Hello, everyone! After an incredibly challenging year, culminating in our memorized performance of Path of Miracles, we immediately began our next challenge: staging Path for the Spoleto Festival USA. Simply learning and memorizing the music was an immense journey all its own. We had no idea what the staging was going to be until the last week of classes, when we began our staging work in Princeton. Our director, John La Bouchardière, had previously worked with the choir in 2014 for a production of John Adams’ El Niño. I was immensely excited to meet him and begin the staging.
Before we met, he asked us to create a character that we would portray in our performance. At our very first day of rehearsal, he asked every single choir member to talk about our character and explain why they were going on the Camino. It was remarkable to hear the detailed, specific backstories that everybody had devised for their characters.
Then, we got to work. For the most part, the staging was very general: we had points to hit or big stage pictures to make at certain points, but the focus was on our individual narratives. A note we all heard time and again was, “You have to know why you’re moving. You have to decide to move.”
Fitting our characters into the music was tricky at first. Not only our actions but our singing had to be motivated by our characters. In between periods of staging, we broke off into groups and played games to help with our improvisation and acting. After three long days, we had staged most of the work and were ready to continue our work in Charleston the next week.
When we arrived at our first staging rehearsal in Charleston, we all noticed one thing: the size of the rocks. As part of our pilgrimage, we all carried rocks for the majority of the show. We had been practicing with small bags of sand in Princeton but these in no way prepared us for the size of the rocks. Along with our rocks getting heavier, our rehearsal days got longer.
That first week, all my memories of Charleston are from the ballroom in the Gaillard. Some of the director’s original ideas for the staging ended up not working when he saw them in real life, so we had to rework a lot of the staging. A lot of the staging was done through experiment: our director would suggest something and we would try it; if it didn’t work, we’d try something else until we got it right. The fourth and final movement, in particular, was difficult to stage in a way that did not get boring after too long, since it’s a long, joyous celebration of our arrival in Santiago, the end of our pilgrimage. After a lot of work, though, we had the staging locked in, so we started adding costumes.
The costumes were full of rich, flashing colors and patterns, drawn from the colors of stained glass windows. Many of our costumes came from our own clothes, so we looked like ordinary people who might be attending a concert at Spoleto. These clothes also reflected different class backgrounds of our characters.
As we made our pilgrimage towards Santiago, we shed our bright, colorful outer clothing to reveal simple, neutral underclothes. The costumes aided in John’s broad concept for the piece: no matter our background at the beginning of the pilgrimage, we all realize that we are truly equal by the journey’s end. Like our rocks that we could finally set down, we leave our old selves behind to walk into our new lives.
After several arduous days in the ballroom, we began rehearsing in the concert hall of the Gaillard, our performance venue. Everything felt a little bit different when we went in the hall. The stakes felt so much higher. We did a full run-through of the show for the very first time in the hall. That run-through took an immense amount of concentration and focus, both musically and dramatically. I really can’t overstate how hard it is to sing for an hour in all sorts of contorted positions and delivering a subtle performance of my character’s inner journey, all the while holding a rock!
Somehow, we got through it. Afterward, we continued to work on our staging, tweaking this and polishing that, all for the sake of clarifying the story for the audience.
Finally, we got to opening night. Not only was it the opening night for Path of Miracles, but it was our very first performance at Spoleto this year. We were all ready to share our story with the audience. As part of the narrative that we were ordinary audience members taking this journey, we actually began in the audience! I was seated next to Roy DeMarco, a tenor, and an audience member. I give the pitch to begin the show, so I was the very first person to sing. Let me tell you, it was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life! Normally, we have some distance between ourselves and the audience and other people are singing with us, so making a mistake isn’t the absolute end of the world. Being a foot from an audience member and singing totally alone, however, left no room for error.
After that frightening beginning, we walked onto the stage and began our journey. All through the show, I felt the energy and excitement carrying me along. The hardest thing about performing Path was staying absolutely focused on the music without ever breaking character or losing track of the narrative. It took a lot of energy and focus, but we were able to walk that tightrope and sing beautifully while enacting a powerful story, both as a choir and as individual characters. We end by processing out of the hall, followed by a speedy return for bows. The energy when we walked back into the hall was astonishing. I have never before seen an audience jump up to give a standing ovation! We were all ecstatic that we had performed Path of Miracles, fully staged, for the first time ever.
I was wondering what drew so many people to these performances. Were they coming based on our reputation as a choir, or was it the story of the Camino de Santiago that they were coming to see? After hearing from several people, I think it was both. I was amazed to discover just how many people have made this pilgrimage. Two choir members talked about family friends who had made the pilgrimage, as did several audience members I had the opportunity to speak with after the performance. Although we did not actually walk the Camino de Santiago, staging Path of Miracles was an incredible journey. The level of sensitive acting and performance that was demanded of us for this performance is way above what is normally demanded of a choir. It’s rare that we are asked to be completely individual in a performance, while still singing together. Still, we stepped way out of our comfort zones to bring the audience on a journey with us. This performance was absolutely the most impactful performance I’ve been able to be a part of, not only for the audience but for myself and for the choir. The music was already so powerful, and the staging only amplified that power. Taking that journey, although only a performance, led me to reflect on who I am and who I want to become. I left Spoleto resolving to be kinder and more giving going forward, to help everyone who’s going through struggles. I spoke to a few other choir members and asked them what their thoughts were after performing Path of Miracles. Here’s what they had to say:
“Staging Path of Miracles taught me how to be patient, flexible, and creative. In high school theater, I was used to tons of structure and specific direction when staging plays and musicals. This process was quite different because of the individuality of our characters and the minimalist design of the production. It taught me a lot about the process of stage direction and how to develop my own character. I also learned how to use my voice and body all day without becoming tired. Knowing when to mark and when to sing full out was extremely important to reduce vocal fatigue, and getting adequate sleep and taking meditative breaks helped with bodily fatigue.” – Jess Huetteman
“My biggest takeaway is that storytelling is vital to choral music. Through this process we got to tell the story of our pilgrims through the staging along with the incredible music. This process reminds me that we need to do this with all of our pieces, staged or not, and continue to tell the stories of all the characters and texts we come across as choral performers.” – Scott Aucoin
“Path of Miracles wasn’t a performance, it was a journey and an experience. Our humanity and personal experiences are represented with each of our own individual movements and interactions with each other through this music. It was a chance to represent who we are as people while singing.” – Felicia Villa
Path of Miracles is a performance I’ll never forget. It was an incredible honor to make this journey with Westminster Choir. Really, this whole year was a pilgrimage. We began as strangers, but through our travels and tribulations, preparing dozens of concerts, we became closer than ever, and we’ve each come out stronger, with new resolve for making music and facing the world. I’d like to close with the words of our inimitable director, John: “Whatever their starting point in time and place, pilgrims travel towards the light, peeling back the veil to see the world unmasked. The change is theirs and, ultimately, comes from within: the miracles of the path are the people who walk it.”
Thank you, Westminster Choir, for an incredible journey. Here’s to a whirlwind year just finished and another year of miracles yet to come.