Days and Nights at the Opera (Part II)
March 22: It was a dark and dreary day in Manhattan. The beautiful spring weather of the last week is a thing of the past. Rain and wind took its place. This did not forbode well for the second week of La Traviata rehearsals.
I arrived at the Met in plenty of time to figure out that the pit was just a few feet away from the dressing room. As opposed to concert halls, all the conductors share one space, but we each have individual lockers. It is as if we were preparing for a sports event. I suppose that in a way, we are, but we don’t compete against each other. Well, most of the time anyway.
Today’s rehearsal is the first of two that will be with piano and most of the stage sets. The singers are not quite in costume but some are trying on the outfits to see if they fit. It is also helpful for them to get used to moving around with these on. The schedule only has us down for two-and-a-half hours, rather than the usual three. And the break time will be 30 minutes, as opposed to the 20 we took when we were in the orchestra rehearsal space. This must be done to accommodate the stagehands union.
We started with the second act. It had not yet been staged, as Tom Hampson only arrived for the sitzprobe last Friday. Since most of the action revolves around the three principal singers, there was not too much to do. So we were able to get most of it finished in a short amount of time. It feels strange to have the entire set, soloists, be in the pit, but just have a piano. That instrument is amplified so the singers can hear it on stage. At one point, Angela Gheorgiu asked me to make sure that one of the numbers began a little louder than usual, as she will be upstage (downstage means near the pit) and might not be able to hear the strings clearly enough. The orchestra is not amplified.
However, there are video monitors on either side of the stage as well as a couple more in different locations. These are for the times when the singers are not able to see me directly by looking in the pit. It is also how the off-stage conductor of the “banda” will get the information about tempi, and coordinate it with my beat. I had not planned on conducting these spots, but now I will, to help keep everyone together.
The chorus master stopped by to check on how things were going. This ensemble will be around tomorrow, the only chance I have to work with them prior to the Wednesday rehearsal with orchestra. We spoke about the beat patterns that I will be using. The vocal forces need to know whether I will be in two or four in a couple spots. There is one tempo transition that is difficult, because of the placement of the chorus on stage. Not much I can do until we actually try it out.
After the break, we have just 35 minutes to do the last act. This portion is divided into two parts, with a scene change coming about 12 minutes in. There is a mechanism that involves elevators, making it possible to do the switch in less than a minute. Today, the machine was broken and the stage crew had to do it by hand. It was an amazing sight, watching these guys move huge, bulky pieces of scenery so quickly. We finished right on schedule.
It dawned on me that tomorrow is primarily to rehearse the parts that we did not get to this morning. Since we have the orchestra on Wednesday, and one final rehearsal on Thursday, there is no “Piano Dress.” This would normally be where we go through the whole opera, costumes and all, but without the orchestra. In effect, I will only have one opportunity to go through the work from beginning to end.
As we ended today, I felt very good about how everything was progressing. Verdi is starting to feel like a good friend now, and I found myself humming tunes from his other operas. All of a sudden, this composer has captured my imagination. During one of the pauses for stage direction, the musical staff members and I discussed portions of Traviata where the influence of Brahms might be felt, how Verdi moves through the different keys, and which words are highlighted with a musical punctuation. Could Trovatore, Otello or Falstaff be next? Would I finally succumb to the lure of composers for whom I previously had little sympathy, such as Bruckner? How wonderful to be reminded that music is a never-ending learning and growth process.
March 23: This week parts of the Lincoln Center construction have been opened up to the public. There is a new walkway in front of Avery Fisher Hall, lights have been put on some of the stairs, and Juilliard has a more contemporary feel to it. To a certain degree, there is a dichotomy between the time I walk from the modernist look of the outside of the Center, to the drawing room set of the first act of Traviata.
It is day two in the pit, still with piano. But lo and behold the chorus is here! Most of the sets are in place, at least the part that the actors are on, with the area above them still needing to be filled in. Above the first act parlor are the sets for The Nose, an opera that will be presented that evening. One can see the wear and tear the years have taken on the Zeffirelli production of Traviata, but nothing that a little bit of paint wouldn’t cure. And the size is very impressive. If Violetta had actually owned a house like this, she would have gotten a lot of money for it when she has to sell the place. Yesterday, the first phase of the government health care passed. We wondered if our heroine would still be alive if she received these benefits. Perhaps a modern staging of the opera might be interesting, but I find the ethic of the work quite specific to the time and place where Verdi has indicated.
Most of the rehearsal focused on the portions we did not do the prior day. For the first time since we began, the bulk of the cast is on stage but they have the least time to get familiar with the production. Several of them have done it in the past, especially the dancers. Ballets in opera are a long-standing tradition and it was only a clever composer, such as Verdi, who could figure out how to insert this without disrupting the story line. In the case of the second act, which takes place at the home of Flora, Violetta’s friend, the occasion is a party. So she has all kinds of folks around.
