Logistics vs. Logic
18 Jan 2011
Inside the Classics

We’re stepping out of our comfort zone as an orchestra this week with Mozart’s absolute masterpiece of an opera, The Magic Flute. We end every summer season with an opera, and we’ve certainly done a few with Osmo over the years as well, but as I’ve written before, playing opera is extremely different from playing the symphonic repertoire. You have to go into it with a completely different mindset, and be ready to turn on a dime at any moment.

Additionally, mounting operas at Orchestra Hall is complicated by the fact that we don’t have an orchestra pit, and there’s no possible way for us to be anywhere but on the stage with the singers. This presents a visual obstacle, obviously, but it also completely changes the approach we have to take to the music. In a pit, the orchestra can play with a pretty full sound without worrying about drowning out the voices, and composers account for that when they write our parts. But if we’re onstage and projecting the way we ordinarily do, even the sopranos don’t stand a chance, let alone the poor altos and basses. So everything has to be hushed considerably whenever someone is singing, and you have to find a way to do that without sounding wimpy or underpowered, either. It’s a delicate balance, and over the course of a multi-hour opera, it gets flatly exhausting. (It tends to come as a surprise to non-musicians, but soft playing is almost always more physically demanding than loud.)

And then, there are the logistical issues of having us on stage. Obviously, it makes building a full set an absurd idea (even if we had the budget for that, which we totally don’t,) but putting on a “concert” production, in which the singers simply stand in front of the orchestra and sing their parts without acting or moving always looks a little uncomfortable for everyone, and takes away from the dramatic power of the form. So we’ve tended to settle for what we call “semi-staged” productions, in which a minimal number of set pieces are placed around the front of the stage, we’re pushed to the back, and the singers enter, exit, and act just as they would in any fully staged opera. This generally works fine, though it’s a bit of a sonic backflip for the singers, who are used to having orchestra and conductor in front of them, and who now have to deal with hearing far more instrumental sound than they’re used to and only seeing the conductor on a few video monitors mounted at the front of the stage.

This week, however, the orchestra’s getting a taste of the acoustical nightmare as well. As we walked into rehearsal this morning, we were confronted with this, shall we say, unique seating arrangement…


Just to orient you, that’s the conductor’s podium on the far left, with the first desks of second violins and violas just to the right. Then there’s, oh, about a five-foot gap, before the rest of the seconds and violas are crammed into the space at extreme house right. The brass and percussion are back there with us, as well.

Same story over on the other side of the stage, as well…

The practical upshot of this, from the orchestra’s perspective, is that more than half of each of the string sections can’t hear a thing the players up front are doing, and no one on stage right can hear anyone on stage left, and vice versa. Which is a major problem, because The Magic Flute is vintage Mozart, full of intricate little harmonic moments and rapid tempo shifts. Just getting the overture together took a ridiculously long time this morning.

The visuals aren’t too good from the back, either. I’m used to positioning myself where I can easily see my principal’s bow when I’m in the back of the section, but given my current position, wedged up against the ramp, that ain’t happening.

Maybe we could try smoke signals...

So what do you do in this situation? Basically, everyone just has to trust each other. I have to trust that the violas I can see are going to be perfectly in sync with our principal, and that he’s going to be locked in with the other string principals. The brass have to trust that the string players they can actually hear (which is to say, the back of the seconds and violas) will line up with what they’re seeing from Osmo. And Osmo has to trust that we can tell the difference between when he’s conducting us, and when he’s conducting to the camera that connects him to the singers.

Essentially, this sort of staging turns the entire performance into a mass version of one of those team-building games where you fall backward and trust your co-workers to catch you. Only you’re never entirely sure whether it’s your turn to fall, or to catch. Sounds fun, no?

<October 2019>

Become a Fan

Become a fan of Sarah Hicks to hear about new music, videos, event info & special offers.