Sunday, and Onward to Budapest!

SUNDAY, 8.11.13

The opera ended up being a complete success! Everyone in Sarospatak showed up for the event. I do mean everyone, it’s not a very large town (there’s even been a population drop from 1980-2011, check out this map. inh/km^2 means body per square kilometer):

I couldn’t take pictures or video during the performance, but it was a beautiful 58 degrees Fahrenheit that night. Our heat wave broke!

On Monday morning (8.12.13) at 4am, I hopped a train from Sarospatak to Budapest. “Hopped” might be the wrong word for it- I got on a train and sat there for 5 + hours. As Mr. Crosse aptly describes in Round About the Carpathians, “in Hungary it is frequently more a question of roads than of actual distance.”

I have more to post on Budapest, including an interesting encounter with both St. Stephen’s Basilica and a sloth at the Budapest Zoo, respectively. At this moment, I would just like to thank a few people for their unwavering support.

My thanks to both the “W&M Mapping our World” Internationalization Grant and the Reeves Center for their generous grants, without which I would not have been able to go on this trip. To everyone I worked with (Hungarian, Italian, American, Finnish, Romanian, Russian, and many more) thank you for making me feel welcome. My sincere thanks to Silvia Nagy for her translation, and Teresa Moyer for being a very inviting director.


Courtesy of The Crescendo Summer Institute Facebook page

Last, but certainly not least, my deepest thanks to Matthew Allar. It was an absolute pleasure to work with Matt, and I learned so much about what it means to be a designer and scenographer. I also appreciate his dedication to making sure I did not get lost at the Keleti train station on Day 1, along with a million other things.

DSC02498 DSC02599

I still have a few more blog posts in me, but for now I hope you enjoy catching up on my adventures in Hungary!

Cultural Differences

THURSDAY, 8.8.13-8.9.13

If I’ve learned anything during this production, it’s that Hungarians produce shows very differently from Americans. Granted, some of that is dependent on the organization I worked with, its funding, the talent, the location, etc.

But much of it can be attributed to cultural differences.

Around 3pm on Thursday, while we were completing the last touches on the set, Mati (our Hungarian technical director) told us he had received a call in regards to the Zempleni Music Festival. The Zempleni Music Festival is a very big deal in this region. Think the end of ‘The Sound of Music.’ Not only do very talented musicians participate, but the Festival itself charges big bucks. The Crescendo Summer Institute, while affiliated with Zempleni (which looks good for both organizations), does not charge admission for the opera.

Mati proceeded to tell us that not only did we have to take down all the lights, but our set pieces, props, and costumes would have to go. The deal would be that we move everything back on Friday, which was meant to be our day off before the opera. However, when it took 3 days to get everything in, and you only have about 48 hours to move everything in and out, this poses a large problem.

I was a little stunned, to say the least. Not because the ‘Don Giovanni’ team wasn’t willing to do the work, but I was confused as to how such a large oversight could have occurred. Surely this hadn’t just been decided? Had it? I found out some information later that clarified the situation:

In a Hungarian email, when one says “there is a possibility,” “it might occur,” or “perhaps,” what that really means is “this is going to happen.” Unfortunately for me, Matt, and my fellow technicians, none of us had made this discovery until after it came time to take everything down. I don’t mean to imply that it was done to intentionally upset us, on the contrary! In Hungary, I’ve been told that when someone cares about you (and does not wish to upset you), they imply there might still be a chance that the worst will not happen.

After having some time to really process the situation, I would say this is certainly the case. There’s also a “what needs to get done will eventually get done” attitude that takes place no matter where you go. This was merely confirmed when I had to go the hospital in Budapest for a sloth bite (yes, a sloth bite). Everything will be completed, it just might take a little longer than you (i.e. an American) would like.

Fortunately for Matt, Kristin (the costume designer), and myself, the Zempleni Festival allowed us to keep our props, costumes, and set pieces at the castle. The lights, however, had to go.

