August 1, 2010 leonard slatkin

This is the summer way-out west tour. For the next couple of months I will be flightless and mostly humidity-less. Colorado, New Mexico and California will the performing destinations. A mix of student and professional ensembles will make up the musical landscape. The major project is the world premiere of Lewis Spratlan’s 1978 opera, Life Is a Dream. Unlike my last operatic venture, I decided not to keep an actual daily diary, but it is still helpful to let you know how a work like this comes to life on the stage.

Prior to arriving in Santa Fe, there was a nice, leisurely drive to Breckenridge, Colorado. With no airports or baggage claims to worry about, all I had to do was program everything into Gladys, my navigation system partner. From Detroit, it looked like an eighteen-hour journey. Of course, it was not possible to anticipate side trips.

And you wonder why this country is out of shape?

The National Repertory Orchestra has been around for quite some time. Under its director, Carl Topilow, it has become a destination point for young musicians who are about to enter the orchestral work force. Basically the ensemble consists of advanced students who come together in this ski resort town for a summer of indoctrination into the core repertoire of the orchestral canon. Unlike Aspen or Tanglewood, the focus is primarily on their work with the large ensemble. There are few, if no instructors to give individual lessons.

Carl had visited me a couple years earlier and asked me if I would come and conduct a concert. I said yes, and the timing could not have worked out better. For our program, we did two staples: Beethoven Symphony No. 8 and the Symphonie Fantastique. There had been one preparatory rehearsal and I had five full sessions. The musicians had been excited by this music and were full of enthusiasm. The level was high and by the time we got to the concert, everyone knew the pieces quite well. The altitude, over 10,000 feet, made it a little difficult but like adrenaline, the music pushed us past the difficulties

Was it perfect? No.

But in the end, we had accomplished what we set out to do. The young musicians now know two works that will be encountered many times over the course of their professional careers, for those that actually make it that far. And, similar to Juilliard a few months earlier, I spent some time talking about life in the real musical world, where they would soon be looking for employment. It is a tough road ahead for most of the young talents. Auditions, disappointments, career changes. All of this is part of the actual environment they face when school ends and hard decisions loom.

The day after the concert, I made a six-hour drive down to Santa Fe. It was almost two years ago that I agreed to do the world premiere of Lewis Spratlan’s Life Is a Dream, or as it is referred to here, LIAD. The new administrator here is Charles MacKay, who I knew from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. The second act won the Pulitzer Prize almost ten years ago, but the whole opera had never been staged or performed. It is based on the famous play by Calderon, and there is much about both the story and music that I found intriguing. The proposed cast was solid and I had never been to the Southwest mecca.

The drive itself was punctuated with the sounds of the USA vs. Ghana soccer match on the radio. And I thought that tennis on the airwaves was boring. Maybe it would have been better to listen to the Spanish language broadcast, and at least be treated to a couple of “Gooooooooooooooooals”! And if none of you have perfect pitch, you certainly now know the note B Flat, as this is the tone produced by the Vuvuzela.

The New Mexico site is about 7,000 feet about sea level. This seemed manageable compared to Breckenridge. One person remarked, “I am not sure how you got through the concert, considering your heart attack.” Yes, I got a bit winded but overall felt comfortable. Santa Fe seemed downright normal in comparison.

Putting on a new opera, or even a new production, is a different matter than doing a standard repertoire piece. I find this interesting, because in the orchestra world, we would spend as much time rehearsing an all-Beethoven program as we would doing a world premiere. Santa Fe prides itself on not only the artistic excellence of the company, but the dedication to new, or lesser-performed works. Every production is treated equally, as if Magic Flute were getting its first performance ever this season.

When I was a student in Aspen, one of the violinists in the orchestra was Lenny Samuels. He was a long-standing member of the Cleveland Orchestra. We were chatting about what the new season would bring and Lenny said that they were opening with an all-Beethoven program.

“How many rehearsals?” I inquired.

“Five” came the reply.

“But you have all played these works so many times. What does Szell do to fill up the rehearsal time?”

