Days and Nights at the Opera (Part I)
Winter has not wrought its harsh attack on Michigan, at least not yet. The closest it came was during the first week in March, when I had nothing to do. Safely nestled in my apartment, fake fireplace ablaze, I continued to cook a healthy lifestyle for myself, trying to cheat as little as possible.
In the meantime, there was one final subscription week at home. For two months I had to be replaced by substitutes. This time it was Jimmy Galway’s turn. Seems he had fallen down a set of stairs in Lucerne and broken both of his arms. Screws were put in to stabilize things and it looked like recovery would get him to Detroit in time for the March appearance. But a screw came loose (insert own joke here) and he simply could not be ready in time to support the instrument, subsequently resulting in his cancellation. We were all saddened, me for personal reasons as well as musical.
The day after I heard the news, I wrote to Marina Piccinini. We had only worked one time together, about 14 years ago, but I knew that if she were free, she would be the perfect replacement. The piece was Corigliano’s Pied Piper Fantasy, a work requiring consummate skills and virtuosity. Marina delivered on all counts. The audience fell in love with her and although every one wished Sir James, the flutist (in his words, “I don’t play the Flaute”), the very best, no one came away disappointed.
About 65 young people, mostly students of flute teacher Barbara Ogar, aided us in this venture. They play an important role near the end of the piece, when the piper summons them and leads the kids out of town. With plenty of dramatic flair, they marched down the center of Orchestra Hall, made their way onto the stage, played and acted as mesmerized young people, and were then last seen heading out of the hall onto Woodward Avenue.
Two other classic American scores made up the first half of the program. Opening with the West Side Story Dances, we got the audience snapping fingers and shouting “Mambo!” At one point I was struck by the similarity between the first three notes of “Maria” and the opening of “The Simpsons.” Realizing that Marge is not from Puerto Rico, I got my head back into the job at hand.
Following the Bernstein, we continued our season-long tribute to Barber. In actuality, our performance of his First Symphony came one day after the date of his 100th birthday. What a glorious piece of music, possibly his finest orchestra work. And the nerve to cast a last movement in e-minor as well as making it a Passacaglia!
At the end of the week, I was invited to conduct something called the “Motor City Festival of Bands.” This consisted of five local ensembles, all community-based and not high school, who love the Brass Band literature as well as concert band works. Each group played three or four pieces on its own, and each performed remarkably well. Then I led a combined set of forces, approximately 294 players, in Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral from Wagner’s Lohengrin and Anderson’s Home Stretch. It was a lot of fun, and I was reminded that we have more music than is really known about in the Detroit area.
Yes, everyone is aware of Motown and the Symphony and the Opera, but the sheer number of active ensembles who bring a distinctive and high quality to their performances is amazing. The house was full for this event. The pride that each community ensemble brought to the stage was evident throughout. It is impossible to think of any element of performance culture disappearing while there is so much joy and enthusiasum out there. I am certain that many areas of our country have something similar, but on that day, I knew there was another reason to be positive about Detroit.
Immediately following the concert, it was time to leave and head to New York. A new project awaited: The Met!
Most of you know that I do not perform a lot of opera, so venturing back into the pit was a major event for me. It is not for any specific reason that I am reluctant. No, I really look forward to it. But from the time when I was very young, I was exposed to the world of the string quartet on a daily basis. When you hear the masterworks of that genre, performed endlessly in your house by great musicians, almost every other music pales, whether it is symphony, opera or song. To my mind and ear, there is simply nothing that compares to the musical sophistication of a late Beethoven, Bartok, Schubert or Brahms work for minimal forces. It is as if each composer reached back for something special and a spiritual guide took him or her to places they had not visited before.
Plus, there seems to be some mutual exclusivity between chamber music and the stage. With the exception of Mozart, and possibly Britten, no composer has written successfully for both. And I do not mean those composers who wrote just one work in either genre, such as Beethoven or Verdi. There are no great operas of Schumann, Brahms, and so many others. And no significant output of chamber music by Wagner or Puccini.
So why would I pick La Traviata, of all works, this time?