Matt pointed out that Hungarian productions are starting to import more American designers. After observing the lights in the Cultural House, I can see that American lighting design tends to be more nuanced and complex. It’s not just lights up, lights down. Unfortunately, I think this led to another cultural misunderstanding. Many of the Hungarians on the production staff could not understand why taking down the lights was such a huge ordeal. Matt and I didn’t have to take them down, so why was it an issue? Focusing lights isn’t a one-time event, though. Once you move everything out, you must also move everything back in. Stage lights do not work like flood lights, nor are they meant to.  Matt was an absolute trouper on Saturday! He got up at 2am to refocus everything. A big köszönöm (‘ku-su-num,’ meaning “thank you”) to the lighting company as well for their patience.

Friday was much more relaxed than Thursday. I slept a good deal, but was worried because there was a chance that we wouldn’t even get to use our lights. It was supposed to rain Saturday and Sunday! Fortunately it cleared up on Sunday, and the lights were able to stay in the castle on Saturday. One more challenge with working outside: you can’t control the weather. Don’t even attempt to do so.

On the bright side, everyone gathered together at the one restaurant in town opened past 5pm for dinner and reveling. These are just some of the lovely ladies that I had the chance to work with:




Musical Development in ‘Don Giovanni’

As any good theater technician, artist, director, or producer knows, a show is going to shift considerably once you enter Techs. But this experience showed me how condensed the process of creating summer stock opera (if you can call it that) was going to be. Musically, everyone is very talented. But putting a 50-piece orchestra, singers with their own fears and worries (our Don Giovanni was just introduced into the 1st cast the day I arrived in Sarospatak), and lighting/set/prop pieces all between Monday-Thursday makes for a complicated shift.

You’ll move from something like this on Monday (just figuring out the sound in the new space):

To something like this on Tuesday/Wednesday (really digging into the music):

Followed by a complete overhaul on Thursday (with some cues!):

I’m very serious when I say that the time and care put into perfecting the music happens up to the last day. Paolo is an incredible conductor, and his dedication (as well as the orchestra’s) really shows here. He was still fixing things during the dress rehearsal:

Cappuccinos, Egg Pizza, and Stray Dogs


Not much to post for Wednesday, just a few observations. First of all, it is important to keep yourself hydrated, because today in the shade it felt like 100 degrees. As I said before, the work here is rigorous, but made easier by the fact that it is a dry heat. Unfortunately for me, my body is not adjusted to being without air conditioning and dehydration is a real concern. While I almost did pass out working on the columns before lunch, I am very lucky to have member’s of Crescendo looking out for me. There also happens to be one coffee shop in town with air-conditioning that makes a mean cappuccino/gelato/water (when necessary) combination.

As a side note, making an effort to say everything correctly in Hungarian when it comes to ordering tepertos (‘te-per-tus’) and cappuccino counts. The next day you end up with a musically-oriented cappuccino.



Oh another thing. Even stray dogs in Sarospatak like to listen to opera. Like Mr. Black and White over here:


Only in Hungary.


One more point to make is that sometimes you will eat very strange food. I’m taking soft-boiled egg pizza. Many thanks to Matt for demonstrating its finer qualities.



Moving to the Castle

TUESDAY, 8.6.13

What a day! Overall, it was a 15 hour experience, but absolutely worth it. The work day started at 9 am by moving our almost-completed columns across town. Matt and I were a little afraid they might suggest we roll them to the castle… fortunately we not only had a truck, but volunteers to help us move them. This is a step up from moving them with 2-4 people out of a dormitory basement.

The next step was making sure the lighting company was there to set up. They were based out of Miskolc (‘pronounced Mish-colt’), and overall I would say they were pretty efficient. When push came to shove later in the week, they were there to focus and refocus the lights (which I’ll discuss in more depth later in another post).





Here is a picture of Monday rehearsals as well. Josh, our Don Ottavio, was a 28-year-old French-American tenor, and an absolutely stellar singer. Congrats to Josh, by the way, who will be auditioning this upcoming season in the German opera circuit!



