the opera Il Postino by Mexican composer Daniel Catán, rehearsals were intense. Almost immediately after the orchestra began to play, the artistic director of the Mannes Opera, Joseph Colaneri, dropped his baton, signaling the musicians to stop. “Okay, let’s try that again,” he said encouragingly. “We have to get that first note perfect.”
The production was the New York City premiere of the opera (which was first performed by the Los Angeles Opera in 2010) and was also the first time Mannes collaborated on a fully staged performance with students from Parsons The New School for Design. Based on the 1994 film (which drew on Antonio Skarmeta’s 1985 novel Ardiente paciencia), Il Postino tells the story of the unlikely friendship between philosopher-poet Pablo Neruda and a young letter carrier in Italy after World War II.
Led by faculty members Genevieve Jezick and John Jerard and working with Mannes Opera designers Roger Hanna, Alex Koch, and Helen E. Rodgers, Parsons students designed the costumes, props, and intricate projections for the production. The semester-long preparations took place in sites all over New York: Jerard and his students carefully crafted props and simulated projections in his warehouse studio in Red Hook; costume design and fittings took place in the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center. Countless orchestra rehearsals were held uptown in the concert hall at Mannes.
The project was transformative for those involved. “Costumes just bring so much life and passion into the performance,” explains Parsons fashion design student Alejandra Burguette, who has also trained as an opera singer. “Working with the students from Mannes has broadened my perspective as an artist and influenced my creative process.”
The collaboration was also a lesson on working in the real world. “The opera is really a test for how well these students can create designs within the confines of the artistic director’s vision,” says Jerard. “School tends to be an environment where there are no limits or restraints to creation, and that’s both good and bad. But when you’re creating for a client, they have ideas that you as an artist have to adhere to.”
“Costumes just bring so much life and passion into the performance,” explains Parsons fashion design student Alejandra Burguette, who has also trained as an opera singer. “Working with the students from Mannes has broadened my perspective as an artist and influenced my creative process.”
The day before opening night, all parties showed up at the Kaye Playhouse for a final run-through. Fifteen minutes before curtain call for the dress rehearsal, singers were still running up and down stairs to dressing rooms in various states of makeup, and musicians were holding a last-minute practice session in the cramped orchestra pit. Then the lights dimmed, the projection started, and the opera began.
“This is exactly the kind of work The New School should be doing,” says Colaneri. “We’ve accomplished quite a feat here in a very short amount of time.” After all, the Mannes musicians and Parsons artists and designers all played a role in developing the look and feel of the production. “To create one interpretation and vision from all those involved requires intense collaboration and teamwork—giving these students a clear advantage as they start their professional careers.”
The Mannes Opera performed Il Postino at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College on May 9 and 10. Click through the slideshow below for a look at the entire process, and stay tuned for a video about the project.