We have matadors, gypsies and people dressed in bull costumes. Good thing that the matadors don’t turn around to see them. The two solo dancers are wonderful. The one doing the Carmen impression plays a mean castanet. Sarah, our director, does an amazing job of placing everyone, as well as instructing them on how to behave. There must be about 60 bodies up there, and each one tells a different story. I feel that it is in scenes such as this where going to view an opera in the movie theater is just not satisfying. If the director has gone through all the trouble to fill the totality of the stage, the audience should be able to pick out what they would like to look at. Isolated cameras on the soloists just do not capture the intention of the person responsible for what is happening.
One very good thing about piano rehearsals is that it gives me the opportunity to really see what is happening. Our pianist is terrific, and much of the time, I don’t have to really “conduct.” Giving the singers cues, setting tempos and shaping the phrases is enough. We do not have the 65 or so musicians in the pit, so eye contact downwards is not needed.
At the end of the rehearsal, one of the music administrators, Craig Rutenberg, came down to talk to me in the pit.
“Are you planning to stop during rehearsal tomorrow?”
“Well, it is my only chance to fix things, as the dress rehearsal is the day after,” I replied.
“You know that there is only three-and-a-half hours of rehearsal. You cannot go overtime. And we tend to clock the show in at a little less than that.”
“So, you don’t want me to stop?’
“That would be greatly appreciated.”
For the first time so far, I get a little apprehensive.
That evening, I have my first rehearsal with the students of the Juilliard Orchestra. We are performing a tribute concert in honor of William Schuman’s 100th birthday. The program is very difficult, not surprising given how much sheer virtuosity is needed in the majority of his pieces. For this program, we will play the Third Symphony, the Violin Concerto and two shorter pieces, including the original slow movement of the violin work. This has not been heard in about 60 years and we decided to do it separately from the finished version.
All of the rehearsals take place in a room on the 5th floor of the school. It is one of the many new spaces in the renovated part of Lincoln Center. When I was a student, the orchestra rehearsed three times a week, starting at 9 in the morning. The workload for the young musicians is now so full that we start at 7:15 in the evening.
There were two preparatory rehearsals prior to my arrival. The conductor who was responsible was Jeffrey Milarski, and he did a tremendous job teaching these compact and thrilling works. Everyone involved is taking this project quite seriously and there is a level of technical expertise that would rival most professional orchestras. Now it is my job to infuse the sound and style that were so unique to Bill.
This will be a pleasure.
March 24: Oh-oh! Guess who did not come to the rehearsal today?
I left my residence, which is all of two blocks north of the Met. On the way, I was sure that I saw Angela walking in the same direction. This struck me as odd, as I knew that she was staying south of Lincoln Center. And it was only 30 minutes before rehearsal was scheduled to begin.
Upon arrival, I checked in with the musical crew. About seven minutes before we were to start, Craig came over to the pit, grumbling about problematic sopranos, only not in very nice words at all. The rest of us did not understand what was going on and it was then that we were informed that Angela said she was too tired to sing and act today.
Now what were we supposed to do?
This is why there are covers, although when there is more than a few hours notice, stars are brought in. Last Saturday, when Anna Netrebko bowed out of La Boheme, it would have come as a severe blow to those who purchased tickets with the expectation that they would see the Russian diva. There were almost two days notice and Angela filled in. So I guess it is understandable that she is a bit frazzled and wants to take it easy right now.
In our case, we are very lucky, as the Korean soprano, Hei-Kyung Hong, is the understudy. She made her Met debut 25 years ago and actually sang in this production for the opening of the season in 2007. So she certainly knows her way around the piece. She is also slated to sing the final performance in April.
But last week, she was ill and not able to do the rehearsals with us. As of today, no one in the cast had worked with her and the first time I would see her was when the curtain opened. Frantically, I asked my crew what I could expect that might be different, and they said, “Everything”, but it would be solid and more than dependable.
The words from the previous day resonated in my being. “We would appreciate that.”
Well, maybe they would, but I would not.
This was supposed to be a working rehearsal. It was also the first time everything would be in place; sets, costumes and even the “banda.” The orchestra tuned, the house lights went down and we were off.
No problems with the Prelude. In fact, it was very beautiful and understated. Up went the curtain and the party was on. After a few moments, Violetta makes her entrance and I felt like stopping, just to introduce myself. Everyone was right. She is excellent, but quite a change, both musically and dramatically, from what we had been used to. More than likely hers is a performance that stems from a more traditional school of seasoned Verdi singing. Always in tune, perhaps a bit more rubato in some of the phrases, but always with a fine sense of style.
After the first act, I asked my assistants, Steve White and Robert Morrison, to give me details, especially those places where I misjudged a tempo or did not hold a fermata long enough. Balances were fine throughout, with the orchestra never covering anyone. The chorus master came over to tell me that I needed to make sure that my beat, even when the music is soft, always is high enough for the full group to see. Good advice. He also thought that the “banda” music was a bit fast. This caused a bit of disagreement with the musical staff, as it was no different than the way we had done it previously.
