Opera orchestras: robots, or out of the loop?

Opera orchestras: robots, or out of the loop?

Jenna Simeonov

I’ve written before about the emotional rollercoaster caused by the arrival of the orchestra. In short: you, the singer/pianist/director/passionate stage manager, have spent weeks in music and staging rehearsals for a particular show, and you’ve no doubt grown close to the piece, and all your favourite moments in this particular production. For pianists, the way they play the score is informed by what they see being built up onstage; if it’s an interesting rehearsal process, I’ll probably play the score differently at the end of it than at the beginning, because I’ll know more things about this story now.

Then the orchestra comes in, and it’s exciting because they always sound better than a singular pianist (as admirable as their smoke and mirrors may be). But the big catch is that the players in the orchestra have just joined the party, and haven’t had the time or exposure to love the piece like you do. It’s not their fault. They’re not soulless beings. They’ve been hired to play some music, and they got that music a few days ago, and so they don’t know how special that chord is, because they don’t know all that Violetta has gone through, or that Schaunard has a sense of humour, goddammit.

Benevolent ignorance doesn’t cancel out the fact that these orchestra players are professionals, so this isn’t anything to actually panic about. But it does make me wonder what would happen if the entire orchestra were present for the whole process. Yes, it would definitely be way too expensive to hire an orchestra for that amount of time, and I don’t expect opera houses to start doing it. However, if the players were there for the director’s concept discussion, through all the initial music rehearsals, stagings, tech rehearsals, the whole deal, what would that sound like?

There’s a nasty stereotype out there that orchestra musicians have little interest in the theatre arts, and that playing for an opera is akin to playing in a pit band (which is also apparently a negative). I held that stereotype myself around my university years, because there are enough of these benevolently ignorant players complaining about having to play in the opera orchestra for credit. In the real world, it’s much more encouraging. A conductor can brighten a rehearsal by letting the orchestra in on a joke in the score, or pointing things like the Tristan chord. Great players ask for information like this, be it specific text cues, or what it means when certain music reprises in a sadder key. Some orchestra members even come to a piano dress rehearsal, which is their chance to see the show before they return to the pit.

Because the enthusiasm is there, it makes me curious about this kind of experiment. I realize I’m arguing myself out of a job, in a sense, by proposing that the entire orchestra hang out for rehearsal time that’s historically left for the conductor and pianist. I spent close to 20 years playing the piano without a second glance at singers, and in a few short months of exposure to opera, I was completely and totally hooked. The music meant something that it hadn’t before; in opera, the score has a reason for sounding the way it did. I don’t think I’m a rare musician in this way, a player who is inspired by a larger scope of sound and a meaningful dramatic context the story. It’s exciting to think about what might come out of a whole orchestra which has spent weeks, rather than days, with the opera they’re playing. My hunch is that not every player will genuinely care what’s going on onstage, but many of them will, and those players will play differently. I wonder, would the difference be audible?

It’s an expensive experiment, and in reality, not every minute of the rehearsal process will be valuable for the orchestra); yet I can’t help but think that this final piece of the opera puzzle isn’t fully explored. It’s a big ask for a large group of players, and the cost is prohibitive for most operating opera houses. Schools are some of the only feasible places to find out how an orchestra’s process changes with more exposure to the opera as a whole. In the professional world, though, it’s another argument for compact, chamber-sized operas, where communication is immediate and eye contact is easy.

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