The Percussionists and Timpanists of the MET Orchestra On Playing Opera vs. Symphonic Repertoire

Opera is a spectacular art form.  The virtuosity of the singers whose voices fill houses that seat thousands (The Metropolitan Opera seats 3800!); the orchestra; the magnificent sets and costumes; the drama, comedy, tragedy, romance, sex, deception, heartbreak, murder, etc. ... Have I left anything out???  There really just isn’t anything else quite like it.  I’ve had opera on my mind quite a bit recently as I’m involved in four different productions this fall at the MET as well as in two different productions with Gotham Chamber Opera, a company that presents extremely creative productions of smaller-scale, lesser known works.  As I’ve been rehearsing and performing throughout the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes playing percussion and timpani in opera different from straight symphonic playing and how those differences make our work uniquely interesting and challenging, especially for freelancers who don’t usually play this music all the time.

I thought I’d begin by asking the true experts — the timpanists and percussionists of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra — the following question:

What do you find to be the biggest difference between playing timpani or percussion in an opera and playing symphonic repertoire on stage? Or rather, what do you find to be its greatest challenge?

Rob Knopper, Percussionist with the MET Orchestra since 2011 responded:

Musically, the biggest surprise and the most consistent challenge that I faced when joining the MET Orchestra was placement. The fact that there are so many people involved in the music including singers with a liberal sense of rubato, chorus, conductor, occasional dancers and an extremely spread-out orchestra means that everybody has to be aware of a constantly stretching sense of time. Some notes fall 3-5 seconds after the visible downbeat, for a variety of practical, historical, emotional and traditional reasons, and some notes fall directly with the conductor’s baton. This isn’t a challenge that prevents proper music-making from happening - it’s one of the vital and beautiful ways that playing opera keeps every musician on their toes and engaged in collaboration during performances.

Principal Timpanist Jason Haaheim, the most recent addition to the section at the MET, expressed a similar sentiment a bit more colorfully:

Symphonic timpani is like riding on the back of a toboggan — you certainly need to steer, and brake here and there, but much of the time you can just enjoy the ride.  Operatic timpani is like leading a synchronized ski team down a 3 hour slalom course littered with land mines and zombies — lots of moving parts, numerous places to massively wipeout, and the possibility of getting your brains eaten … But if you can make it down the mountain in one piece, you're usually saying, “Oh my god that was AMAZING.”

When I presented this question to Duncan Patton, Principal Timpanist of the MET since 1984, he was at a loss for how to answer in only a couple of sentences.  Instead, thankfully, he elaborated on three different key points:

REPERTOIRE  The major Italian and French composers of opera - Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, Bizet, Gounod, Massenet, etc. - shared a difficulty in reconciling their increasingly complex harmonic language with the limitations of the conventional pair of hand tuned timpani in general use in their day.  The timpani parts require extensive editing to avoid lots of clashes of dissonance.  The timpanist must always make a careful study of the score and make numerous decisions about what pitch to play.

Another general point about this repertoire is that the musical style is, naturally, more theatrical than symphonic music.  When you have something that sounds like a storm, it isn't merely like a storm, it IS a storm.  If you have something that sounds like a funeral, it IS a funeral.  So we bring out the extremes in expression to heighten the drama.

SINGERS  They are the stars of our performance, and the orchestra is in the role of accompaniment most of the time.  Opera musicians cultivate an in-the-moment alertness at all times.  One ear is always on the singers - we always listen for that balance, and we always follow them for the phrase and placement.

ACOUSTICS  Playing in a pit is different than being on stage.  In general, the sound doesn't project as vividly, so it takes a little more work to project a big tone, and to achieve clarity, but pianissimo passages rarely need to be as delicate as on stage.

All of these considerations — note placement, dramatic function, acoustics, attention to stage, etc. — make playing opera a uniquely challenging, yet often a supremely rewarding experience for a percussionist or timpanist.  I am ever grateful to have the opportunity to play with these incredible musicians every now and then.  In my next post, I will discuss some of the ways in which all of these factors become particularly challenging when you don’t get the same experience day in and day out that a full-time orchestra member has and when you may have very little rehearsal time (or none at all!) when being asked to step in on a production.

Click here to find out what's happening THIS WEEK AT THE MET.  If you don't live in or near New York City and can't make it to a live performance, please check out the Live in HD schedule for broadcast times in a theater near you.  SiriusXM subscribers can listen to live broadcasts and past performances throughout the MET's recorded history on Met Opera Radio.

Finally, there are still three performances left of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of MtsenskFriday, 11/21/14 @ 7:30pm; Tuesday, 11/25/14 @ 7:30pm (SiriusXM broadcast); Saturday, 11/29/14 @ 1:00pm.  If you play percussion or timpani, YOU DON'T WANT TO MISS THIS ONE!!!