Expectations and Turning Points: a COC timeline

I am quite often asked by friends and relatives who are not in the performing arts about the process of getting a production to stage.  After all, they are the ones who only see the “final, shiny, right off the assembly line, fresh from the show-room” product that is sure to dazzle.  There is, as many of us know, a long process that precedes that opening night curtain, and each show experiences it own growing pains.  Then finally, sometimes miraculously, a production hits a few turning points just in time for everyone to say, “OK, we really do have a show here!”

Expectations are always high from audiences who pay from $25-$250 per ticket when that production is on-stage at The Met, Paris Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, Covent Garden, et al.; or in this case, Canadian Opera Company (COC).  With a new production of Die Fledermaus soon to debut in Toronto (Christopher Alden, dir.), the expectations climb even higher.  COC is a major international house of import, while Mr. Alden carries a delicious reputation for fiercely edgy, thought provoking productions.  Without giving anything away, it is my pleasure to report that audiences will not be disappointed by the production values, or the talent; and the concept will certainly be wonderful fodder for discussion.

As a principal in this cast, it was marvelous to be a part of–and witness firsthand–the turning points that will now allow us all to meet expectations.  I can identify three such moments in a timeline of rapid fire succession.  Before the “colossal-jostle” begins (the moment we actually move from the rehearsal room to the opera house stage, with the real sets, real costumes, and real props), we had to gel this show.  It had been muddled by choppy dialogue flow (common), complicated staging (decision), and a compressed music rehearsal schedule (common).

Then it happens:

Sunday evening (9/16): A full, non-stop ‘rehearsal room’ run thru with full chorus (it goes great–concentration was high…everyone feels confident…and relieved!).
Monday afternoon (9/17): A full day of rehearsal dedicated only to music.  We address musical pitfalls too thorny to confront in staging rehearsals.
Tuesday afternoon (9/18): A dialogue-scenes only staging rehearsal.  No music whatsoever.

Bang, BANG, BANG!!!

Three legs support a stool, but four legs support a chair (and Die Fledermaus is a big chair, despite its designation as “light-opera”!).  Therefore, it was with great anticipation that we entered the large orchestra room at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts today (9/19) for the Sitzprobe (orchestral run-thru with vocalists).

I arrived at the 11:00 a.m. start time, and was warmly greeted by COC Music Director Johannes Debus who is also conducting this production.  A look of worry crossed his face…”You did get the message that I will not be using the singers until after the first break, right?”  “Oh yes”, I replied; “I just enjoy watching this part of the process too.”  Well watch it I have…since the early 1970’s, starting with the Cleveland Orchestra, I have watched great conductors slowly prepare their charges.  I have now witnessed this exercise world-wide, and rest assured, the process has not changed much in hundreds of years.  It is hands-on, thought intensive, attention hoarding, precision oriented work, for both conductor and orchestra musicians alike.  It is punctuated by a constant stop-and-start tempo of operations that is draining just to watch.  Even the verbal communication has a surgical precision attached to it, while still preserving a colloquial feel.  Commentary such as:
Let’s phrase it.
The energy is right, just a bit less brassy.”
Bassoons, please YAWN that line.”
Tympani, more of a definitive shock on that final note.”
“Think Mozart, then exaggerate!”

When words are not convenient, a simple ‘thumbs-up’ to a given section will suffice.

Then there is the pressure-cooker job of the orchestra manager/librarian who is in a constant state of motion as he winds his way (as unobtrusively as possible) through the orchestra.  His task??  Trying to reconcile the individual orchestral part-books against the full orchestral score from the Publisher, and an additional ‘critical edition’ score at his side.  If he hears a discrepancy, it’s up out of his chair and into the fray of trombone slides, and double bass bows to fix the issue with a pencil or quiet explanation.  He is aided by the Assistant Conductor who also identifies errors/misprints, along with the conductor.  Oh yes, he also has to watch the clock!  Since time is money at this juncture, efficiency from the podium is a must…but when it is time to break, it is time to break!!  There are very strict rules that govern rehearsal time.  CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) professionals and Management deal with the unpleasant, reliably frustrating issue of contract negotiations every few years; but when it’s time to get down to business, the professional classical musician is among the most dedicated of any work force…I have witnessed this with my own eyes.  When it is time for a break, believe me, they have earned it!

While the music of Johann Strauss may not be as overwhelming as Wagner, he could indeed pen a melody with as much elegance and empathy as any composer who has ever lived.  Therefore, it takes no less of a musician to do justice to his music.  Perhaps that is why before orchestral rehearsal even begins, you can hear individual players practicing key lines and phrases from their music.  One will witness the tympanist carefully tuning his kettles 4 (with a snappy iPhone tuning app), then silently rechecking the tuning/pitches throughout rehearsal.  In fact, my favorite section of the orchestra is always that of the percussion.  One of my finest music instructors in college once said “You have nothing musically if you don’t have rhythm!”  While all the orchestral forces take their turn at providing rhythmic pulse, it is the basic job of the percussion section to provide this backbone throughout (along with a healthy assist from the double basses).   They do so with tympani and trap sets, bass drums, chimes, bell stands, mounted bells, triangles, spurs, xylophones, wood blocks, and so much more.  Watching them is, at times, akin to a watching a ballet…truly deft.

I often stop and think about what a privilege it is to sing with a full orchestra, and for listeners to hear a full orchestra in bloom.  There may be some times when singers walk into a room with orchestra assembled as if to say “OK, we are here now; let’s get started.”  When in fact, “the starting” started long before the singers ever arrived.  Our vocal cast today was wonderful when it came time to do their part, and our audiences will be delighted as a result of it all.

Expectations and Turning Points; thank goodness we have them.  Or as Maestro Debus put it today after a moment of thought, and quiet pause on the podium:

“OK, number 15 everybody.”

And everyone turned their pages…