Wednesday, June 29, 2011

At the Opera

Opera is one of the greatest art forms mankind has ever created.  Nearly all forms of high art come together to make one giant over-the-top show.  Of course, the most obvious art is the music, but think about all of the other work that goes in to create the enormous spectacle that is opera.  You have the composer who writes the music, you have the librettist that writes the, well, libretto (words), a choreographer for the dancing, painters for the incredibly complex set design, and a director that brings this all together and at the same time tries to get the singers to act in a fashion that is marginally believable.   Of course, there are even more people that contribute, so if I forgot your particular specialty (I’m looking at you, creepy lighting designers) please forgive me. 

Being a musician in this setting is a unique experience, and being a brass player is especially difficult.  The thing about the instrumental music of an opera is that it is the second most important part of the show, the first being the singing.  Everything the musicians play is in the context of the singing on stage, which isn’t a problem if you play your instrument into a wall of feather pillows.  Most of us, however, aren’t able to transport that many pillows to every performance, let alone provide the structural stability required to make a wall out of them.   So instead we adjust by playing everything incredibly soft, which is the equivalent of torture to a brass player.  The music in front of us could say “EXTREMELY LOUD, PLEASE,” and any brass player would be happy to oblige, but if someone happens to be singing at that moment, which, at the opera, is very likely, we are forced instead to translate it to “USE YOUR INSIDE VOICES, PLEASE.” 
Not at all the same.  Sometimes, even though we are playing with the strength of a newborn puppy,

the conductor determines that we are still too loud, that our volume, tempered though it may be, is still too overwhelmingly intense.  We are reprimanded with a raised left hand in our direction. 

A clear statement of failure on our part, but there is hope for forgiveness if only we play a little softer. 

 Somehow we manage to be quieter, and the opera is saved.  For now.

 To avoid situations like this, I like to follow a simple rule of thumb: if you can’t hear the cellist (that’s right, that one guy) at the other end of the pit you’re playing too loud.

I often end up playing too loud whether or not I’m actually playing, but it’s worked so far 

Another one of the uniquely brass experiences in the opera pit is the sheer amount of doing nothing that we do.  A good portion of our time and extensive expertise as musicians is spent on counting rests, which is a measured amount of silence between what we last played and what we play next.   This commonly looks like a large number, let’s say 64 for the purposes of this example, over a black bar, and this number indicates the number of measures we need to count to ourselves before we play again.  Measures most often contain 4 beats, so in this example we would have to count 256 beats before our next entrance.  Since it’s easy to get lost or confused counting to 256, we instead count to 4, and every time we hit four that indicates the passage of a measure.  It would look like this:




all the way to


In order to help ourselves out, we use our fingers to keep track of measures as well, starting over after every five measures.  Now, because we have to count soooo many rests, it’s easy to get distracted when we should be keeping careful track of where we are in our counting.  Imagine yourself playing the 2nd trumpet part for Carmen.  You have 64 bars of rest, and so far you’ve kept good concentration.  Eventually your mind drifts off to something like this:

                What in the world are they saying up there?  Should I look at the supertitles?  Nah, that would probably just make things worse.  I wish I could read something right now.  I mean, it’s not like anyone in the audience would notice.  Well I guess that guy in the balcony over there could see me, I mean if he really tried hard.  Why would he do that?  Why would anyone look down here in the pit instead of watching the stage?  What a jerk.  I sound like that angsty kid in that book I read in high school.  What was that called?  Oh yeah.  Catcher in the Rye.  Wait, it was a different book about an angsty kid. Geez, why did we read so many of those?

At this point it hits you that you aren’t exactly sure where you are.   Your fingers have been keeping a diligent vigil on the number of measures that has gone by, but you need to make sure that they aren’t lying to you, so you check the hand of the guy sitting next to you.

Your buddy’s hand says the same thing, but then it hits you; you’re not sure if your five raised fingers are counting 15 or 20, or maybe you were all the way at 35.  Did you already hear that thing the violins do around the 32nd measure?  Crap.  After a minute of sheer torture you hear that thing, that special thing that happened every time you got to the 32nd measure.  You’re safe.  You know where you are, and that you don’t have to play for another 32 measures.  All you have to do is pay attention this time.  That sounds simple enough.

 Sadly, you realize that this happens pretty much any time you have a rest longer than 10 measures, and since that is more often than not, you get lost a lot.  Luckily, the time you spent not playing during all the rehearsals gave you at least one of those special, easily recognizable sections in every large rest, and if you’re at all smart, as I usually am if I have a pencil, you wrote them down on your music:

Violins go “brreeeah!” at measure 32.

By some miracle the opera ends without anything going terribly wrong.  Sure you played a beat early at that one part, but you were playing so softly, by the conductor’s orders if you remember, that no one but yourself and anyone within 6 feet, which in a pit is a good portion, knows about it.  Tomorrow night you do it all over again.