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Star-Crossed at the S.D. Opera: Behind the Scenes of ‘Romeo and Juliet’

By this time Thursday night, the stage at the Civic Center will once again be transformed into an outré other realm, this time taking on the streets of 13th century Verona for a dress rehearsal.

But for now, Romeo and Juliet must resign their starry-eyed mooning to The Copper Room, which, despite its resplendent moniker, plays double duty as bare-bones set for the San Diego Opera’s upcoming Charles Gounod production. Last Tuesday, I had the privilege peeking behind its curtain during rehearsal.

“It’s official be nice to actor day today,” publicist Edward Wilensky says as we enter, nodding hello to one practicing outside. “Seeing as they have swords and all.”

The cast is indeed armed - with air-light aluminum swords, no less - and, with a fresh young (mostly) American cast, one of the nation’s most acclaimed fight directors at the helm and a real-life couple in starring roles. They're poised to deliver what the San Diego Opera is calling one of the highlights of the season.

But today, it’s just rehearsal. The mood is calm, boisterous, even, though not without an undercurrent of urgency. The cast – who, upon arrival to San Diego, has around 2 weeks to acclimate to and perfect the production - takes their places. Juliet (played by Ailyn Pérez) meanders toward that famous balcony, for now a makeshift wooden frame. It’s hilariously refreshing to see opera stars in banter mode, breaking from final act librettos to wisecrack and take notes from director Cynthia Stokes, who’s making her local opera debut after stints at the La Jolla Playhouse, the Los Angeles Opera, and Houston Grand Opera.

The real test is chemistry, Wilensky tells me. The stars of the show are usually contracted years in advance - typically, the first time an opera house glimpses how its actors will interact is the day after they step off the plane. But not to worry - unlike their fictional counterparts, this production’s leading roles have fallen to a happier fate.

After auditioning Pérez and Stephen Costello a few years back – separately – the S.D. Opera promptly signed them to their 2010 R&J roster. It wasn’t until a knowing smile from their agent that casting directors realized the two were engaged (now married). The couple, who reside in Philadelphia, are respectively now two of the most hotly-demanded vocalists in the country (I've added a video below the story so you can get a feel for them together).

“This is the future of American Opera,” says Wilensky. “For a house that has an incredible roster of international singers that perform with us on a regular basis, it’s very refreshing to have a young, almost completely American cast (Sarah Castle, who plays Stephano, is from New Zealand). It’s a nice reminder that opera is alive and flourishing here in America.”

Opera fan or not, we all know the story of Romeo and Juliet, he adds. And, all right, lavish sets, bodacious costumes (Men in tights! Huzzah!) and sword fighting aside, I can’t help but notice that they’re all ridiculously good-looking. Hey, I’m a red-blooded American young lady (thang?) myself. Just though I’d warn you.

Back to the “stage,” where the actors are getting a feel for their newly acquired weapons (whose light weight enables them to swish sans exhaustion).

“I really suck at catching things,” says our Mercutio, David Adam Moore, as he misses a pass from his fencing partner. “Just ask my first grade football coach.”

They try again, and once more, until it’s perfect.

The San Diego Opera’s production of Romeo and Juliet debuts at the Civic Center this Saturday, with additional performances scheduled Tuesday, March 16, Friday, March 19, and Sunday, March 21.

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