The pianist's tech week plightOp-ed
I’m working on an opera right now, and this week, we go into tech week. It’s a week where the role of the pianist becomes humbling. The tech rehearsals are so not about the music. The director and his crew of lighting and set designers take over the game, and in the best cases, it’s for a great reason. It means that there will be costumes, sets, and spectacular theatrical sleights-of-hand to complete that magical music that the pianist loves so much. We are invited to remember how opera is theatre, not a concert. Humbling indeed. So there the pianist sits, alone in the empty orchestra pit, out of sight and out of mind to most. The cast and crew look down at him or her, with a look of amused pity in their eyes, as they wave and say something like, “How’s it going down there?” The answer is: slightly deflated.
Tech week also means the orchestra enters the picture, and I hope I’m not the only coach who still feels a pang of emotional struggle during this sensitive time. I remember the first time I worked as a répétiteur; when the orchestra rehearsals began and we moved from the rehearsal space into the theatre, I was extremely hurt. Irrationally so. I smile now thinking of it, but I remember feeling like all my creative efforts had been coldly torn away from me. By the time tech week begins, there are three people who know the opera like the back of their hand: the director, the conductor, and the répétiteur. Every corner, every dramatic and rhythmic beat, every line of harmony and every single word of the libretto are seared into the minds of this powerful triumvirate. And then, it gets (temporarily) torn to pieces.
Let me elaborate. From the point of view of a young, eager coach, the first impression of the orchestra is that it’s an insensitive beast. I’ll go back to my own naïve thoughts during my first experience with an operatic orchestra rehearsal. Who were these players, I thought, playing their parts with indifference? Didn’t the string section understand what was happening to my beloved operatic characters during those lush melodies? Violins, why are you playing her aria like that? Don’t you know what she’s been through? Who did these (very skilled) players think they were, stomping through exquisite moments of dramatic tension like it were simply some notes on a page?
I felt like I had been replaced by a mob of uncaring, innocently ignorant musicians. Even worse was when I joined the orchestra as simply another cog in the machine; my individual part looked ridiculous and bare, like I had spent weeks looking at a beautiful sunset, only to have someone force me to watch the grand finale through a keyhole. I sat, fidgeting, on the piano/keyboard/celesta bench, unable to see the show or hear any of the singers clearly, feeling frustrated and left out. I did not like this turn of events, just when the creative process was getting interesting.
The best coaches are control freaks anyway, so I think the emotional conflict that comes with tech week is really much more simple than any of the above. It’s about: I wanna do it. And that’s problematic, considering the coach’s job description. Before tech week, the job is: make sure the singers are prepared, and facilitate rehearsals by re-creating the orchestra’s parts at the piano. Coaches love to work from the piano, and I’m guilty of getting hooked on it. My personal favourite rehearsal for an opera is the piano dress rehearsal. You get to play the whole opera without stopping, and the show is (theoretically) polished and ready to go. But here’s the catch: the piano dress rehearsal is no one else’s favourite rehearsal. If we’re being honest, the singers and conductor are sort of sick of the piano. They’re eager to hear that orchestra. I remember playing a piano dress of Carmen, my whole body vibrating with concentration and adrenaline from those final incredible pages; when we finished, I felt like I could lift a house. When I looked around at the rest of the cast, they looked exhausted and sort of bored. I realized I was alone in my joy. Sigh.
There’s no profound point to this rambling. In my old age, I realize that the pianist’s job simply gets more interesting, if less pianistic. We stay busy by acting as extra ears for the maestro, for the singers. We furiously take notes about where the singers get drowned out by that powerful (and thrilling) orchestra. We encourage the singers to point their voices downstage as much as possible, and to make the spit to in the name of clear text. We get to be the bridge between director, conductor and singer, and all it takes is the sacrifice for a bow onstage at the end of it all. Once you’re over that, you can get to some decent work. There’s a perfectly relevant saying: “There is no limit to the good a man can do if he doesn’t care who gets the credit.”