Pursuing Anvil Leads

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When I lived in Paris, the most delicious parts of my moveable feast were the long daily walks I took to discover the city in great detail. Because I got the city under foot so long ago, I can still be a flaneur in Paris and seldom consult a map. It also had an impact on my language skills. I am bilingual English-Italian -- speaking, writing and dreaming in both languages. My spoken German and Spanish are much better than my writing abilities. But I read and write in French with more ease than I speak it, in part because of the pesky accent but also because there is so much to read in Parisian public spaces.

One day I set out in search of Napoleonic sites and was instructed to find “Anvil Lead” (with the second word sounding like the verb rather than the metal in English).  I could not find it on the map but was told which way to walk. As I made my way down the left bank of the Seine, I asked one and all, “Ou peut-on trouvez Anvil Lead?” “Tout droit,” I was told with a gesture of the hand. I reached a large public space and asked my question again. “Mais vous etes ici!” was the response and then a large sign was indicated to me: Invalides. “Invalids?” I said. “Non monsieur, Anvil Lead!”

Which leads me to the subject of anvils in opera. I noticed this season that the Metropolitan Opera was presenting Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Verdi’s Il Trovatore between late September and mid-November. Both operas returned to the stage between March 30 and Saturday, when Il Trovatore is broadcast internationally (including on WQXR) and by HD transmission to movie theaters. 

Both operas famously use anvils. In the Wagner the Nibelungs work in the subterranean sweatshop hammering on the Rhine gold. In the Verdi the pounding of anvils used to make horseshoes lends color to the “Anvil Chorus” and the stirring singing of the gypsy Azucena. 

Anvils also appear in Siegfried, where the young hero hammers his sword Nothung back together, and Halevy’s La Juive, where it is part of the sounds of a jewelry shop.

I assumed that the reason the operas were done together is that anvils are brought to the theater and are deputized for both productions. But one should never assume anything, especially in opera. I did some inquiring and found the story to be considerably more complex and infinitely more interesting.

To pursue new anvil leads, this week I paid a visit to Greg Zuber, the Met’s principal percussionist, now in his 25th season with the company, and the legendary Dick Horowitz, the principal timpanist, who started at the Met in 1946. In addition to his skills as a musician, Dick (whom I have known since 1979) is a renowned craftsman of batons used by many of the world’s top conductors. It should not have surprised me to learn that he had a hand in creating anvils for Das Rheingold at the Met.

“When we did the previous Ring Cycle in the 1980s, I looked at the score and found that Wagner wrote the part with three octaves of Fs. I listened to the sounds of the anvil music on the Herbert von Karajan recording and it sounded like a subway train with square wheels--there were no pitches!” Dick went to James Levine, who encouraged him to try to fashion anvils (or something that produces such a sound) using his special combination of musicianship and manual dexterity

Dick went to the Met’s electrical shop and, through trial and error, found an aluminum electrical tube three inches in diameter whose wall is about one-quarter inch thick. He cut them with a rotary saw using very hard teeth. When struck at different points they achieve the notes and pitches Wagner called for. They look nothing like anvils, but the sound is unforgettable.

During performances, twelve people play them at four stations just barely offstage, following the score and watching the conductor on television monitors. There are two more players in the “tormentors” (the hollow towers within the proscenium arch). I have always been fascinated by the ghostly sound of the anvils during Das Rheingold. When seated in the auditorium, the clanging seems to be coming from all directions and you can picture the Nibelungs slaving away under the harsh scrutiny of Alberich.

Dick told me that at the old Metropolitan Opera House, anvils without pitch were played by assistant conductors using ball-peen hammers.

As principal percussionist, it is up to Greg Zuber to play the Rheingold anvils, just as he plays the smithing music in the Met’s recording of Siegfried. And what about Trovatore?, I asked.

If you have seen the current David McVicar production of Il Trovatore, you know that the second act Anvil Chorus features four very muscular men who are anything but Nibelungs. They pound on more conventional anvils and get into some rough conflicts when they are not playing.

“In the past,” said Greg, “we played anvils in the orchestra pit. With this new, more realistic production, they have those greasy muscle guys who play them on the stage. It’s not impossibly difficult to teach them the parts if they are musical.”

And why did they not use Met musicians to play them on the stage? “They couldn’t get us to fight with one another.” Saturday’s HD broadcast (starring Sondra Radvanovsky, Dolora Zajick, Marcelo Alvarez and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, conducted by Marco Armiliato) might well become a DVD, so that you can see those muscle guys at work. In the meantime, all I could find was a performance by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. Among the differences between theirs and the Met’s is that the accompaniment is by piano and there is only one anvil. Still, it’s a bit of good fun. 

The Met Trovatore anvils are, in fact, props. I got to inspect them and found that the central portion is indeed a piece of metal to be pounded, but most of it is a light-weight material shaped like an anvil that is painted (“distressed” is the actual term) to look worn. Met musicians were involved in selecting the metal used to make these as well. The ones chosen have a clearer pitch while a basic anvil (for horseshoes) is not intended for musical performances and produces random noise.

Last week I stood in the wings as the Trovatore anvils were played. The sound is visceral and rhythmic and I watched some chorus members reflexively blink each time an anvil was struck. Then I climbed up one of the tormentors, led by a stage manager, and listened from above. From that vantage point I heard the four anvils, watched Maestro Armiliato lead the orchestra and the chorus in Verdi’s thunderous music. And then I heard a sound that was even more thrilling, more musical, and even louder: Dolora Zajick as Azucena singing “Stride la vampa.” Here she is in the Met’s 1988 production. She’s even better today. No Invalides here!