It’s the Tuesday afternoon before a Wednesday performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. Johannes Debus, the Canadian Opera Company’s music director, seems relaxed in his Spartan office on Front Street East, as he describes the challenges of his job.
“The conductor in an opera has to bring all the forces together” says the 37-year-old maestro. “There are so many elements in an opera – and even in the best opera houses in the world, problems can happen. But whatever happens, you have to stay calm.”
However, like most opera orchestras, the COC’s players work in a pit and don’t get much limelight. So let’s take an up-close look at them.
Critics aren’t usually admitted to the orchestra pit during opera performances, but special permission is sought and granted. For the Wednesday evening performance, a chair is made available behind the violins.
7:15 p.m. It’s just a quarter hour before curtain time, and the players are still trickling in. As orchestra pits go, this is a nice one – nothing at all like the popular image of a narrow space almost too cramped to bow a cello. The musicians wear black: They’re there to be heard, not seen.
7:30 p.m. The curtain is drawn back, and Debus gives his downbeat. It soon becomes apparent that an opera looks quite different to an orchestral player than it does to the audience. Some of the violins have a partial view of the action, whenever a singer comes to the edge of the stage. But there may well be players in the woodwind section who have never seen an opera in their lives, so completely is their view obscured.
7:45 p.m. Now it’s getting complicated. There’s an offstage band in this scene that has no direct view of the conductor, but Debus must somehow synchronize its performance with the main orchestra and singers. For this purpose, there’s a closed-circuit camera mounted in the pit, pointing directly at Debus. And backstage, there’s a TV monitor that allows an assistant conductor to see Debus, and conduct the offstage band at exactly the same tempo.
8:15 p.m. Evidently, playing in an opera orchestra can be very different from playing in a symphony orchestra. For one thing, opera music doesn’t always make much sense on its own, divorced from the vocal parts and the action onstage. For the orchestra, Rigoletto is a maze of abrupt stops, starts and surprises: Verdi has a way of keeping musicians on their toes.
8:30 p.m. It’s intermission, and the players go to the green room (which is beige) for a well-earned break. They read magazines, drink coffee and chat about friends and family. They don’t talk about the opera. Then it’s back to the pit.
9 p.m. Many years ago, some wag came up with the nickname “Hurdy-Gurdy Verdi” for the Italian composer, due to his style of orchestration. Like all opera composers of the mid-19th century, Verdi filled his scores with oom-pah-pah passages for the orchestra.
However, don’t tell the members of an opera orchestra they are merely “accompanying” the singers onstage. It’s not a word these musicians use – and they take their oom-pah-pahs very seriously. So too does Debus, who lovingly shapes each one.
9:30 p.m. Onstage, Rigoletto is having a bad day: His daughter has been abducted by the Duke of Mantua. He pours out his grief in an unusual trio with a solo cello and English horn. But at the end of the aria, all the applause seems to go to baritone Quinn Kelsey. That’s life in an opera orchestra.
10 p.m. After the timpani drums drive home the shocking ending of Rigoletto, Debus makes a quick exit from the orchestra pit. Two minutes later, he’s onstage for his curtain call, and stepping forward, he gestures to the orchestra to stand. For one short minute, the COC Orchestra gets its due.
© Colin Eatock 2011