Yesterday and today I continued to work through the string parts as I had already done in Part 1. Tracking performance indications, looking for places they will want cues, and most importantly starting to look at the musical language of the instrumental accompaniment. Yesterday I began with Part III (Norway) as I had wanted to give that extended section much closer attention. Continuing yesterday and into today it was Part II.
What is most interesting to me at this stage of the game is how it seems that I have glimpsed two separate arcs that run through the opera. The text arc is a very dramatic line– always moving forward, and with clear cause and effect as the emotional narrative unfolds. The shifts from one section to the next are sometimes natural and inevitable, and other times shocking. But one can always see how one has led to the next. Narrative.
I am only scratching the surface of the musical arc now, but the piece feels like it has more classical musical architecture going on than most operas. The moment that first started to drive this home is the last number in Part I, where instrumental material from the first number of Part I returns in a way that feels like recapitulation– a rounding out of the entire part musically. This did not leap out at me when I first read the libretto, and did so only a little in looking solely at the vocal parts. The rhythmic propulsion of the accompaniment, and especially the phrase units that loop around and become so aurally recognizable– that was what captured my attention. As I said– scratching the surface– but I feel like the next nugget of my curiosity has been identified.
This moment feels like a bit of a crossroads. I know enough about the piece to now make a decision about how I will study it moving forward. Part of me wants to sit down at the piano and start hearing how it fits together. Another part of me has the suspicion that it is still one round too soon for that. That part of me wants to dig deeper into the musical structure of the score– start mapping out how it is built musically, scribbling down motives that recur, really get into breaking down the puzzle, the math, the chemistry, the architecture, the design of the music. Yes, I think that is the way I will learn the most now.
It has started…
There is no turning back…
Today I finished up working through the vocal parts. It took a couple of sessions, what with Orlando and Ronan still on summer vacation. Parts 1 and 2 of the opera are built of relatively short numbers, and it was easy to fall into my process of singing through each number at least twice before moving on. But Part 3 is one big aria — “Norway.” Pages would go by, and I would not want to lose forward momentum. But at the same time, going through too much material without looping back and reviewing can be counterproductive. I feel like I have less of a grasp of the structure of Part 3 as a result. Tomorrow I will make a point of digging back into it in particular.
Still not lots of marking in the vocal parts. I am seeing how much of our rehearsal process with the singers will be spent making decisions on exactly where to breathe, and how each breath affects the meaning and tone of the text. Mark and Kimberly have given us terrific text to work with– clear and communicative, taut, often very funny (wry, sarcastic, sardonic). And they are words that will sing nicely– words that are always evocative, but leave plenty of room for the music to add meaning. We LOVE this. And it makes us really WORK.
It became clear to me today that my next step, my next pass through the score needed to be looking at the string quartet. Tonight I worked slowly through Part 1, tracking exactly what each player is doing from measure to measure– are they playing arco or pizz, sul tasto or ordinary, where are the places that each player might need cues from me, etc…. Now I feel like I am starting to scratch the surface of the musical structure of the piece. I am not spending a great deal of time on each section, trying to break apart every element of its architecture. But I am recognizing the passages that recur verbatim, and am scribbling little notes to myself along the way– “m. 59” when a passage matches another that started at measure 59 for instance. These will be little reminders when I go back later to investigate further.
“Perfect Boy” is going to be hard. OK, I am officially scared of this number. Fast, 6/8 and 5/8 in different patterns… sure, nothing I have not seen before. But the way the strings stay in their 6/8 patterns while the voices jerk into a halting 5/8… that is going to be tricky. Rehearsal time. Oh yeah, we don’t have a whole lot of that!
Now it is ALL about the vocal lines.
Before crashing last night I did manage to dig into the first two “numbers” in the opera– “Paper route” and “Cursive.” It felt great to get going with this phase of study, and gave me at least a sense of what pace I will be able to keep. I found that the pitches and rhythms are not elusive. The pitches come rather easily and even in the first pass through singing the lines I can be fairly confident that I have not lost pitch. Every couple of pages a quick check with the pitch pipe to confirm that I am in tune, and on we go. For the most part I can feel good about each number with two passes through– at least for my purposes at this stage in the game. My goal is a simple one– find out what words and thoughts each character gets to articulate, and find out how they get to articulate it. I am not looking at harmony, and I am most assuredly ignoring MOST of what the accompaniment (in this case the string quartet) is doing! Story and melody!
