The Anatomy of An Opera Rehearsal: Shaping The Music

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Many opera lovers I know no longer go to opening nights of the run of an opera, but for two very distinct and opposite reasons. Some of them prefer to go later in the run when they feel the cast has gotten over first-night nerves and has more experience in their costumes, in the set and with their colleagues. These audience members think of opening night as a sort of final dress rehearsal.

Then there are the opera lovers who insist on attending open rehearsals, which typically are the final dress rehearsals two or three days before opening night. This might be so that they can gossip before the paying audience sees the opera and feel au courant. Others who go to the final dress say they enjoy watching the work that goes into making a production although, in truth, by the time the final dress has come there should be very few substantial changes to be made.

The rehearsal process for an opera production is long and complex. I will address some of it in this post and save more for the future. For today, let us focus on some of the rehearsals that affect the musical elements of an opera production, with a nod here and there to how music impacts on the drama. Bear in mind that a new production, with new scenery, costumes, lights, stage direction, choreography, makeup and more, is considerably more labor-intensive and time-consuming than a revival of an existing production in which many of the most important elements are already in place and are being gently adapted to the particular talents of a new set of musicians.

In German a rehearsal is a probe, while in Italian it is a prova. Both words suggest “trying,” which is an essential behavior when art is being created. You try things, some work and some do not. Then you try other things. You try them alone; you try them with colleagues. The net result of all of this trying by a bunch of very talented and serious individuals is, when the operatic gods allow, the improbably amazing thing we know as a great night at the opera.

Many Ways To Woodshed

A leseprobe (which is also done in spoken theater) is a reading rehearsal in which performers read through the language of the text as if it were a play. Present will be the cast, the stage director (aka producer), assistant directors, the indispensable language coach and, quite often, the conductor.

A sitzprobe is a “sitting rehearsal,” and also comes early in the process. Here the conductor is entirely in charge and brings together orchestra, chorus and soloists to start shaping the musical elements of a production. Many readers and listeners of mine know that I come from the theatrical production side of opera and assume that I give priority to that. Let me state on the record, once and for always: The most important element of a great opera production is the music-making and all of the scenic, directorial and technical elements should be in service to the music.

There are many musical rehearsals of different kinds before and after the “sitz.” Many of these are one-to-one between a singer and a coach. Sometimes the person doing the coaching is the conductor him- or herself. This practice is indispensable because the conductor has (or should have) a very strong concept of what the musical “product” should be. I am sad to say that a large portion of the younger generation of conductors do not necessarily dedicate themselves to working with singers this way and that will be bad for the future of opera. This is where the knowledge, wisdom and all of the small but essential insights are transmitted to singers who, in turn, might teach them to the next generation. If some people find a certain surface sheen to some young singers where the depth should be, this is one of the reasons.

Then there is the final dress rehearsal (FD). After this, the show is “frozen.” This means that what was done at the FD will be what will be shown on opening night. Most theaters have a rule that the cast in the FD will sing the opening, in part because photos are taken for promotional use. Exceptions have been made but this is destabilizing, primarily because the cast that does the FD will have, by then, created something. 

Occasionally the cover (substitute) steps in at FD and then is given opening; the star will come back for the second performance and do the rest of the run. I can recall a few cases in which the scheduled artist was deemed not good enough at the FD and then told she is not going to perform in the production in front of paying audiences. This is quite rare and very expensive as a contract is being bought out. Once, in the 1980s, a soprano who was to make her debut at the Met as Elisabetta in Don Carlo, was told after the FD that she would not sing in the run of performances. When the press release came out, it was announced that she had a kidney infection. This was not so, but seemed to be the agreed-upon excuse.

The Art of the Rehearsal: Contrasting Approaches

I have selected for you some fascinating videos of rehearsals of two operas by Richard Strauss with libretti by Hugo von Hoffmansthal. These men created highly theatrical works in musical and in dramatic terms; Strauss’s music is some of the most difficult and thrilling ever composed. You will be fascinated by the contrast in styles of rehearsal owing to the conductors in charge.

From 1981 in Vienna we see Leonie Rysanek in a vocal rehearsal for her first performance as Elektra with the grand old maestro Karl Böhm, a frequent and much-admired collaborator. [The bust of Böhm that was in Founders Hall at the Met was commissioned and donated by Rysanek. I have not seen it lately and hope it is there when the opera season begins in September.] In this rehearsal, shown in two parts, there is a pianist and an assistant conductor, but Böhm is there to provide the wisdom and fine-tuning to the already superb work by the great Austrian soprano.

Part One:

Although Rysanek was one of the most outstanding artists of her era, there is no question that she is here to submit to the scrutiny and learn from the conductor. He is an old man and is economical in his expenditure of energy, but he is entirely focused on all that is happening. Watch more:

Now we go to an orchestra rehearsal of this same Elektra. Böhm has worked with his soloists, understands what they can do but also knows what he wants his orchestra to do. The conductor in an opera is the master of all musical elements. He may seem cranky or imperious, but he is being very efficient. One thing that all rehearsals have in common is that there is never enough time and the maestro must prioritize and deal with what he considers most important.

Contrast Böhm with the approach taken by James Levine in rehearsals for Ariadne auf Naxos at the Met in 1989. It should be stated that these wonderful videos were being filmed with the artists fully aware of the camera. I believe that Levine did not play to the camera at all and what we see and hear is what he really is. But some singers, as you will no doubt notice, do pay attention to the camera too.

James Levine here is a maestro both in the conductor and teacher sense of the word. He shapes the music in the orchestra and among the singers to create a dramatic narrative in musical terms. The stellar cast includes Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Tatiana Troyanos, Dawn Upshaw, Hermann Prey and Anthony Laciura. Some were young performers, others great stars and veterans. Levine hears and gets the best out of each. He is aware of what they need as well as what he wants, but achieves his goals in a much more affectionate and enthusiastic way than does Böhm. Part one:

In part two, Levine does much more detailed work with Battle and Norman. With Battle, we see the interesting contrast between work in a rehearsal with Maestro Levine and then onstage, in costume, under lights, and with orchestra:

For the next installment on this series, which will appear periodically, I will explore the work of the producer.