Before I discuss how all of the challenges involved with playing percussion in opera that the MET Orchestra members talked about in my last post affect me as an occasional extra player, it’s important to understand how a huge opera company like the Metropolitan Opera operates.
In any given week, the MET will perform seven total performances of four different operas as well as rehearse during the weekdays for one, possibly two different upcoming productions. Due to this rotating performance schedule — visit This Week at the Met to see what I’m talking about — all the performances of one single opera could span one, two, three months or even more. Aida, for example, has already been performed seven times this season with nine more performances scheduled throughout December, January and April!
It's also important to understand the difference between “switching” and “non-switching” operas for the orchestra:
Non-switching operas are productions wherein the orchestra personnel for all the rehearsals and all the performances will stay the same. Non-switching operas are usually premieres, new productions or operas that don’t get programmed very often. Usually they are less familiar and therefore have the most rehearsals. Also, all the operas that James Levine conducts in a season are non-switching. He is the boss after all! Examples from this season include Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Death of Klinghoffer and Die Meistersinger von Nürenberg.
Switching operas are productions of which different players are allowed to rotate in and out as the scheduling needs require. So one performance of a switching opera may have a different principal or section makeup than another performance of the same opera. Switching operas are usually standards that get programmed every season or every couple of seasons and have far fewer rehearsals because the entire orchestra has played them dozens, if not hundreds of times and knows them inside and out. Examples from this season include La Bohème, Aida, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, etc.
So, what does this mean for my other percussion colleagues and me when we get asked to play extra or sub? The situation usually falls into one of the following three categories:
1) THE IDEAL - We will be asked a month or two in advance to play all rehearsals and performances for the entire run of a production.
This is the best case scenario and is the type of situation that most people get used to as they go through through their studies in college or conservatory. Get the music early, study the score, practice the part and have plenty of time (anywhere from 3-7 rehearsals) to decide on instrument choices, figure out sounds and learn all the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the individual players, singers, conductor and the orchestra as a whole. This could be for either a switching or non-switching production.
Just yesterday, we finished up the run of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. I was asked in September to play woodblock and a few tam-tam and sus. cymbal notes for the entire run. Awesome! Got the music, studied the score, listened to recordings, practiced my part, finalized my instrument and mallet choices and was ready for the first rehearsal. They had not performed this work since 1994, so even though some of the orchestra members had played it before, 20 years had passed since and there was a lot to review and remember. In essence, we were all figuring things out together and making necessary adjustments as we went along. Fellow freelance and Broadway percussionist Andy Blanco and Ian Sullivan, the new Principal Timpanist of New York City Ballet, were also playing extra. It was a great section and a great run!
2) THE WAY COOL BUT SOMETIMES A LITTLE SCARY AND STRESSFUL - We will be asked to play a portion of the rehearsals and a portion of the performances of a run.
When this happens, it’s almost always for a rotating production for which there are only a handful of rehearsals, maybe three or four in total. We may play and/or attend a couple of them and play as few as one or two performances or as many as half, possibly more. This is always for a switching opera. We usually have a good amount of lead time for these, but sometimes they do come up at the last minute.
Right before rehearsals for Lady Macbeth were to begin, Principal Percussionist Greg Zuber asked me, “Can you cover cymbals in Aida on 11/22 and 12/26?” I looked at my calendar … “Yeah! Thanks!” “Great,” he said. “The rehearsals are on 10/22-24. On 10/22, Rob will play cymbals and you’ll watch. You’ll play on 10/23 & 24.” Automatically, this situation is way more complicated than Lady Macbeth. I don’t know how many times the MET has played Aida, but I imagine it’s just shy of a bazillion and they know where to place every single note. That huge entrance before the end of Act I? The conductor is going to put his hands down on one, but the orchestra is listening for the rhythmic placement of the word, "Ftha" from the onstage chorus. Where do I put that climactic crash in Act II over which "WAIT!" is penciled in bold? Well, if someone at the MET bothers to write "WAIT!" in the music, you wait. A LONG TIME. Turns out you can just barely hear over the massive crescendo in the orchestra how the soprano sings a run into the downbeat after her high note that she stretches on beat 4 prior. Line it up with THAT. How about those five bars where we play majestically on beats 1 and 3? Can't we just play that in tempo? Not so fast! The brass have a sixteenth note pickup into bar two along with a hundred chorus members on stage that is nearly impossible to hear over the soprano going to town on her solo line and the cymbals already screaming at me after my first two crashes. LISTEN CAREFULLY!!! So basically for a 3-hour and 40-minute opera, I have 10 hours of rehearsal to decode each note, wait a month, execute a performance, wait another month and execute another performance. Thankfully Barry Centanni was in the same boat playing bass drum, so we navigated the minefield together. This is the kind of experience you don't get in school, nor does anyone ever really tell you about it.
