The Sitzprobe…a lost art form!

Once upon a time, during the 20th century’s Golden Age of Singing (roughly the 1950’s and 1960’s, respectively), The Sitzprobe was a hallowed day on the operatic production schedule.  It was a day for the conductor, the singers, the chorus, and especially the orchestra, to all gather in a comfortable work atmosphere and sing through the opera without the distractions that can come with the addition of staging, navigating the intricacies of a set or the use props, and of course, dealing with costumes, wigs, and make-up.  It was a day when the singers had a chance to just sing while looking the conductor straight in the eye.  It was a day when the conductor could look back at the singers and help them through phrases; a day when the orchestra reigned supreme in importance, because it was really their day to get a full feel of the operatic work and actually hear what was going on vocally (before eventually descending into the pit where they cannot see or hear at times!).

What made this day extra special (and this is the “old-school” part of me that is coming out now) was that all of the singers, and in many cases the orchestra also, took extra time to dress well and look (if I may be so bold as to say) rather professional, dapper, and beautiful.  Men wore jackets and ties (which were quickly loosened), women wore stylish clothing and “did” their hair, while the conductor would be just a bit more casual in an effort to conduct all of these forces with more ease (given the fact that they are usually the most buttoned up and constricted during actual performances).  The work was strenuous and focused, but laughs were plentiful and smiles were abundant.  Applause from other cast members, the shuffling of feet, or the “tick, tick, tick” of the bows on music stands from the orchestra were routine after the singer had completed a fine aria, or a duo dispensed with a compelling duet, or the chorus sang with extra passion and strength.  It was a glorious time, whose traditions continued, but ebbed considerably by the 1990’s, and in many ways have now vanished into this, the 21st century.

With the advent of tight labor contracts, fewer overall funds, and the general compression of production schedules; the Sitzprobe (loose German translation: “to sit and probe through”) is in many cases being eliminated, and replaced with an additional “stage-orchestra” rehearsal.  It is also in many ways the result of the “Hollywoodization” of opera, in general.  The productions themselves have become so overwhelming with technical demands, and movie-like sets, that we simply NEED the extra time to rehearse on-stage, thereby relegating the Sitzprobe to a “luxury” that is sometimes just dispensed with.

That is not to say that the Sitzprobe has disappeared completely.  This past Monday (September 13, 2010) at the Metropolitan Opera, we DID have a Sitzprobe for our upcoming production of last year’s new Tales of Hoffmann. This was a bit of a surprise for me, since remounted productions are not always afforded this “luxury”.  I have been involved in several, almost life-changing Sitzprobes–in Chicago, London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Dallas, et al–; where truly magical and heart stopping musical moments were experienced.  It would, however, take much more time to chronicle those events than this blog post will accommodate; so I will save some of those memories for another time.  But in short, I will sum up this most recent Sitzprobe in a few short sentences:

Jackets, ties, and nice slacks for the men have been replaced by black Levi or basic denim jeans (some of them “designer”, but who really cares!), T-shirts, or other basic button shirts, with shirt-tails out.  Stylish shoes have given way to sneakers, or other casual foot wear such as sandals.  The ladies fared a bit better, but in most cases “flats” have replaced higher heels (I know, I know; they are in style, and are more comfortable to sing in), stunning dresses have been replaced with leggings, and jewelry is almost non-existent.  To be fair, two of the ‘Eastern Bloc’ females DID dress “old-school” with full make-up and clothing a-la-mode, replete with fine hand bags that they carried…and I must say, it was a beautiful sight!  What used to be the norm has now become the exception.  (For the record: I wore very nice dress slacks, a new mock turtleneck lightweight sweater, and a much complimented black leather blazer.)

Luckily the orchestra played magnificently, and the singers (including yours truly) sang very well.  The courtesy applause is far less these days, the comfort breaks have become a few minutes longer, and the orchestra room at the MET, with its four white ceiling fans (of which only one seems to work), has forty years of collected dust all over it–including the dust on those ceiling fans!  But the room itself reminds me of the old Beatles studio that I walked through on Abbey Road in London (now EMI Classics) where I recorded the soundtrack and C.D. of Tosca for the 2001 feature film Tosca–a simple wooden box–wood floors, wood walls, and multi-holed ceiling board (like most of us had in our school classrooms).  I sat in this large orchestra/rehearsal room and listened to all of my colleagues for the entire Sitzprobe; I marveled at the quality of the orchestra, and appreciated the competence of our conductor.  I thought about inviting (and did) a few friends over to my place, post rehearsal, for pizza and chat….but I must admit that my mind kept wandering back to a time now long ago, and the artists that the Orchestra Room on C level had hosted; and also to that time where much more glamor accompanied the entire event!

So now I must ask:  Is “Old-School” really too “Old Fashioned” in this new millennium???