This is a guest post by Bailey Myers, master’s student in horn performance. Photographs by Ben Johnson.
Look no further – here’s the scoop on how we put together the music for Engelbert Humperdinck’s classic opera, Hänsel und Gretel!
If you find yourself in the audience of one of this weekend’s performances, you will most certainly be captivated and delighted by the revelry on stage. But what is happening beneath the stage? Incidental music intertwines with lighting and movement on stage to create the setting, a soundscape as much as a landscape. When the characters sing their lines, the orchestra moves in synchrony and together they become one storyteller. “We are part of an extramusical experience, in a way – it’s a whole art production,” says second-year GPD student and principal second violin Kaleigh Acord. “It’s like being in a movie while it’s happening, except you only get one take to capture each moment… that’s the thrill of it!”
A great deal of preparation is needed to put together the music for an opera. For the orchestra, opera playing presents unique challenges that differ from our orchestral experiences atop the stage. The music is highly programmatic and changes tempo and character every other bar, accompanying every word and gesture from the cast. Balancing the orchestra and the singers is also a difficult thing to get just right. While we need to play very quietly much of the time to allow the singers to be heard, we also cannot shy away from our duty to make things loud and exciting in the moments that call for it.
As for the cast members, they rehearsed the music with piano accompanists and conductor long before putting it together with orchestra. Nathan Cicero, MM student and one of three opera accompanists, shared what he found challenging about the process: “Since we are performing in place of an orchestra, it is our job to make our playing as orchestral as possible, which in this particular opera, was very difficult.” Because piano accompaniment typically provides much more flexibility to the singer than orchestral accompaniment, it is important to try and keep the rehearsals realistic right from the beginning. Sadly, as a rehearsal accompanist, Nathan will never actually get the opportunity to perform it for an audience. However, he says that “the best part of the production is the collaborative aspect, spending long hours with singers, conductors, coaches, and directors, and getting to know them all.” He concludes, “…and of course the music is absolutely beautiful – it has been a privilege for me to get to play it and have a small but necessary part in this production.”
During those first rehearsals with piano, it is also important to get used to singing with a conductor, which is where Nell Flanders comes in. Nell is a 2nd-year DMA student in orchestral conducting and the assistant conductor for Hansel and Gretel. Before guest conductor Maestro Simeone Tartaglione arrived to rehearse the orchestra and finalize the production, Nell was at stagings and vocal coachings laying down the foundation. This has been her first time working with a full-scale opera production, and she has enjoyed participating in the vocal coaching and staging side of things as well as seeing firsthand the challenges of putting together singers and orchestra from a conductor’s perspective. To make an analogy, she says opera is “like playing a concerto, but the distance is farther” between orchestra and soloists, which makes coordination even trickier.
While Nell, like Nathan, played her largest role in the rehearsal and preparation of this production, she will also be involved in this weekend’s performances, conducting the off-stage echo chorus among other things. Of course, she is also technically the understudy conductor, which she found a bit scary to think about. In any case, she says it has been a “total pleasure from start to finish, working with opera coaches, conductor, singers, orchestra, director… I’m very happy with how it turned out, and am looking forward to the shows this weekend.”