3) THE OH %@&#!!! - We will be asked to come in to play a rehearsal or performance in a matter of hours.
This, for obvious reasons, is less than ideal, but things happen and we have to deal with it — People get sick, snowstorms cause people to get stuck in New Jersey or cause problems with public transit, etc. Best case scenario: it’s a rehearsal for something we've played before. Worst case scenario: it’s a performance of something we've never played or even heard before.
On December 10, 2009, I got a call from Greg sometime during the day. "Can you come play cymbals in Strauss’s Elektra tonight at 8?” 😳 ... Gulp ... Excited, but more than a little terrified I responded, “Um … Yes?” I meant it as a statement, but it definitely sounded like a question. “OK, great. Feel free to come into the library and grab a score if you need to. I’ll be playing bass drum.” I had played Elektra at the Verbier Festival with Levine during the summer of 2003, but that had been years prior and I had played a completely different part. My recollection of the details after six years was a little lacking, to say the least. Furthermore, I had only just started a partial run of Turandot that season which was my only experience to date playing with the MET in the pit and I had only just begun to become aware of and figure out how to deal with all of the types of things I described above about Aida. My only experience with the MET up to that point had been onstage playing in costume for The First Emperor (1 of 8 players playing with rocks on Chinese tom-toms), offstage anvils in Das Rheingold (1 of 12) and playing slapstick in Varèse Amériques (1 of 10?) for a Carnegie Hall concert. None of those playing situations were subject to the same kind of scrutiny as playing cymbals next to the Principal Percussionist in Elektra, so in my mind, this qualified as a “don't %@&# this up" moment. Anyway, I went into the library as soon as I possibly could, grabbed a score and proceeded to listen and study, making notes lightly in pencil that I could easily erase later (I didn’t want to litter their parts with my markings). I was able to get through it twice before I had to grab a quick bite and get changed for the show. When Greg arrived, he put two or three pairs of cymbals in front of me that I had never before touched, I played a few test crashes to get acclimated, Fabio Luisi walked out onto the podium (thank god I had no idea who he was at the time!) and it was go time! I really don’t remember a lot about that performance, except that I came out of it 90 minutes later not entirely, but mostly unscathed … At least I think???
What I do actually remember about that performance, though, is the following: The reasons for the orchestras tendency to place things in so many different places relative to the conductor’s beat, as Rob Knopper described, was still molto misterioso to me in spite of the fact that I had figured some of this stuff out by playing Turandot. I'm sure I came in early a time or three! The acoustic challenges, as Duncan Patton described, were particularly troubling. Being situated in the back of the pit under the overhang makes our instruments sound particularly raw, not to mention that the prompter’s box separating one side of the pit from the other cuts us off from the sight and sound of basses, celli, first violins, harp and most of the winds. And certainly, sight-reading a performance like that for me at that time definitely made me feel, as Jason Haaheim put it, like I was "on a slalom course littered with land mines and zombies.” There were indeed "many places to massively wipe out; I did feel like my brains had been eaten after that 90 minute whirlwind of Elektra, but it WAS amazing! I've not experienced the same kinds of challenges from any symphony orchestra experience I've ever had, although they have their own kinds of challenges.