Today I reviewed the two numbers I looked at late last night (never a bad idea) and then got through about half of the score. It’s funny– I could have kept going further as I had another couple of hours I could have continued, but there is only so much that I find healthy to try to absorb in one day. By the last couple of numbers I tackled today I found my brain more reluctant to really soak up the words and melody. Just glossing over things in order to turn as many pages as possible is NOT useful. It was time to stop and begin fresh tomorrow morning.
No new images of score pages today. The only time I picked up a pencil was to scribble in a couple of chords that I could not resist identifying and that seemed helpful. At this stage of the game I am resisting the urge to write in my score, and am doing all I can to stay in absorbing mode. It would be too easy to start writing in beat patterns– a distraction from the truly important task at hand. It would be too easy to get distracted by harmony and instrumental texture. I am noticing those stretches when there is no viola (hmmm, that means something…) and I am curious to spend time deciphering the different textures Laura weaves in her string writing. But that really needs to wait. Story and melody– the stuff of opera. Yeah, harmony too, but there is time for that in a couple of days. In fact right now I am enjoying discovering a fully as possible the harmonies that each melody seem to IMPLY. Maybe on Saturday I get to find out how much Laura follows these implied harmonies, and how much she contradicts them….
LOTS of half-notes in this score! LOTS! And many tempo indications that are based on quick half-notes. Half=92. Half=72. Half=120. Half=84. Half=108 (and I am only on page 34). Triplets and quintuplets that cross over half of a measure or a full measure. Quintuplets that get thrown back and forth between the two voices. Long stretches where it is just one voice followed by a significant passage of duet singing. And the duet singing is often homophonic and sequences of parallel 3rds and 4ths. This is significant, especially given the subject matter and roles of the mezzo and baritone in the opera. And then all those stretches where there is no viola. These are significant. But I am on a fact-finding mission. The time for analysis is later.
Tomorrow my number 1 priority will be to finish singing through the opera. Then I am not sure. I might move onto looking at string textures– pizzicato and arco and how they play together. Or I may want to sit down at the piano for the first time and start looking at how the harmony of this piece fits together. I trust that once I finish singing through the piece, the next step will make itself obvious.
Now to bed….
At 3:00 this afternoon the FedEx truck drove up and dropped off this:
…and off we go. That was August 12, although now it is technically the 13th. First rehearsal is August 25. Opening night is September 4.
This would seem quite late to be getting the score for a world premiere, but one must understand that only a month or so ago there was a workshop of this opera out in Utah, and some substantial changes to the piece have happened in the weeks since then. So yes, I am on an accelerated timeline to learn and digest this score, but NOTHING compared to Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed as they have made the final revisions to this wonderful new piece that will be in front of an audience in 22 days!
This is the first of 22 posts (at least) that will take us from ground zero– Steve opening the box that contains his score– to opening night. I have often wanted to record this process, but never have even started. Usually day 1 is 12 months or more before the opening, which would be a daunting project. Usually day 1 is “Steve buys his score and places it on top of his piano” and then days 2 through 100 are “Steve looks guiltily at his score and then turns to far more pressing work.” Who wants to blog THAT?!?!
But this is 22 days! No time to leave the score lying around in this time-table.
Of course I HAVE done a good bit of prep work. I have had earlier versions of each of the scenes that I have been able to look through to get a sense of the music. I have been busy lately so I have not spent time really LEARNING any of the earlier versions. But they have given me a good sense of how the music and the opera in general are put together. About a week ago I received the “final” version of the libretto from Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, and was able to begin to truly understand how this opera is built. And a while ago I watched Kimberly’s very moving documentary “Prodigal Sons” which gave me a crash course in what we would be addressing in our little opera. All very very helpful groundwork. But here we are finally at day 1…
Day 1– OUT COME THE PENCILS
A score with no markings in it is a daunting thing. What will be the first pencil mark to sully its pristine pages? Why even mark it up? Shouldn’t I just learn the darned thing and then just conduct it? Who needs markings after all??? You wimp!