“He makes us feel as if we have never done this music before.”

Santa Fe Opera artists are given a nice place to stay, which compensates for the low salaries offered. This is becoming more commonplace in today’s economic environment. So I have a kitchen, which helps keep the diet in control. Nine out of ten restaurants seem to be Mexican, which could keep the diet out of control. Upon arrival, I did some grocery shopping. Now that I had mastered gazpacho, it seemed like a natural thing to make some and refrigerate it overnight. No sooner had I put the ingredients in the blender, then a whirring and clanking sound emanated from the counter. It seems that you have to put the receptacle firmly into the container. I chewed up the rotor blades and had to buy a new one for my hosts the next day. But the soup came out just fine.

On the first day of rehearsals, the full cast and production crew were gathered together. I had asked for, and got, a full musical run-through of the work, no matter how well or ill prepared anyone was in the early stages.

All the singers had the majority of the piece in their voices. With the composer present, we got a pretty good idea of how the work sounded, at least with piano accompaniment. This is a piece where everything will change when the orchestra is present. Atonal and very difficult, we must be careful not to rely on the sound of the keyboard, lest the singers be confused when they do not hear the same harmonies and single lines in the instrumental ensemble. I began to wonder about the use of electronic keyboards for the piano rehearsals, and whether or not they could be programmed to emulate the sound that the orchestra makes. It certainly would be helpful in this type of piece.

The cast is very strong, but I have only worked with a couple of them in the past. We have to spend a lot of time together, working on the piece, but also getting to know each other. It is possible that a large degree of trust comes into play in a work such as this. In, say, Mozart or Puccini, familiarity and tonal harmonization make it easier to pick out the pitches. In the Spratlan, there is much more reliance on cues from me and much less on what one hears in the orchestra. There is no prompter here, so I have to gauge my gestures in quite a different way than other houses.

After the run-through, we were given an overview of the production itself. A miniature set was shown, the costume designer passed out sketches of the designs, and even the lighting director had a short presentation. My only questions had to do with the material on the stage and whether it was reflecting or absorbent. The orchestra is modest for this opera, so there should not be too many balance issues, but it is important that the text be heard clearly. In addition, some of the scoring is dense, so we will be revising dynamic levels as we go along. In some ways, the work is more driven by the words than the music, so clarity is of the utmost importance.

The next day we began stage rehearsals. Not on the actual stage, which we will not get to for a couple weeks, but in a new space named after the former general manager, and also former head of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Richard Gaddes. It replicates the size of the main venue and we can get a pretty good idea of the space that will be occupied. Amazingly, we got through about 2/3rds of the First Act. This is very difficult music, so the director and I had agreed that these initial rehearsals would be both for stage and musical issues. If I heard something that needed to be fixed, we would stop and correct the problem. By the end of the afternoon session, all of us felt that we had accomplished a great deal.

The rest of the week went on in a like manner, with six hours a day of work. Most everyone is starting to get comfortable with the idiom. Two acts had now been staged, with the principals and most of the minor roles. I had seen the chorus, who do not have so much to do in this piece, at least in terms of singing. The composer has been here the whole time and we have only had to alter a few things, some notes, rhythms and three bars that do not seem to work.

There is not much time for sightseeing yet. Santa Fe itself is heaven for adobe lovers. The open expanses as seen from both ground level and up in the mountains remind one of how much space we have in this country. Fortunately, this is one of those areas that has kept the visual commercialism to a minimum. Yes, it is overpriced and there are the usual tourist rip-offs, but for those who love the west, it maintains a great deal of charm.

The second week of production found me starting work with the orchestra. There are only a few players who I know from other orchestras. They come here most every summer and the nucleus is very strong. At first, I thought that the technical demands of the music would make it all slow going in rehearsal, but everyone was focused and we were able to get through one act each on the first three days. This was no easy feat, considering that there are only 2 hours and 5 minutes of actual playing time for these sessions.

