Few think of opera singers as dancers, even though productions sometimes include a corps de ballet or feature dancing supernumeraries. Rarely—if ever—do the leads dance. But this weekend, a triple-threat of movement, drama, and music arrives as Houston Grand Opera opens a choreographed production of West Side Story, complete with athletic finger snapping for the street brawls and the sprawling, stage-encompassing mambo danced in the gym.
“In the case of doing Jerome Robbins’ original choreography and dance, it's perfect material that's malleable,” says choreographer Julio Monge. “It can work really well in so many setups."
From Monge’s perspective, mixing this style of dance with the medium of opera should not be viewed as two worlds colliding—even if he is working with performers unused to singing and dancing at the same time. “The cast is responding beautifully because I convey the intention of movement by talking to them in the language of acting, which is the foundation of this piece,” Monge says. He incorporates principles from the Stanislavski experiential method of acting—mining sad memories for sad scenes, for example—into the choreography, just as Robbins did.
That’s not to say companies programming pieces like West Side Story don’t take traditionally trained opera singers out of their comfort zones. “You just have to have somebody like myself who understands the motivations of those moves and can help them to adjust, to flex, to develop those ideas in their bodies,” Monge explains. “Once you have the person with the right sense of courage, passion, and desire to make it work, you get really beautiful results because what you get is the heart of the person. You're going to be very pleasantly surprised to see singers like Brian Vu move.”
Audiences who have attended Houston Grand Opera’s previous forays into musical theater know that the level of opulence delivered proves spellbinding. This West Side Story promises to be grand in all aspects, too. “On top of the complete philharmonic sound, you have a level of singing that you don't get on Broadway,” explains Monge. “And you're going to get the Robbins dance really beautifully executed.”
Even after all these years, Monge is still floored by the scale of this effort between the cast, creative team, and crew: “It's a celebration of theater at its most collaborative—it’s pretty amazing.”
West Side Story, April 20–May 6. Resilience Theater, 1001 Avenida de las Americas. 713-228-6737. More info and tickets at houstongrandopera.org.