In the orchestral world, we get used to very limited rehearsal time. With instrumental soloists, it is a luxury to get them for two sessions before a concert, something that I usually insist on. And with people I know well, we rarely meet before playing with the ensemble. Most passages get worked out as you go along, in front of everyone. It is one thing to play through a work with the piano, and another when the full orchestra is there. There have been other times when there was no rehearsal at all and we just showed up for the concert.
It is no different at the opera.
But this was a different matter altogether. Not only was the work new to me, but also I had never even met the soprano! It is a very good thing that the orchestra is used to changes such as this. They negotiated every turn with an amazing ease, saving me in a couple critical moments. I apologized just before Act 2 and thanked them.
“Welcome to our world,” was the response.
And so it went for the rest of the rehearsal. No major problems and I started to feel very comfortable with Ms. Hong. Tom and James Valenti, the Alfredo, did a great job, and as we progressed I started to take more of a leadership role. Everyone went with it. The critical transition between having the piano and the orchestra was now going smoothly.
We finished 10 minutes ahead of the deadline. Hopefully this was appreciated. I decided that rather than give any notes to the orchestra or singers, it would be better if I had these given to me by the assistants. That way, I could mark or remember those moments where I might do something better. The question of who would be singing at the dress rehearsal came up, and most everybody was sure that Angela would be there. I was not so certain.
That evening it was back to work at Juilliard. There was a meeting with the soloist for the concerto, Francisco Ladron de Guevara. He is a violinist who hails from Spain. Each season the school has competitions for the various concerti that are to be performed. Francisco beat out four others. With his teacher present, we discussed the piece and outlined tempos.
The rehearsal itself started with the last movement of the Third Symphony and already there was a marked improvement in the security of the playing. Francisco has the concerto firmly in his fingers and bow. He is also quite a passionate player, and as we go along, I think he will develop a freer approach to certain sections of this piece.
I wondered how free things would be at the dress rehearsal next morning.
March 25: There is an axiom that says that if the dress rehearsal doesn’t go well, the performances will be good. If this is true, we should have a hell of a show.
In actuality, most of what we did went fine, but there were a few glitches. First of all, as in many big houses, what you see one day is not necessarily what you get the next. Looking at the orchestra, whom I had only seen twice before, there were some faces that were not familiar. With a standard rep opera this is not uncommon. Everyone is supposed to know the music backward and forward. Traviata is performed practically every year at the Met.
But what I might have said in rehearsal to one player, or a section, may not have been put in the music. And so there were a couple of minor traffic accidents. The players always caught themselves but it still seemed awkward at certain moments. The concertmaster of the NY Philharmonic, and long-time friend Glenn Dicterow, refers to these incidents as “premature articulations.”
The presence of an audience can help in understanding how the performance will flow. For the first time, I knew where the applause would occur and for how long. This is particularly helpful when I have to give a cue for the next section to begin. However, this crowd was a bit noisier than I expected. The first couple of measures in the Prelude, on which we had worked hard to get a simple and soft sound, were drowned out by nervous expectations in the gallery. Somewhat unexpected was the burst of applause for the scenery.
Just prior to the start, I went over the list of adjustments that needed to be made, based on the run-through yesterday. Most were obvious and a few were slightly different than anticipated. It was helpful to have this information, as every time we got to one of these tricky spots, I would concentrate just a little bit more. The incessant clicking of the cameras was distracting, but that is part of the dress rehearsal process. I am not sure how many tickets were sold or given out for this rehearsal, but there were several people looking to get in and waving signs asking if there were any spares.
Since Angela had not rehearsed with us yesterday, there were some shaky moments. We will need to go over a couple passages just to make sure that the coordination between stage and pit is solid. One surprise for me was how little I referred to the score. Not that I could do the piece from memory, but once a scene has begun, it is possible to focus almost exclusively on the stage. Having two complete run throughs back-to-back helped me understand the physical and emotional demands of the work. Both the first and last acts are short, lasting around 35 minutes each, but the second act is quite long. We all have to keep the tension alive in order to avoid sagging.
It all went by quickly. There were a few friends in attendance and all of them thought that it moved very well. The singers could be heard throughout. We never had to stop for any reason. All the technical devices worked, but there were a few places where lighting was still being adjusted. It is possible to be overly critical and I have to remind myself that we remain human. I also realize that even though this is my first Traviata, I have made numerous trips to the opera pit, including three other Verdi masterpieces. Mistakes happen, but in this work, even the dead rise to take a bow. With more than two hours of music, perfection is not the goal. It should never be.
All of this has been put together in just over a week and a half. Two casts have been rehearsed and coached. All that remains is the actual set of performances. Between now and Monday there are two more rehearsals at Juilliard, some meetings, a couple of interviews and the start of a radio project. For at least a day, I will get my head out of Traviata. There will be some score review for me, probably on Sunday.
There are three days remaining until we open.
To be continued …