Dazed and Confused…….

It’s been a long week at the Opera de Lyon. As I try to mentally re-hash all that has happened my mind keeps wandering to that classic blues song found on Led Zeppelin’s first album. The song’s title is “Dazed and Confused.” It seems suddenly very appropriate.

Anyone who has any experience with the production of an opera will not be surprised to hear me say that there have been bright spots, and there have been moments that I would love to forget. Bright spots include working with the orchestra. The opera orchestra here is a fine bunch of musicians who seem to be thoroughly enjoying working on Mr. Gershwin’s opera. They never get a chance to play music like this – this year’s rep for them has included Siegfired, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Lady in the Dark. Doing Gershwin is completely new and it’s obvious they relish the opportunity. The woodwind soloists are exemplary, and the brass has been very co-operative. Let me repeat that last statement for emphasis – the brass has been very co-operative. Go buy your lottery tickets now.

Low spots include the usual clash of egos as well as trying to bring everyone together with the staging. This is a complicated opera where roles dive in and around other roles, and there is the added complication of having two choruses to deal with. The “black” choruses spends most of their time on stage but it is obvious that in some sections they are so worried about remembering the staging that they forget to sing out. The “white” chorus only appears on stage twice (makeup!!! I’m calling for the makeup department!!!) and the rest of the time they are behind the “mirror” doors to the side of the stage. This complicates matters on many levels, including dynamics, diction, co-ordination, entrances, cut-offs…. did I miss anything? Probably.

I am also somewhat confused as to what is happening compared to what I am hearing. Last night we did our piano dress, where we run through the entire opera (fully staged) with piano accompaniment. Afterwards I got a call from our Porgy talking about tempos. He mentioned three things specifically, and the strange thing is that in all three instances I thought we were too slow, but from what I was hearing it seemed that we (the pianist and I) were ahead of him, so I kept adjusting to bring us into line. These three passages are ones we have talked about before and we’re in agreement that they should actually go faster than most people take them. Needless to say I was somewhat confused.

I have a theory this morning, and I’m running with it until proven otherwise. Here’s the physical situation – the piano and I are down in the pit. We’re a passable distance away from the singers and I don’t think we get a true reflection of what is happening aurally in the hall. The piano is also miked, ostensibly so that the singers can hear it on stage. But what I’m starting to suspect is that there’s some sort of time delay involved. I think I hear the piano a split second before the singers do, and because of the acoustics of the hall there’s a further delay in hearing the singers on stage from where I’m at in the pit. So we get locked into a vicious cycle. I feel like I’m ahead so I slow down. They want to go faster but they sound behind. They get out of breath so I give them more time to breathe, which slows us down further. But they still sound behind so…… etc., etc.

Having been a singer in another life, and having worked with many of them as both a conductor and a pianist, it pains me to no end to have situations where they are uncomfortable making lines. But I’m trying to use my usual conductor instincts and they may have led me into a trap. I shall attack the problem in two ways:

1) tomorrow, before our full rehearsal, I shall run a little experiment onstage, just to get a better feel for what they are hearing AND what is going out into the hall. What I suspect is that I shall end up making the conscious decision to drive some tempos and somewhat ignore what my ears are telling me. I’m not necessarily happy with that because, surprise surprise, I rely on my ears to tell me what’s going on. But an adjustment in that arena may be necessary.

2) tomorrow we also have the orchestra in the pit. There is no miked piano and the whole sonic ambience will be different. In many ways it will be that much easier for the singers to sing because of the support that the orchestra brings to the table. I have hope that this change will go a long way towards alleviating the problems that we face.

Meanwhile, today is a day off for the musical side of things. I am going to treat myself to a shiatsu massage. I am an advocate for this type of bodywork for all musicians, and I usually get a shiatsu every two weeks like clockwork. It has been over 5 weeks for me now and my body is hurting. Spending up to eight hours a day waving one’s arms around dragging 150 people through an opera is not conducive to keeping the body in top working condition.

T-9 days and counting. Yikes……..

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