Just another image of the stage pre-set pieces and lighting equipment:



Here are two pictures from Tuesday where the preliminary set/props onstage can be seen below. Unfortunately, we couldn’t focus or set any lights until after the rehearsal was over at 10pm. It’s just another challenge when working outdoors. It is so bright inside the castle courtyard during the day that working on lights before rehearsals would be useless. Lighting the stage at a different time of day would also defeat the purpose of having the show from 8-11pm at night. Fortunately, the focus only took a little over 1.5 hours.

The critical elements of Matt’s lighting were visibility and highlighting the space itself. Even with just floodlights (bottom image), the walls picked up light beautifully. Matt decided to split up the footlights, front lights, SR side lights, and back lights into a combination of warm and cool gels. Simple but effective: you get some variety with your lights, but can work within the limited timeline of the show. We also used two spotlights for the signers, just to make sure everyone could be seen.

Below, Matt is focusing strips of LED can lights against the castle wall. The LEDs worked well against the wall because it was so easy to shift colors seamlessly during scenes and set changes. The video below just gives you a little more on the lighting.



Shopping in Sarospatak

MONDAY, 8.5.13

Two things:

1. Having a translator is a luxury.

2. Sometimes, getting your point across means you’re going to gesture a great deal, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Really, that’s the crux of this post. In Sarospatak, I was very blessed to have a variety of volunteers who were willing to translate for me. In particular, Sylvia Nagy was exceptionally helpful. Sylvia was in ‘L’elisir d’amore’ at Crescendo two years ago, and a beautiful soprano opera singer/teacher. She speaks six languages, and is half-Hungarian/half-Romanian. Ms. Nagy made an incredible translator not only because she could read Matt and me quite well (i.e. really figure out how we wanted to say things, not just what we wanted to say), but she’s just an incredible linguist.

Initially, I was terrified that the language barrier was going to be a major problem, especially in Sarospatak because it is so rural. What is discovered is that there is no reason to be embarrassed simply because you can’t speak Hungarian. Granted, you need to know the basics (‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘good’, ‘very good’, and of course ‘bathroom’). But if you act like you know what you’re doing, people will treat you with respect. If you know how to gesture ‘hand stapler,’ that will also get you pretty far in a hardware store-

My hat off to Matt Allar.

I don’t wish to make sweeping generalizations, but I think it’s reasonable to say that Hungarians are rather melancholy as a whole. I heard these exact words said day after day by Hungarians participating in Crescendo; by the end of my time in Sarospatak I frequently observed this just walking down the street. This ended up being useful information.

I discovered that if you didn’t act like a ‘stereotypical American,’ people were more willing to work with you. Many Hungarians I met described Americans as overly-perky, outgoing, enthusiastic, and frequently smiling. It is not necessarily a negative stereotype, but that also depends on which Hungarians you talked to. I would say I’m outgoing, but when the time comes for me to tone it down I can do that. In the end, toning it down and being straightforward was what got me further on the communication front. I even got mistaken for being Hungarian many times while in Hungary, which I find incredibly flattering.

When purchasing items for Crescendo, there is a special process by which you complete the transaction. Any shop owner (and Hospital, for that matter) in Hungary has a special notepad dedicated to government receipts. Since some of Crescendo is sponsored by the government, all the purchases made in the name of the organization must be validated through these government receipts. If you’re buying 600 HUF worth of items (about $2.66) you will get some eye rolls, but so it goes.

I’ve attached some photos below of Sarospatak proper…which means all of Sarospatak. Total, it takes 15 minutes to cross the whole city. 10 minutes if you want to go across the Bodrog River to the next town. But here are a few things about Sarospatak that I found particularly interesting:


There are a lot of stores in Sarospatak dedicated just to produce, most of which have an apricot-colored interior and LOTS of Paprika (peppers galore).


Apparently, you can buy Puma shoes. Even in rural Hungary.


I found the architecture of this building particularly interesting. It is split up into stores and residential apartments. The Cultural House in Sarospatak also had a similar look and feel.