At first, it was not my choice. Originally, I had been asked to conduct a revival of Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles. This is an opera that the Met premiered a while back, and that I had conducted in Chicago. Our cast was to have included Angela Gheorgiu, Tom Hampson and Kristen Chenoweth. But the budget devils had their way with this and decided that it could not be afforded. The curtain came down and Traviata was put in its place. Angela and Tom stayed but Kristen went over to Broadway to do Promises, Promises.
At first, I said I would not do the switch. After all, this is an opera I had never conducted and the first real repertoire standard for me at the Met. But after a while, I concluded that since everyone else in the house knew it, I would learn a great deal from the masters. There was a lot of digging for me to do. I consumed books about the composer and the work’s history. Listening to a few recordings was helpful but confusing. What constituted tradition and why? This was a question I would ask often during rehearsals.
So rather than summarize, I kept a daily record of how it all came together.
March 15: Every week, the Met posts a schedule for the artists, stagehands and virtually everyone involved in any production that will take place. There is one for the whole week and daily updates that are given out at the stage door when you depart. We were slated to begin piano/staging rehearsals two weeks prior to opening night. That is about normal for a standard repertoire opera. A new production might begin four weeks or more before the first performance.
In our case, the Traviata is the tried and true production of Franco Zeffirelli, one that is traditional. These performances will be the last time it is seen here, at least for the time being, as it will be replaced by a new, minimalist version next season. This is a sticking point with me, since one of the first items in the printed score clearly states that the action takes place around 1700 in and around Paris. So I guess it would be all right if I changed the opening key to A-Flat major instead of the printed e-minor. No, I will not write another fake news item.
There were greetings at the stage door, which was harder to find this time, as there is a great deal of construction going on at Lincoln Center. Twelve years ago all I had to do was walk past the stage door of Avery Fisher Hall, enter a garage and the entrance was easy to spot. Now I had to either go down Amsterdam Avenue or enter the front door of the Met, down a couple flights of stairs, outside again and then finally arrive.
After being welcomed, getting a security pass, receiving a packet, shown the conductors’ dressing room and given a little tour, I arrived at the orchestra rehearsal room. This is where most of our staging rehearsals will take place. Every day starts at 11 a.m. for us, with the printed schedule being followed almost to the letter. If we are doing Act one, Scene 4, it is written exactly how long this will take and who is needed.
At this point, we learned that Tom Hampson had bronchitis and would not be around for several days. Seems that he was ordered by his doctors to stay in Vienna until he was better. But Angela Georghiu is in town and expected a bit later in the day. The Alfredo is James Valenti, making his Met debut. There are also covers, those people who will take over if someone is ill. In most cases, they get to sing one performance but it is a really thankless role.
I have a staff of two other conductors, a prompter, in this case the redoubtable Joan Dornemann, and a pianist. We have a lot of time on our hands while the director positions and places the cast in various spots on the stage. Good stories abound.
It seems like I am the only person who has never performed Traviata. This causes some raised eyebrows but Joan assures everyone that a fresh view of the piece is what is needed. As we progress, it is possible to discover what traditions make sense and which ones might be subject to debate. An accent here, dynamic change there, tempo shift in this place, even the occasional questionable note. It is all very instructive.
We decided not to do an outright musical rehearsal, one that would simply be a run through of the work with piano and no action. It seemed more efficient for me to listen as we did the staging. Sometimes the nature of an action will alter the tempo, breathing or phrasing of a particular passage. For example, there is a moment in the second act when Alfredo picks up Violetta and spins her around while he is singing. Clearly there must be some adjustment to allow the voice to cut through while his back is to the audience. And it was also important to listen how the voices interacted with each other. With Tom out of the picture we did not get a chance to do certain crucial moments in the 2nd act. But as the day ended, I was starting to get a good idea of where we were all headed.
That evening, my brother put together a tribute to our mother. He had a number of video clips and pictures, all of it presented to the Cello Society. The two of us played short pieces by Ravel and Korngold. It was a lovely event, but there was one photo of our mom in which she is seated with her cello, an expression on her face that could only be described as pure Eleanor Aller. When I saw this picture, about 40 years of therapy was dismantled.
