Violent action is as much a part of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” as the famed tender love scenes. When Charles Gounod’s 1867 operatic adaptation of the tragedy takes the stage at Loyola University Saturday and Sunday, there will be plenty of both.
Like many of the great operas in the standard repertoire, the “Romeo and Juliet” story takes place during a time when swords and knives were commonly used in one-on-one combat. In operas featuring swordplay, care must be taken to ensure that none of the participants is injured — while making the action as realistic as possible.
That’s where Erick Wolfe comes in.
Wolfe, a certified theatrical combat instructor, has been working in his specialized profession for 15 years. Over that time he has worked on numerous operas, ballets, live theatrical productions, Renaissance fairs, stunt shows and even on TV and in films.
Gounod’s French language “Romeo et Juliette,” with at least three swordfight scenes, has become one of Wolfe’s staples. He gives onstage combat instruction in an average of three or four of them a year in a wide variety of locations. As a graduate student presently studying stage directing at UNO, his proximity to Loyola, in addition to his skills, made him a logical choice to choreograph the fight scenes in this production.
“We start off with some basic courses on how to handle the rapier and safety issues of that nature,” Wolfe said. “Then, after of a couple of classes of just techniques, we start the choreography where they learn specific moves for their characters and the show.”
The “specific moves” Wolfe referred to include not only footwork and thrusting and parrying with the arms and other essentials of fencing; they also include facial and vocal reactions and acting. The objective is to make the scene look as realistic as possible, while ensuring that no one gets hurt. Although the weapons used in a production are blunted, injuries are still a possibility if the users aren’t trained properly, Wolfe explained.
Wolfe’s job on this production is made all the more challenging by the fact that most of the characters in the show are double-cast. Six different singers over the show’s two-day run perform the roles of Romeo, Mercutio and Tybalt, each of whom is involved in a swordfight scene. There are several other singers in combat roles as well.
“I’m teaching it in two different groups,” Wolfe said, explaining that he is working separately with the Saturday and the Sunday casts. “It’s the same choreography (for each show) but what makes it interesting is when you choreograph for a certain performer’s body type and have to convert it to another performer’s body type.”
While Wolfe’s job is to teach both safety and realism during the show’s rehearsal phase, he is often backstage during the actual productions to ensure that everything goes off smoothly and safely. Sometimes he’s even onstage observing as a non-singing supernumerary (extra) while the action is going on.
“My job is to make the actors’ and director’s vision part of the story that we have to tell onstage,” Wolfe summed up. “We want to make it so that a fight doesn’t break the story. We want it all to be one continuous story. It should not be something that calls attention to itself. Everything must flow together neatly.”
Singing the lead male role of Romeo in the Saturday Loyola production is Dennis Shuman, and on Sunday it is Kameron Lopreore. Mercutio is sung by Dylan Tran on Saturday and Christian Patterson on Sunday. Tybalt is Mark-Anthony Thomas on Saturday and Alexander Sibley on Sunday.
Juliet is sung by Rachel Looney on Saturday and Aurora Foster on Sunday.
Carol Rausch is the conductor and music director. Bill Fabris is the stage director. The 30-piece orchestra is a combination of Loyola students and faculty and members of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. The opera will be sung in French with English translations projected above the stage.