Many of the residential apartments were Soviet Block-era buildings like this. In the suburbs of Budapest, you can also see similar buildings. Sarospatak is a mix of 1530-1970 architecture (with a few churches and older structures from the 13th century). You can get another perspective on Eastern European architecture generated during the mid- to late- 20th century through this blog as well:


More on Sarosapatak as a whole later! Think castles, The Bodrog River…and storks.



SUNDAY, 8.4.13

Sunday, which is always our day off in Sarospatak, provided me the opportunity to go out and explore the region. There were a couple of excursions offered to us through the Crescendo Summer Institute (i.e. the program that ‘Don Giovanni’ came to fruition under). In the end, I decided to go on a wine tasting and explore to Tokaj region, where Sarospatak is located.

Tokaj is knowns for a few major products, as I’ve mentioned before. However, the main export Tokaj is known for would be wine. We traveled to Disznókő, a winery that is over 280 years old. The name, loosely translated, means Boar’s Head (in relation to the rock at the top of the winery). In 2002, the winery became part of the World Heritage Site of Tokaj.

The drive there gave me a much better understanding of the scale of the Zempleni Mountains, and the agricultural significance of the Tokaj region. For the blog, I’ve also been reading Round About the Carpathians, by Andrew Crosse. Interestingly enough, the book still reflects some of the things that I observed in rural Hungary (it was written in 1878). On the soil, Crosse says it is “capable of growing any number of crops in succession without dressing.” From a purely observational standpoint, this is certainly indicative of what I observed on my way over.


(Sunflowers and wheat)


We had a four-course meal when we arrived at Disznókő, with a variety of traditional Hungarian food. Of the food, I would say that rather than ‘heavy’ or ‘light,’ it is ‘substantial.’ My Hungarian counterparts at the festival chose the word, and I would agree. A great deal of it is pork, fried cabbage patties, fish, and fried cheese (so much cabbage and fried cheese. So much). Goose/Duck liver pâté is also something they’re known for, shown here:



The Wine itself is very interesting; both the flavor, and the care that goes into making it. Tokaj has very specific laws that protect the grapes for the wine, and the making of the wine itself. There are 7 types of grapes used, of which the two most common are furmint and hárslevelű  (pronounced ‘Hash-eh-lev-eh-leiu’). These grapes make up the dry wines for the region, taken from full grapes.

Sweet wine is what Tokaj is really known for though, and that is a much more complicated process.  It is called Aszú (pronounced ‘oso’) and it is based on a point system called Puttonyos (‘poon-tai-yosh’). The puttonyos system ranges from 1 to 6, 1 being a little sweet, and 6 being very sweet (they take their sweet pretty seriously). They mix withered grapes with the dry wine in barrels in order to make this type of wine. I’ve actually attached a video below from our tour guide that explains what harvesting grapes in Tokaj is like:

The last type of wine is called Essencia. It is the actually syrup that comes of the withered grapes as they make Aszú. I didn’t get to try any, the reason being that it costs 500 euro ($666.80) for half a liter (16.907 ounces).

Overall, it was a great experience. I acquired an understanding for the cultural significance of Tokaj, Hungary. Wine is a big deal, culturally, socially, etc. Not only that, but on returning to Budapest I realized how much the wine actually goes for outside of Tokaj (let’s just say the price change was significant). So Egészségedre to all my friends out there! (‘egg-eh-sheh-geh-dreh’ meaning “to your health”). If you have any more questions about Tokaj wine, feel free to comment and ask me!

This week

Hey guys! So this entire week has been 12-15 hour days pretty much nonstop. We’ve had to set up, hang, and focus our lights not once, but twice for the entire show, and the opera performance got pushed back a day (both LONG stories which I will go into detail on later). This is the first chance I’ve had to sleep for a little bit so I’m going to take a nap before the show and blog on the way to Budapest, but here’s what you can expect from this week:

Sunday (8.4.13)- Wine in the Tokaj region/Dinner at the castle grounds
Monday (8.5.13)- props shopping in Sarospatak
Tuesday (8.6.13)- moving into the castle/lights/first dress
Wednesday (8.7.13)- finishing the set/second dress
Thursday (8.8.13)- “The Lights Fiasco”/final dress
Friday (8.9.13)- Hungarian culture/Wagner and Jazz/Crescendo Music Institute
Saturday (8.10.13)- Opera Scenes/The Heat Wave Breaks
Sunday (8.11.13)- DON GIOVANNI/To Budapest

All the blog posts may take a few days to get to you because I have a lot of links, pictures, and videos to go with them, but I hope you enjoy!