March 16: Today went in a similar direction as the day before. We reprised a lot of the 1st act and moved on to the 2nd.
For those who wonder about all the stories of temperamental divas, both male and female, it appears that there will be no fodder for the rumor mill. Angela is a delight to work with, exhibiting a consummate knowledge of the role and what she wants to do with it. We had not done the “Sempre Libera” yesterday, but she wanted to go through it and did not hold anything back. When it ended, all of us broke into an ovation. It was not just about the vocal agility and sound, but truly a portrait of a young woman who believes in her freedom. This was an unforgettable moment.
James Valenti will make a striking Alfredo. He looks just right for the role. And he has done it a number of times, just not at the Met or in this production. I would imagine that his only problem might be when we first get onto the stage next week. It is such a huge space that it is very possible to over sing and not save enough for the end of the opera.
Zeffirelli is not here. This is normal for a production that has been in the house for many years. Another director basically works from all the notes of prior performances and follows those instructions. That person literally has to know what everyone is saying and where he or she is both on and off-stage. And of course they must accommodate the different vocalists as not everyone can do all the same moves as the last person in a production. All of the singers seem to be in great shape physically so there are no issues in that area.
Rehearsals go for three hours and then there is a break. Lunch is sometimes spent in the canteen. When I was here doing Samson and Delilahsome 12 years ago, the food was quite good. Now I mostly go to the salad bar. And the prices have increased, so it is just as easy to go to a restaurant across the street. What makes the cafeteria fun is that you run into people participating in other productions. One can sit with stagehands or chorus members. It is a great equalizer.
In the afternoon we had a surprise visitor. Having just undergone colon cancer surgery, Placido Domingo decided to make the rounds and assure everyone that he was doing well. We commiserated about hospital food. But it was great to see him up and about. He was in the other two productions I have done at the Met. We both agreed that Traviata is a work that might have a future.
Sometimes the discussions with the musical staff are truly fascinating. Being somewhat naïve in this repertoire, I asked why the off-stage instruments, called the “banda,” were not specified in the score. There is only that word without clarifying who actually plays. It seems as if no one has asked this question before. We checked with the orchestra personnel office and found out who is hired for this set of performances. Our best guess was that in Verdi’s time, there was a group that covered this. It might have simply been whoever was available in the opera house. Most certainly it has its origins in the folk or popular culture. Further investigation is required here.
The majority of Act 2 was now set and we only needed to see what Tom would do with it. Of course it was not clear exactly when he would be showing up. Because we really don’t have a lot of time to put the whole thing together, our rehearsals are quite compact. Sarah, our director, will take the singers through a scene without the music, basically acting it out for them. Then we will do it again, adding in the piano and vocal lines. We try not to stop. When something goes awry or needs clarification, we usually wait until the scene is over to fix it. If there is a musical question, I will simply go up to the singers involved and ask them what they are doing. The only real conflicts are between James and Angela, and this is usually about the basic tempo for the pieces where they sing together. We discuss whether the two lovers should be in sync the whole time or perhaps see the same phrase in a different manner because of their varied life styles. This can be another good point for discussion. So far, I am trying to have them stay in the same tempi as much as possible and let the dramatic action show the contradictions.
But again, as with yesterday, no real problems and we are all getting along fine.
As I left the rehearsal room, we heard the familiar voice of Placido down the hall. He was in another room and I stopped in to say goodbye. He was chatting with Renee Fleming, who is rehearsing Handel’s Armida. There are days when star gazing is fun. She is in great spirits and seeming to enjoy this unusual venture.
As for me, I also stayed very optimistic. The sound and style of the Verdi was coming together in my head. It was no longer a stranger to me.
March 17: Another day in the Orchestra rehearsal room. Another day without Tom Hampson. We are told that he will arrive tomorrow and come to the “sitzprobe” the next day. For those of you unfamiliar with that term, it translates as “seated rehearsal,” one in which the orchestra is present and the singers simply go through it without stage action. Kind of a concert performance.