The rehearsals took place in a room adjacent to the main stage. It is not outdoors and the sound is a bit loud. The good news was that there was a striking degree of clarity and we were able to sort out most of the thorny textural passages. The majority of the piece is unrelenting in both harmonic and rhythmic density, so every so often I would attempt to relieve the tension with a comment or two, which contained some levity. Telling the orchestra the plot of an opera is always good for that, no matter how serious the story line.

It was only in the third week that we got onto the actual stage and into the pit. The facility is very nice and one can easily understand the attraction for operagoers. In the evening (performances do not start until nine-o’clock) you can enjoy the natural wonder of the landscape and the ever-changing sky. By the time the operas begin, it is dark and attention is focused on the stage. But the preliminary rehearsals are during the day, and when the back doors of the stage are open, it is difficult to make out the singers, as the sun is pouring in and everyone looks like a shadow.

The balance problems were sorted out, we got a good idea of how the set will look, and everyone seemed satisfied that we are right on schedule. No real problems, as the orchestra is very engaged in this difficult work, and the singers have learned it thoroughly. Times have changed, and when someone on stage makes a mistake, they usually have some colorful epithet that replaces the text of the opera. We are all used to it but once in a while one can imagine fitting it into the libretto.

Lew Spratlan seems very pleased. I can only imagine the gamut of emotions he is going through. Here is a work, more than 30 years old, receiving its first performance. How to reconcile what one wrote a long time ago, with the changes that age brings in creative thought? Going back in time is not so easy, but the composer seems to know exactly what he wants now. It has been a fine collaborative experience.

And the cast could not have been more diligent or excellent. Roger Honeywell, John Cheek, Ellie Dehn and James Maddalena have the lion’s share of the singing duties. Kevin Newberry brings energy to the direction. Everyone is allowed to participate in decisions regarding the look and feel of the production. As usual, I have to stick my nose in and offer a couple of staging ideas, particularly in the climactic scene where the main character has a sudden realization of his destiny. We are able to adjust the music, orchestration and movements needed to make this a truly dramatic high point of the opera.

During this stay, I have become hooked on the Sinatra channel, on satellite radio. What a pleasure to listen to Frank, Ella, Mel, Peggy, Nat, Rosemary and all the others. One realizes how much attention they paid to the words they were singing. It would be easy to say that spending a couple hours in their company qualifies me as an old man, but I really believe that every singer – no – every musician, needs to connect to these incredible vocalists. And the intonation is always flawless.

Back at the opera, we moved into dress rehearsal and performance mode. There are three such practice sessions, the first with piano. This is the only time where we will be able to stop and fix last minute details. It is also the first time where we have full costume and lighting. Since we needed to get a lot of things done, I let Kevin take over, positioning chorus members, working with the rotating cell that is the home to the opera’s protagonist, and making sure all sight lines are correct. We work past midnight but it will be beneficial when it comes to the orchestra run-throughs.

The dress rehearsals bring additional corrections, mostly small but at this point, important. Union regulations basically prohibit stopping, but Mother Nature does not belong to that union. A ferocious thunderstorm ripped through the venue just before the second rehearsal, bringing wind and rain into the pit. The orchestra retreated to the dry recesses of the backstage area. A few wind players entertained the audience with strains of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” I toughed it out on the podium. A soggy Slatkin gives the downbeat 10 minutes after the scheduled starting time. But the show went on and we moved through the work with much fluidity and ease.

After a much needed day off for everyone, it was time to belatedly premiere the opera. The weather had been somewhat gloomy all day, with a steady, gentle rain falling throughout. As opposed to the dress rehearsal, no water is coming into the pit, or onto the stage. Everyone is healthy and the performance goes very well. It turns out to be successful in every respect, with the drama seeming to play strongly to the full house. Performance time is two-and-a-half-hours but it goes by quickly. The orchestra is superb, the singers excellent, and we are all pleased with the result. The composer is probably still in another world, having waited more than thirty years to realize his own dream.

Now there are a few days off before the 2nd performance. Time to get back to work on my book, do some arranging for young people and perhaps get some rest.

See you next month,