By Lauren Roth
Rehearsing, playing and performing different kinds of music requires varying skills. Orchestral musicians are accustomed to preparing and performing different programs weekly with limited rehearsal time. Soloists develop an understanding of the demands of traveling, memorizing long, complex pieces and rehearsing perhaps only twice before a concert. Giving a solo recital in a smaller venue (as opposed to a large concert hall) is often more intimate and requires that the performer be essentially the soloist for an entire two-hour concert. Musicians of an opera orchestra coordinate with singers and combine difficult repertoire with an onstage production that can last over four hours. As concertmaster of the Tucson Symphony and assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s Fred Fox School of Music, I am most familiar with playing symphonic concerts, though I have performed in each of these capacities, and I am aware of these varying demands.
Although I do not perform opera with my orchestra as part of our subscription season, I do so as a faculty member of Classical Movements’ Prague Summer Nights: Young Artists Music Festival. This 30-day festival is an opera and orchestral training program for conservatory-age students held annually in the Czech Republic and Austria in June and July. It is a joy to work side-by-side with these students, who come from all over the world, as we rehearse, practice, perform and even sightsee together. From my overall opera experience, and especially with PSN, I find the demands of opera playing to be different from symphonic, solo, and recital playing in three ways: endurance, repetition, and playing in the pit.
In general, opera scores are much, much longer than symphonic works, and opera performances last longer than a complete orchestral concert. Examples include Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte. The sheer length of an opera demands a unique physical endurance of the musicians. Minding one’s posture is crucial to avoiding injury, especially lower back pain. One must sit up and engage the core, in order to keep the back straight and well-supported.
If there are extended tremolo passages, it is important to play with a relaxed right arm and hand, so that the muscles don’t fatigue too quickly. If these passages are piano or pianissimo, I consciously play with the smallest amount of bow possible to make the overall motion absolutely minimal. I make sure I use my left shoulder properly to keep my violin held high, because allowing the violin to droop puts stress on the upper-left arm and forearm. As always, not pressing too hard with the left-hand fingers allows for a more resonant sound with less tension. I also recommend daily stretching to keep the body limber and active, since the job can be so sedentary. With the PSN orchestra, I am able to show by example many of these techniques, and the students and I often address individual concerns at rehearsal breaks and before performances.
In general, opera scores are much, much longer than symphonic works, and opera performances last longer than a complete orchestral concert.
An opera is often performed multiple times, and the repetition of that music can be exciting, but also challenging. Just last month, PSN closed the festival with six performances of two operas in just ten days. As with the works I performed there, many operas are exquisite pieces of music, and the ability to play them over and over can be an ongoing, thrilling learning experience. But as with anything repetitive, musicians run the risk of becoming complacent and disengaged. I find that as important as it is to care for the physical demands of playing an opera, it is important to care for the mental demands, too. Although we may play the same notes night after night, I believe that we must decide to remain focused, disciplined and maintain energy and awareness from beginning to end. Personally, this means that I stay hydrated throughout the day and eat something roughly every one to two hours before a show. I have learned that controlling my mind and focus depends greatly on how I have or have not fueled my body.
Unlike most concerts, opera musicians play in a pit, the uncovered space in front of and below the stage. Pits are often small and require the musicians to sit and play especially close to one another. They are dark, so stand lights are necessary to read the music, and they are intended to be somewhat hidden from the audience. The pits I played in during PSN were particularly small, since these historic, European concert halls were often built to accommodate a smaller orchestra than what we use now. To deal with the demands of pit-playing, I again work on my mental state, deciding to be calm and respectful of people’s space, no matter how few inches separate us. I practice breathing in daily yoga classes, so that I can be as stress free as possible. But overall, feelings of discomfort and stress must be overcome by efforts to play well and remain professional.
Preparing and performing any type of concert is a challenge, requiring more hours of work than the concert itself. For orchestral musicians, playing long opera scores, preparation, stamina, awareness, discomfort, and stress are the challenges. I try to maintain good posture, play my instrument efficiently, stay hydrated and nourished and breathe well to remain calm. Ultimately, a great concert experience, like the ones offered by Prague Summer Nights, benefits the audience and the student musicians, as we share our mutual love of the music. It is therefore our job and privilege to deliver the best possible performance.