In place of Tom we have Dwayne Croft, another veteran of the house and a person who also would have been in Ghosts. So now at least, we get to see and hear some of the music in the second act that was not done the first two days. Dwayne sounds terrific and if somehow Tom does not make it, we will still be in good shape.
These rehearsals went quickly and they ended early. During the second one, we got around to the last act and here was where we had the first confrontation about a staging direction. As in La Boheme, the heroine dies of consumption – tuberculosis. In Verdi’s case she belts out a high B-flat before expiring. Zeffirelli has Violetta cling to Alfredo and then collapse on the floor. None of us liked it. It did not seem to convey the aristocratic nature of her courtesan life. We could not decide if her head should wind up in his lap, which side of him she should be facing, and what his reaction should be. It is critical that this moment, done without singing, be tremendously powerful. I pointed out the moment we hear the chord when Alfredo actually realizes that she is dead, and thought about his character. He has been through a lot of turmoil during the course of the opera. But he is young and clearly does not understand what is going on. I felt that at one point, with him holding Violetta’s head, he should look up, asking God why this has happened, and then back down. Yes, a little bit cheesy, but that is probably what he would have done in the play. Not sure how this will turn out.
There was gossip in the canteen, as a replacement soprano has been brought in truly at the last minute for a role in Thomas’ Hamlet. All did not go so well at the dress rehearsal and there is nothing much that can be done. I just shrug my shoulders, knowing nothing of this opera or its requirements. The Armida has six tenors. There is a joke in there someplace.
The weather has been extraordinary and we are all anxious to end as early as possible to take advantage of the warm temperatures. A walk up to 78th street and then across Central Park to the east side. Back up to 59th and around to 66th and Broadway, where I am staying. Good for me. A couple miles. Maybe this will constitute the exercise regimen as long as the weather cooperates.
In the evening I went to Carnegie Hall for a recital by Emanuel Ax and Dawn Upshaw. There are celebrating centenaries of Chopin and Schumann and trying to draw connections between their musical worlds. To honor this, we were treated to 7 songs by Chopin. Now I know why they are rarely performed, Even in the best of hands and voice, they just do not work well. Some are attractive while you are listening, but they are quickly forgotten. The remainder of the program was excellent.
March 18: Another beautiful day out there. We all thought that the rehearsal should be public and done around the fountain in front of Lincoln Center. Still no Tom. Angela was tired and decided not to come in. So we just worked a bit with the alternates and smaller roles in the cast. Afternoon rehearsal was cancelled.
That evening, I went to a concert by the NY Phil. Christoph Eschenbach was the conductor and Pinky Zukerman was the soloist in the Berg Concerto. The program opened with a new piece by Matthias Pintscher. Although very well orchestrated, and not too long, I found myself reflecting on the state of orchestral composition these days. Not being able to attend so many concerts has limited my own exposure to the actual listening experience. But it is becoming clear that there are a number of talented composers who simply do not exhibit traits very much different from those who have come before.
When is the last time any of you have left a performance and said to yourself “I never heard anything like that before,” at least in a composition. Probably not too many of you. But that can also be a good thing. If a composer is gifted, he or she will find those combinations of sounds and notes that shine a different light on the familiar. Another question worth considering; when hearing an established piece of the repertoire, “Why does this sound like – Beethoven, Mahler, Ravel, or whoever?” Then, when encountering a new piece, ask the same question and substitute the name of that particular composer. All too often we read about the techniques that are employed in writing a work, but rarely do we see anything about how they are used in a unique manner. We must remember, however, that it is very difficult to describe how something sounds.
None of the above is really meant as a criticism of the Pintscher work, just an observation that occurred to me as the work progressed. As at the recital the previous evening, where there was also a new work, I was struck with how older elements were manipulated. The piece was by the pianist Steven Prutsman and centered on piano lessons. It began with five-note exercises, moving into a Debussy Etude style movement. And so the piece continued, with much clever vocal writing and commentary from the pianist. Again, well put together but without that moment that told us about the individual voice of the composer.