Fortunately I have developed over the years a quite specific process through which I tackle a new piece, and there is no question as to where I will start– especially when the score is mine to keep and nobody will ever have to worry about erasing all of my markings! First comes the red pencil and I put a box around every tempo indication from page 1 through the final double-bar. These bright red boxes will be my friends in rehearsal and performance, proudly showing those big moments that I have to take particular care of. But today, on day 1, this pass through the score starts to teach me how the composer’s (Laura’s) music is structured. There may be tempo changes on every page, or there may be one every 10 pages. There may be accelerando’s (which get their own specific red mark) and ritardando’s (which don’t) all over the place, or very rarely. A specific metronome marking might show up frequently, or there may be no specific metronome markings at all. I never know what type of information will bubble up as I enter into this first pass. I ALWAYS come out of it with many new points of curiosity.
Pass 2, at least today, was marking vocal entrances that I may be called on to cue. This begins with devising a 3-letter abbreviation for each of the roles in the opera. “As One” only has two roles, but they share the same name– “Hannah before” and “Hannah after”. “HAN” and “HAN” certainly won’t do. “HAB” and “HAA” are too similar. So I have decided to use “MEZ” for Mezzo (Hannah after) and “BAR” for Baritone (Hannah before)– that is Hannah before and after gender reassignment. Gender reassignment has certainly never come up in my Pucinni and Verdi scores!
Through pass 2 I have started to get a much more visceral sense of how much each of the two singers sings in the opera, and the relative weight of each role in each section of the piece. It is all still quite general, but that is ok. Pass 1 and pass 2 serve specific performance purposes– cuing vocal entrances– but more importantly NOW, they help me begin to learn the structure of the opera. I start to see how I will need to structure music rehearsals, and I start to get excited about certain passages that pop out. I notice that when MEZ and BAR do sing together it tends to be homophonic sharing of the same lines of text, each of the voices fleshing out the other in harmony. I start to see the passing back and forth of certain rhythmic and melodic figures, and how these same figures recur late in the opera after having been first exposed in the initial scenes. And I start to get excited about hearing Sasha and Kelly sing some of these phrases together!
Here is a typical page of the score after passes 1 and 2:
And now it is late on August 12th, or early on the 13th. What next? Well, now I have to hunker down and learn the vocal lines. I think I will dive in on this just a little tonight, but it will continue through tomorrow and perhaps into Wednesday. Me, my pitch pipe and my score. But this is when I REALLY start to learn what the piece is all about!
To close– my favorite thing in the score as we wrap up day 1 is a specific tempo marking:
Yikes! I don’t have a metronome that goes to 400!!! What ever will I do?
Labor Day is just around the corner, and the boys are about to go back to school. This can mean only one thing—SUMMER IS ALMOST OVER!
Back when I was on the music staff at the Santa Fe Opera each year, summer had very clear boundaries. The weekend closest to May 31 meant packing up from New York and flying out. Three long months later the last week of August would send everyone home, and summer was done. The years between my SFO days and now have seen much more fluid edges to the summer, shifting a little here to fit around a late season production, and shifting back a little there to meet one of the earlier summer festivals. Now though, with both Orlando and Ronan in school, we have our most rigid definition of summer ever—10 weeks between their getting off the bus from the last day of school (June 22 this year) and the day after Labor Day (well, the Wednesday after Labor Day in Ossining this year because… well, I have no idea).
Winter and spring this year brought a flood of contemporary pieces—the world premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar with Beth Morrison Projects and the NOW Ensemble, The Ghosts of Versailles at Manhattan School of Music, the late addition to my calendar of Golijov’s Ainadamar with Long Beach Opera, and all of AOP’s Composers and the Voice workshops. My first big gig of the summer, Chautauqua Symphony’s Opera Highlights Concert, was a big balancing out of that new music karma! ALL standard rep, from Handel to Britten. Yes, Billy Budd was the “newest” piece on the program! That being said, it was a blast to work with Jay Lesenger, the Chautauqua Opera Young Artists and wonderful music staff of the Chautauqua Opera putting together this program. All water related pieces (some more tangentially than others…)—H2Opera was enthusiastically received by a very full Amphitheater.
