Peter Sellars watches Chou En-lai greet Richard Nixon
The Metropolitan Opera is one very large institution, sort of the Pentagon or General Motors of classical music. It’s the Big Kahuna in every way. Sprawling over the better part of a city block, its actual physical space is far more than meets the eye at street level. Musicians, administrators and stagehands enter the building at ground level, but much of the activity takes place in the three subterranean floors that go deep below. The building is so vast that its not impossible for people to go weeks working every day and not see someone they know who works in a different department.
On a single day up to eight or ten operas can be either in rehearsal or already in performance. The daily schedule that the Met puts online for all its artists and employees to consult reads like the Grand Central timetable. The coming week, for instance, involves performances of three different Verdi operas, plus the inescapable Tosca and rehearsals for an orchestra concert featuring Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.” There will be rehearsals for a Gluck opera while at other times there may also be daytime presentations of a shortened “Magic Flute” for children.
Then of course there are rehearsals and coachings and dance classes. “Nixon in China” has been in rehearsal since just after Christmas, and the rehearsals go for six hours a day, six days a week. Much of this takes place in a labyrinth of rooms so deep underground that it would not be a surprise to bump into Dante and Virgil, dazed and confused.
The main event of the Met of course is the auditorium itself, a very large and elegant performance space that seats 3800 and is nothing short of an acoustical miracle. Why the Met is blessed with such excellent sound and its two neighbors, the New York Philharmonic’s Avery Fisher Hall and the David H. Koch Theater (home to the New York City Ballet and City Opera) have only fair to middling acoustics is a mystery. I recently heard a Philharmonic concert in Avery Fisher and was reminded of how drab the sound was there. This is a scandal, because the New York Philharmonic is one of the world’s great orchestras, and its musicians deserve to perform in a space that does justice to their playing. I have not heard the recently improved David H. Koch Theater across the Lincoln Center Plaza, but in the past years when I conducted in the pit (for the NYC Ballet) or listened from the audience, the sound was dead on arrival.
But the Met is blessed with good sound. And it’s blessed with an orchestra that is a marvel, the result of years of devotion and care by its longtime music director, James Levine. This immensely flexible ensemble not only plays a staggering number of opera performances every year, but it also presents concerts at Carnegie Hall with repertoire ranging from Mozart to Elliott Carter. On New Year’s Day we had the privilege of hearing Simon Rattle conduct “Pelléas et Mélisande” with his wife Magdalena Kožená singing Mélisande. The sound emerging from the pit was luminous and subtly detailed, and the voices onstage were clear and unforced. Knowing that I would soon be working with the same orchestra in my rhythmically tricky “Nixon in China” I emailed Simon and asked him how he liked working with the Met Orchestra. He responded immediately that it was “the experience of a lifetime.” He loved the players and was particularly taken by their good humor in working long hours. Some orchestral musicians in the US and elsewhere can be tough customers, especially those who labor away in the back of large string sections and feel that their efforts rarely matter. As a conductor you can experience their attitude when you walk off the podium after a performance. The audience may be going berserk with pleasure, but the back section violinists will just sit there with grim, stony expressions on their faces.
But the Met Orchestra players, even though they play in the relative obscurity of the orchestra pit, seem to exude a sense of pride and pleasure in what they are doing. On my first day of orchestra readings more than a few of the players came up to me and expressed their excitement over the project and told me that they’d downloaded the recording and listened to it in advance of the rehearsal. This is something you don’t often hear coming from the majority of orchestra players.
Getting a new production of an opera up and running is a complicated matter. The staging rehearsals usually involve only the cast, a few hugely talented and overworked rehearsal pianists, the conductor and the director and stage managers. In the case of “Nixon in China,” these piano rehearsals started on December 27, the day of the Great Blizzard of 2010. By the time the production opens on February 2 there will have been over a hundred hours of staging rehearsals. Of course not every opera gets this kind of treatment, but intense preparation of the staging is the way Peter Sellars always works. This pays off in many ways. Not only is the staging minutely detailed and subtly shaded, but also the endless repetitions of scenes make the singers musically confident. Many operas are performed with minimal attention to acting or carefully choreographed movement. I don’t know much about the early history of staging practices in eighteenth and nineteenth century opera, but I suspect that back then gesture and movement were pretty much left to the singers—with probably pretty awful results. Now operatic staging has swung almost too far in the other direction, with directors becoming hectically proactive and using the often-vague implications of a libretto to construct the wildest, frequently tendentious and absurd interpretations. But at least it’s no longer left to whimsy.
Simple economics make the apportioning of rehearsal time between staging and orchestral preparation inherently unjust. The orchestra is available for a depressingly small amount of rehearsal time. In familiar repertoire—and that does indeed make up the great majority of most opera houses, the Met included—this is adequate, as a “Tosca” or a “Rigoletto” may require only a few rehearsals to whip into shape. But with a tricky new score such as “Nixon in China” with its endless mine fields of shifting pulses and changing meters, the players have to cope with processing an enormous amount of information in a very small number of rehearsals. As of today (January 18th) we have had the luxury of nearly eighty hours of piano staging rehearsals, but the orchestra has rehearsed for a total of less than nine hours. Next week I will have three three-hour sessions in the pit with the orchestra and all the cast. That will be the last chance to get the music as exact as we can before the final dress rehearsal, which occurs before an invited audience.
Under such pressed circumstances the conductor’s job is to intuit which problematic passages will eventually take care of themselves (through the natural musical grasp of the players) and which will never be right without slow, laborious rehearsing. It’s been my experience that with new and unfamiliar music the very best orchestral musicians love to take “baby steps,” to go slowly through a passage. Pressing them forward at the “correct” tempo when they’ve not yet had time to process the notes in front of them or understand how those notes relate to what’s coming from the rest of the orchestra creates a stressful and counterproductive situation.
What separates an average orchestra from a virtuoso one like the Met’s is the learning curve. The Met’s players are so instinctively sharp that although a first reading of a passage may sound ragged and full of wrong notes and missed rhythms, the second pass will yield a vast improvement as the players process the information. But even with this exceptional learning curve, there is much work to be done. “Nixon” requires a kind of video-game alertness and attention that only familiarity with the music can give, and that familiarity will have to establish itself in a very short span of time.
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
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