Three weeks ago the back room at the offices of Opera Naples was study in intensity. Nearly 35 expressions registered deer-in-the-headlights. Mouths contorted into squares, forming syllables that emerged as a dense kindergarten Slavic.
Hands shot up with questions. Pencils scribbled over scores. Chorus director Robin Shuford Frank replayed verse after verse for solid harmony, leading one section through a "di di di" sequence against another intoning"de de de."
Then the singers added the actual lyrics — all of them in Russian.
The Opera Naples chorus was immersed in learning that language for the upcoming concert performance of "Eugene Onegin" at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts May 17. It will be the opera's first performance with the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra and its first — and the orchestra's as well — with conductor Vladimir Lande.
It will be Opera Naples' first performance in the Philharmonic Center for the Arts. And because it is part of the Russian-themed ArtsNaples World Festival, it will be in front of an audience with at least some Russian theatergoers.
No pressure here.
Opera Naples Artistic Director Steffanie Pearce is sympathetic to the language barrier. She recalled, as an operatic soprano, having to learn Russian for a secondary role in "Rosalka."
"It was a nightmare," she conceded. "For a westerner who's studied four Romance languages and German, I found there's absolutely nothing in those languages that can relate to structure and character of the Russian language."
Add to that Frank's lament: "It's Tchaikovsky. It's eight-part harmony, not three- or four-, like other works," she said, raising her eyes skyward.
Still, for the last month she has been carefully drilling the chorus, which will number 72 on performance night, with scores that have Cyrillic as well as phonetic Russian.
Both Pearce and Frank call "a godsend" the arrival of concert pianist Alexandra Carlson, a Russian native who earned her master of piano performance and doctorate in chamber music from the St. Petersburg State Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory. Carlson moved to Naples a scant three months ago and introduced herself to ArtsNaples World Festival Artistic Director William Noll at a party. Within hours, Noll connected her with Opera Naples.
Even better than the fact that she's a classically trained pianist was her specialty: working with vocalists. But the Opera Naples chorus may have voted her strongest suit her patience, as she reformed word after word, until they came forth more naturally.
"Good, good," she encouraged them, pulling her vowels easily from the roof of her tongue, while a few jaw muscles showed the strain of trying to internally imitate her linguistics.
If you go
What: Starring Michael Todd Simpson, Inn Dukach, Buffy Baggot and James Peterson; with Vladimir Lande conducting the Opera Naples Chorus and the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra
When: 8 p.m. May 17
Where: Naples, Philharmonic Center for the Arts, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd., Naples
Tickets: $50 to $95
To buy: Thephil.org or 239-597-1900
This week, reinforcement was expected to arrive in the person of baritone Carl Ratner, a familiar face in Opera Naples productions and a student of Russian vocals. Ratner recently returned from a six-month sabbatical in St. Petersburg, Russia, and has fashioned his own online classes for adapting Russian language to vocals.
"It's a little bit like the French phenomenon," Pearce explained. "You listen to a French soprano singing in her native tongue and you'll notice it's just a bit different from the spoken lyrics. To sing well you've got to modify the language. You can't sing a beautiful high note with a French ending like aaannnnh and expect to hold it."
Sunday will bring the first real vocal litmus test, when all the principals will arrive, including two who are seconds at the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday night.
They will join the chorus, which includes Opera Naples singers, members of the Fort Myers Symphonic Mastersingers and some of Ratner's own singers from Western Michigan University for a week.
Pearce is sure of her singers: Next Thursday night will look and sound considerably more confident than a month ago. And Frank said she's very pleased with her newly Russian chorus: "The last couple of rehearsals we've really turned the corner," she said, adding she will be excited to see the chorus from a seat in the audience next week. "I'm very pleased with them."
She, and they, do have good material to work with. "Eugene Onegin" is Tchaikovsky's best-known opera, an emotional, dramatic tale based on the willful characters and thwarted love stories of the Alexander Pushkin novel. Even those who have never heard its arias before will recognize its waltz and polonaise.
"This is rich music, there's no other way to put it," she said of "Eugene Onegin." "I think the whole evening will be a very rich experience."