Amid the slot machines, poker tables and exploding volcanoes of the Treasure Island Resort is Cirque du Soleil's Mystere. In a specially designed theater, more than 70 performers dance, twist, swing and maneuver on suspended cubes, Chinese poles, high bars, and trampolines. Music is a constant presence, from the rhythmic pounding of giant Japanese Taiko drums which begins and ends each show, to the melodies that accompany each performer and provide a heightened sense of drama.
Mystere, French for 'mystery,' began its run in Las Vegas on Christmas Day in 1993. Bandleader Jean Francois Brissette has missed only four of the more than 4000 performances since then. Originally the bass player, he is the third person to lead the group of eleven musicians through the 90-minute show 10 times a week.
He says the music, by French-Canadian composers Benoit Jutras and Rene Dupere, is unique in its sound and its purpose. Ranging from new age and pop to operatic, it supports what is happening on stage, while being one of the 'stars' in its own right. "The role of the music in the show? It underscores the action in so many ways," he said. "Whether it's directly with the images we see or as transitional means to go from one scene to another. It's certainly part of the whole sonic landscape. Whether you hear the sounds on stage from the artist but also the fact the music is in theatre that was conceived for the show. We have sounds coming around like a movie theatre you have a surround sound it makes that the music, unlike perhaps a more traditional Broadway score the sound effects and the whole score is really really part of the show. It's a beautiful marriage and they support the act in real time. And therefore, we're able to modify what we play every night depending on what's going on. So that's another big difference."
Bandleader Brissette says his goal at every performance is to provide a "sonic experience" for both the cast and audience. The 11-piece band includes keyboards, a violin and guitars, drums, percussion and singers. Unlike most stage shows, the band is split between two 'lofts' nine meters above the sides of the stage.
After nearly nine years, it's a challenge to keep the production exciting for the band. But Mr. Brissette says the uncertainty of a live performance always keeps things interesting and to help keep the music fresh, he constantly reviews the score. "I put a great emphasis on dynamics in the band," he said. "And every so often it's important to go back and look at the score and ask, where are we with that piece of music. Do we still have the right dynamics for the number? Are we still respecting that? And sometimes it's good to go back and refresh all that. Another reason to change something, is the act may change and may require a different arrangement and that's how we achieve the best marriage between the music and the acts themselves. I'm talking about perhaps a section of an act might be out because of an injury or something like that."
Mystere has been so successful at Treasure Island, that in 1998, Cirque du Soleil premiered another production.
Playing at the $1.6 billion Bellagio Resort is "O". Spelled with the single letter, the double meaning of the title represents the phonetic sound of the French word for water and signifies the infinity of life, which like the letter has no beginning or end.
Unlike its sister production that is centered on an interlocking stage, "O" is performed in a 5.7 million liter pool. Synchronized swimmers and gymnasts are accompanied by another 11-piece band that is also divided between two lofts. Here, though, the musicians are in climate-controlled rooms that isolate the instruments from the pool's humidity.
Like Mystere, "O" is performed 10 times a week, nearly 500 shows a year. This drains many of the stage performers, who are physically exerting themselves with different moves. It also has an effect on the band, especially the singers, like Roxanne Potvin, who has been with "O" since its premiere. She says she survives the grueling schedule by keeping fit off stage. "We probably all have different ways of doing that," she said. "Because mentally, 480 shows a year can be hard - physically, vocally, or emotionally or mentally. So, I myself, try to keep in shape, first of all. Because physically, you've still got to perform every night, vocally - I'm not very disciplined vocally, so I don't vocalize every night, maybe I should do that more often. But, I just try to - I really love my work and I'm not yet tired of signing the same tunes. Of course, some nights, like any other job, you're more tired. But, I know that I really enjoy my work."
In spite of the downturn in the Las Vegas tourism industry after the September terrorist attacks, both Cirque du Soleil productions are playing to nearly full houses.
Mystere, originally booked for 10 years is now expected to continue until 2008. "O," now in year three, is scheduled to run for at least another seven. And even when the productions close, their soundtracks will live on. To date, recording of all of the Cirque du Soleil productions have sold over 2.5 million copies.