Working on Opera in Sarospatak

So, I’m not just here for fun, there is also a show going up next Saturday (oh goodness, we go up in six days…). Truthfully, anyone who works in theater will tell you that a few more days would be ideal. But in this case, we really do mean it. The work for the opera happens all over the course of two weeks, plus change. To my William and Mary friends out there, think of it as the Hungarian equivalent of Sinfonicron, except we work in a castle. Which, when it comes to some production values, had its perks.

However, this doesn’t necessarily apply to set and lighting design. Certainly, as I mentioned before the acoustics are excellent, but both creating and moving the set to the castle is a challenge. As of yesterday, the first round of painting on our set was completed.

Working on a set for an outdoor opera provides both the designer (and his assistant), with a variety of challenges. And while it is certainly worth it, here are the things that I think you should know.

    The Challenges with building a set outdoors

1. We don’t have a shop to store set pieces/build in. When the columns for the set were made (which was prior to our arrival), the only place to store them was in a 20th century dormitory on the other side of town. Each column is 10 feet tall, and the largest van we have access to is certainly smaller than that. Think 3 meters total, or a little under 10 feet (again total). Moving them will be an adventure come Tuesday morning. We’re also going to figure out lights at that time.



2. We have limited resources. What we need we must acquire in Sarospatak. Or borrow. Or charmingly request-slash-plead for. When it comes to acquisition, paint shopping can get very interesting. Fortunately, Matt and I had a wonderful translator (a 19-year-old boy named Akos, pronounced “ah-kosh”), who went shopping with us. The equivalent of the Hungarian Home-Depot reminds me a smaller assortment of buildings and warehouses holding bath items, paint, tiles, etc. they also advertise their products in some very dynamic ways-


Cheers, Hungary.

As a side note: in case you have ever wondered how paint comes packaged in another country, they both box (in very light, cheap plastic) it and bag it. They also don’t sell most bags larger than 2.5 liters (about half a gallon). We’re unsure of the reason for this BUT my guess is that it’s easier for people to transport who don’t have cars. In Sarospatak, there are ramps all around town for shopping carts, and many people ride bikes. Also, soviet-era cars are still a thing (albeit, we’ve also seen some lovely Fiats around town). While Lada’s may look cool they are NOT high end. Example:


However, it ended up being useful having the paint in bags. The instructions, interestingly enough came in 5 languages (Russian, Slovakian, Romanian, Hungarian, and one other Matt and I couldn’t figure out), all of Eastern-European derivation….although the brand name was actually an American word (Platinum). Go figure.


3. At least for me, the weather can be rough. It is frequently in the high 80s, of not high 90s, and very dry. At least I can drink 1.5 gallons of water (not even kidding, I did yesterday) and I don’t have to sing. I can’t even imagine in costumes and full makeup how our Don Giovanni feels. Some of us (i.e. Matt) work wonderfully in the heat. But I guess I’m just adjusting to it.


4. Cultural and language barriers. Thank goodness I have people to translate for me, otherwise I would be lost. Most of the older generation here, including many shop keepers, don’t speak English. But Matt brought up a valid point the other day: why would they? Hungary was part of the Eastern Block, and major reforms in Hungary didn’t occur until about 1988.** When they were younger, there was simply no need to speak English, especially in rural Hungary.

**try checking out this book: Crampton, R. J. (1997), Eastern Europe in the twentieth century and after, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-16422-2

I know how to say thank you, no, yes, and very good. 2 words a day, we’re trying.

Don’t get me wrong, I love it here! If anything, I’m learning how to make unusual situations work in my favor. And let’s face it folks, no matter what you do in theater you’re going to have a million things thrown your way at once. You might as well do it in a really fascinating location.