Perhaps we can learn something when looking at the masters and their contemporaries, those who wrote in a similar manner but did not break new ground. There is probably a reason that Mozart, Schubert and Elgar, among others, had rivals but no equals. It is that level of genius that separates them, the part that cannot be put into words. I don’t know much about Verdi’s peers, but clearly he was the one who was given the gift. There was a time when I had little enthusiasm for this composer, but delving into his life and works has turned me 180 degrees. How groundbreaking it must have been, but at the same time reassuring, when Traviata first appeared. New territory ensconced in the old, both comfortably working together.
March 20: It is the first rehearsal with the orchestra, and I will only see them two more times before opening night. Upon arrival in the orchestra rehearsal room, one finds that most things are set up as close as possible to the actual way it will be when we get into the auditorium. The podium is quite elevated, the orchestra is seated in the same configuration as they will be in the pit, and the singers are located behind, to approximate the distance between them and me.
There are only a few musicians who I recognize from my previous appearances. Why is it that as I get older, the players get younger? After an initial greeting, we start right from the top. I always have a game plan for each rehearsal. In this case the idea was to play through each scene and only comment on a few things. During the Prelude to the first act, many of the details that I had noticed on recordings were present. Realizing that my credibility as a Verdian might be questioned, I decided never to reveal that this score was new to me. There were no references similar to “I know this is what you usually do but I would like it played this way.” It seemed better just to say what I wanted and sometimes explain why.
So no extended fourth beat or strong accent in the third bar. The main section accompaniment does not start loud. Same thing for the tune. The score says ppp and con espresione so why not play it that way? Joan Dornemann was smiling during some of these moments and I think that was a good thing.
Most of the time, I felt quite comfortable with the work. But every so often, I forgot about a ritardando or a spot where the singers might need a bit more time. Tempi seemed right and the dramatic flow felt good. We had been informed, just before the downbeat, that Angela would be filling in the next day for Anna Netrebko in La Boheme. The Russian star had become ill. Talk about luxury casting! It would be fun to be at the show when General Manager Peter Gelb walks out and tells the audience that the soprano they all came for is not here, but Angela will take her place.
Fully expecting that she would not be at our rehearsal, we were all surprised when she bounced through the door, all bubbly and happy to be with us. Tom Hampson arrived as well, fresh off a plane from Vienna and looking quite well.
We got to the second act and all of us realized that we had not covered much of this music since our Germont had not been around. So it was very much a sight-reading festival, with Tom giving me subtle indications of where he wanted time and, in other places, to move forward. He sounded great and there was a true connection between him and Angela. This will probably be the most powerful scene in the production.
As wonderful as it was to have the whole cast, I still had not seen the chorus and today was no exception. Earlier I was told that in some cases they did not show up until the dress rehearsal. It is still not clear to me when we will have them with us. The same goes for the “banda.” For this rehearsal, the parts were played on the piano.
In performance, the work is in three acts with two intermissions. At rehearsal, there is only one ½ hour break in the middle. We had decided to do the first act, jump to the second scene in the second act and then take the interval. After snacks, back to the top of Act 2 and then the last one. We did not stop too often, just enough for me to make some points and rehearse what I felt was needed. The last bar sounded with three minutes to spare. Now I was trying to figure out how long the show actually runs. Checking the Met schedule, I noted that when we start at 8 pm, we are supposed to finish at 11:05! I will try and end at the three-hour mark.
Last week, Alex Ross delivered a lecture in London. He advocates applause during the course of a concert, not just at the end of works. Of course this is what was done for most of music history before the mid-twentieth century. And it has always been the case in opera. For this set of performances, I will need to know where to expect an interruption and when to just keep going. Most of the time, it is fairly easy to guess, but with all the musical stops and starts between scenes, one can never know. However, there are many places where the drama could come to a grinding halt because of the audience. Clearly Verdi built in where he thought applause was appropriate. We just don’t know where he did not want it.
Since Angela was now involved in a performance the next day, and all we really had to do were the scenes with her and Tom, it was decided to cancel the remaining rehearsals for the day as well as Saturday. The weather was still cooperating and we were all happy to agree. So nothing until we get on the stage Monday morning.
There is one week and four rehearsals left before the opening.
To be continued …