Immediately following our week at Chautauqua we were back home and I was commuting back and forth to Princeton where AOP and Opera New Jersey were presenting a staged workshop of Blessed Art Thou Among Women. This intriguing 60-minute event consisted of Greg Spears’ Our Lady (countertenor, Baroque string quintet and organ), 6 movements from Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, and Tarik O’Regan and Anna Rabinowitz’s The Wanton Sublime (mezzo and piano). All of this was woven together seamlessly by the delightful and probing stage director Crystal Manich (ah, I remember well interviewing Crystal as she graduated from Carnegie Mellon and embarked on a year’s internship with AOP!). Hai-Ting Chinn and Ryland Angel were vocally commanding, and each played a silent supporting role in the other’s portions of the evening. The Sebastian Chamber Players and Mila Henry dug into the challenging scores with great flair. Given everyone’s crazy schedules, rehearsals for this 60 minute event began a full two months before the performances! Here and there we would come together for a few days in varying combinations, gradually building what was a compelling, abstract, intense and moving new piece.
The weeks since BATAW have been a big juggling act– Reviewing submissions for Forth Worth Opera’s first Frontiers Program, finalizing planning for Composers and the Voice’s Six Scenes along with fielding those six new scores, all the seemingly interminable long-range planning of a freelance musician, all while also running Daddy Day Camp for Orlando and Ronan. By far one of the greatest perks of the often nerve-wracking freelance life is having a stretch of down time—a break where one can settle in with family and play. Sure, it will be nice to get back to long stretches of time when I can stay focused on work, but I will sorely miss the hours of games, hiking, wrestling, reading Harry Potter, and a whole series of very geeky projects I have had enjoyed with the boys and Peggy these past weeks. We have the newly transplanted swing set as proof of our summer’s fun,as well as a few stop motion animations to show friends.
Peggy and I managed to slip off to Santa Fe for a few days in late July, leaving the boys in Cleveland with Peggy’s parents. It was a dizzying three days, stuffed with great music (workshop of Act 2 of Theo Morrison’s Oscar, King Roger, Maometto II, Arabella), great food (Maria’s, Santa Fe Baking Company, Ristra, Tecalote Café), a great hike, and visiting great friends. One particular highlight of the trip was a staggering performance of Magnus Lindberg’s Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. The piece is from 2008, but neither Peggy nor I had heard it before. Chen Halevi on clarinet and Anssi Karttunen on cello joined the composer who played the piano in this performance. After each of the movements Peggy and I gave deep sighs, looked at each other and uttered a simple “Wow!” It is a piece that is full of both brutal energy and arching melodic lyricism. The playing was taut, and yet transmitted a close to unhinged abandon that was captivating and a little scary. Afterwards Anssi too seemed energized by that afternoon’s performance, their 2nd performance of the piece. He commented on how liberating it was to have Magnus at the piano, taking dramatic liberties with the score—the kind of liberties that “you always want to take with a piece” but often feel drawn away from out of respect for the score. But with the composer there showing how much room for play there can be in the printed page, both Ansii and Chen let themselves go.
And now, after 10 marvelous weeks that have mixed family time with festival time, one final weekend before the new season gets going. Family, family, family this weekend (and a couple of hours here and there to dig into scores). On Tuesday I will be at AOP for Composers and the Voice rehearsals—back in the room discovering new music theater. But that is a story for next week….
Nixon in China began rehearsal yesterday morning at the Met– the morning after the Holiday Blizzard of 2010. After a very long drive back from Cleveland, which had us holed up in a Marriot Inn in Mt. Arlington, NJ on Sunday night, and a long Metro-North ride into Manhattan this afternoon, which had me crossing over from our broken-down train to the “rescue train”– I finally made it to C-Level Stage at 3:30, a mere 28 1/2 hours late. I quickly got a hug from Peter Sellars, introduced myself to John Adams, and we’re OFF!
Today’s rehearsal focused on Mao’s Secretaries, and their part in Act 1, Scene 2. Music rehearsal with John Adams conducting. Then the ladies started learning the elaborate hand choreography that seems to be the lion’s share of their staging. Peter describes it as fake Chinese Opera movement that he invented 24 years ago for the premiere. I conducted this part of rehearsal while John went off to a studio to work with Robert Brubaker, who is singing Mao. All in all, a good day at the office.
It is easy to find time to blog while on a gig away from home. It is hard to find time to blog while at home!
Lee Hoiby’s “Summer and Smoke” has been a huge success at Manhattan School of Music. The day after S&S closed I conducted a very exciting orchestral workshop of scene 1 from Conrad Cummings’ “The Golden Gate.” It was thrilling to hear the neo-Baroque orchestration that Conrad has devised.
Now in the final prep for “Nixon in China” which begins rehearsal on Monday morning.