UPDATES (8-5-13): As Matt pointed out, I got some things wrong. 10 feet is equal to 3.048 meter (the Candelabras we needed to transport from Budapest still didn’t fit, I assure you), and 2.5 liters is 0.66043 gallons (so a little over half a gallon).

Getting to know Sarospatak

Alright, so I promised a few blog posts. I’ve decided to start with Sarospatak proper, to give you a sense of where I’m working:

Sarospatak is a small Hungarian town about 3.5 hours from Budapest. Actually, Sarospatak is much closer to the Slovakian border than Budapest. The city is located in the Tokaj (again, pronounced ‘toll-kai’) Region. Matt described it in two ways that I found very effective. First, as a rural Hungarian town where everything closes at 1pm on Saturday and doesn’t reopen until Monday. Second, as the Hungarian equivalent to Napa Valley when it comes to white wine. The exception here being that Tokaj is not only a region, there’s also a city with that name.

Truthfully, when driving in to Sarospatak, I immediately knew I was going to like this place. The region’s main products and sunflowers and white wine, and the field/mountain landscape is truly arresting when you drive by it. Although I didn’t get any pictures when driving in, the first image I’ve attached is a view from my dorm that gives you a pretty good sense of the geography.


Despite a slightly late start on Friday when I got in,I had a pretty good chance to get a look at the town. Most of the activity in Sarospatak occurs along Rakoci Ferenc uta, the “main street.” For someone who’s VERY much a night owl, I’m still getting used to this morning-oriented city. The town bell rings repeatedly at 6am just in case I happen to forget. So far, it seems like the most people are out on Saturday morning, with the town’s population eventually disappearing by 5pm. Only a few places are open after 5 (one small grocers and a few restaurants), but according to Matt the night life has drastically improved from two years ago. More on that in my other posts.

I’m staying in Comenius dorm, which is used during the year as housing for students that attend the teacher’s college here (Reformed Collegium). Apparently there is an incredible library in the college that’s haven’t visited yet…but if you know me at all, you know that it’s on the top of my to-do list.

I have had the chance to check out the Parish Church and Rakoczi Castle. The church is a 15th century, gothic-styled building that actually sits on the ruins of an 11th Century church (the latter church may possibly have been where the noblewoman/saint Elizabeth of Hungary was christened).

Inside the church, my favorite thing (next to the spectacular altar, which I’ll add a picture of later), might have been this advertisement. Relics are. A big deal here:


The Castle itself is…just spectacular. Adjacent to the building is a former monastery-turned-art school. The castle blends 15th century bell tower with 19th century living additions (see my previous blog posts to get a sense of the courtyard, I’ll post pictures of the interior this week). The wall surrounding the castle is pretty much still intact, as well as an outdoor amphitheater that leads to the back of the castle. It faces the Bodrog River, where the town gets it name from (Sarospatak, when translated, means “muddy river”- I actually think the river is quite nice, but you do you Hungary).

Here are a few pictures from the rehearsals during the first day, as well as the castle bell tower/stage that was constructed.




Oh, also an image of the recent excavation they did to the castle, where they located some additional ruins:


As a side note: the acoustics in the castle are spectacular. the way that sounds bounces off of the plaster and stone makes it a perfect venue for concerts. The sound is conducive to performances because of the courtyard, actually. With four flat, well-made, solid surfaces all facing each other, I can hear a conversation from the front of the stage that is 40 feet away.

Obviously I’ll post more on Sarospatak, including pictures and videos, after I do some more sightseeing next week. Based on the nature of the town, I’m guessing that 7am walks are going to become a regular thing.

OH one thing more- did you ever wonder where the ‘baby was dropped down the chimney by the stork’ story got started? Well, it started HERE. Yep, this region started that whole story. How do I knows. Because enormous storks live here, that’s why! I saw a huge nest next to the Reformed Church (the other big church in town). A lot of people don’t believe me, so I promise there are pictures going up!