Now on our third rehearsal, the orchestra for this small but feisty opera company congregated at the concert venue (a nice modern facility) for our first time performing with staged cast. We had been informed that, though this was a large theater with an orchestra pit, we would be playing the entire score backstage.
One may wonder why management would choose, in a theater with a perfectly serviceable orchestra pit, to put the orchestra behind the scenery. One would be justified in wondering about this. Truth be told, I have absolutely no idea, and neither did the orchestra conductor. Questions directed toward her about this from the orchestra were met with a sardonic smile and a shrug, an appropriate response to many things that happened that week.
Despite the considerable size of the stage (and small operatic cast), we orchestra musicians found ourselves jammed into a little strip against the rear wall of the theater, crunched up beneath a big white backdrop which was elevated about five feet against the far wall. This, to put it mildly, made for an odd spectacle. Here we were, with plenty of space on three sides of us, jammed together like a bunch of sardines, our bows banging each other’s instruments, the trumpet’s bell pointed directly into the violist’s ear, the tympani player ducking and weaving like a musical boxer to try and see around my bass. When I asked if the white backdrop could be raised up a little more (my bass scroll kept banging against it as I played, and I didn’t have an extra inch to move elsewhere), a cranky stagehand launched into a condescending and aggressive lecture about how there as “absolutely no way” that this could be changed.
“OK,” I said. “But I’ll be banging against it the whole show trying to play.”
We were then treated to a lecture about how expensive the big white backdrop was and how we needed to be careful around it. The conductor flashed that sardonic grin at us, letting us know that she realized how ridiculous this all was. We proceeded to start the rehearsal in our sardine can setup, bumping elbows while staring out at the vast expanse of vacant stage on all sides of us.
We began our rehearsal, despite the fact that the stage crew was in the middle of a very noisy set-up just a few feet away from us. Such is the fate of small arts organizations. Time in a hall is expensive and therefore limited, and what would be spread out across multiple days and in multiple rooms (scenery assembly, ensemble rehearsal, vocal coaching) at the Metropolitan Opera must often happen at the same time in the same cramped space in smaller organizations. The result is often noisy and chaotic, and it makes rehearsal difficult if not impossible.
Drills buzzed loudly as we began the delicate strains of he opera, the conductor grinning and doing her best to tough it out through the anarchy. She tried to shout out some comments but quickly gave up, waving her hand disgustedly at the drill crew and soldiering on through the first part of the score.
The conductor had a camera trained on her that connected to two small monitors located on either side of the stage (they looked like old computer LCD screens). There was, however, no monitor for her! She had to basically wave her arms at a wall, hoping that the singers were paying attention. Communication is, to put it lightly, quite difficult under these circumstances! The conductor would try to move the tempo but have absolutely no success. Why? Well, perhaps the singers weren’t looking at the small LCB screens at that moment and missed the change in tempo. Accurately catching singer entrances was also practically impossible. The poor conductor had her arms up, poised and listening for an entrance, and then playing catch up with the tempo to bring the orchestra back in line with the singer.
This less-than-ideal situation gave the entire piece an untidy and out-of-phase quality, like watching a movie with the sound out of sync, and it certainly gave me a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.
To complicate matters further, the stage director for the production was what one would politely call a ‘hands-on’ type of guy. He dashed around back and forth like he’d just had 12 espresso shots, chattering animatedly and gesticulating wildly at cast, crew, and….us!
Instructions for the orchestra usually come through a chain of command in a theatrical situation, with directions from the stage communicated to the conductor, who then proceeds to pas them along to the ensemble. No so with this stage director. As we began our first rehearsal with him in the room, he immediately popped his head around the doorway, like a mother ostrich who’s just discovered a predator going after her baby. He began walking toward the orchestra, yelling animatedly and waving his arms around.
“No! Is not how music goes! Why is so slow? Why, why, why, WHY? It must move–yes yes….harp! Why is sound like that? NO! Is not the way!”
Then, just as suddenly as he appeared, he vanished, power walking off in another direction to handle some other situation, leaving both conductor and orchestra scratching their heads and wondering what that sudden carpet bombing of commentary was all about. This behavior would repeat itself right up to the opening performance of the opera.
A word to any orchestra managers or stage directors who feel compelled to add their two cents to the ensemble during the rehearsal process–it is very distracting and makes for a whole lot of confusion within an ensemble. There is a reason why most ensembles observe a chain of instructional command:
- Conductor has artistic vision for piece
- External forces (soloist, stage manager, dancers, etc.) communicate with conductor
- Conductor modifies vision as necessary to accommodate these forces
- Conductor communicates to ensemble sections
- Section principals communicate to members of section
The above procedure allows for an orderly flow of information and establishes a clear communication framework. The alternative (and that is what was happening with this over-caffeinated strutting rooster of a stage director) is anarchy. When outside forces shout commands to ensemble members, they don’t know where to turn. The conductor? Are they really in charge if anyone can just walk up and blurt out their two cents to the ensemble? Maybe the last stand of cellos should turn around and start giving instructions to the tuba. Maybe I’ll start telling the violas how to play certain bow strokes on my next gig. Wouldn’t that go over well? There’s a reason for the chain of command.
This was pretty much the way the remainder of the rehearsal process went. We played, Mr. Caffeine ran up and waved his arms like a chimpanzee, we stared uncomprehendingly at him, and he ran off in another direction. Bizarre, but that’s middle-tier orchestra playing….at least in my experience!
So, after getting locked outside, dragging instruments into and out of coffee shops, cramming together under ominous pieces of scenery, having no two-way channel of communication between conductor and stage, and being harangued at every turn by a manic stage director, how’d the performances fare?
That, friends, will be coming soon in the final part of A Week in the Life.