By Scott Flavin | From the May-June 2020 issue of Strings magazine
“Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings.” —Robert Benchley
I’ve served for almost two decades as concertmaster of one of the larger opera companies in the country, and it has been a fascinating part of my career. It is a gig well worth pursuing. Obviously, the job consists of many of the same duties as the symphonic concertmaster—that is, playing any solos that occur, coordinating bowings for the string sections, and generally acting as a liaison between the conductor and the orchestra. But as an opera concertmaster, you have the additional challenges of accompanying singers and coordinating the music in the pit with what’s happening on the stage, as well as dealing with the acoustic complexities of playing in a pit, where hearing the ensemble balance within the orchestra and onstage becomes more difficult. Handling these challenges requires deep listening skills and a particular sense of how all of these elements come together seamlessly. Here are a few tips for those interested in this path.
Good leadership requires active listening, especially focusing on the lower voices of the orchestra (cellos and basses, and low brass) as well as wind soloists. This can be a challenge, as hearing across the pit is sometimes difficult. Always knowing your role in the musical score is also very important. Of course, a prime task is to be able to “read” the conductor. If the conductor is more focused on the stage, less visual information may be given to the orchestra; it becomes the concertmaster’s job to translate the conductor’s wishes. As within a symphony orchestra, an opera concertmaster must be a leader and follower at the same time.
It is not enough for the concertmaster to follow the conductor exclusively; one must also feel the response and weight of the first violin section, the whole string section, and the entire orchestra. In addition, you also have to be in touch with the phrase shaping and timing of the singers. An understanding of singing and breathing is vitally important, as well as knowledge of the words being sung. For example, in accompanied Mozart recitatives, knowing what is being said influences the color and mood of every moment.
Technique of Leading
For most opera companies, rehearsal time is greatly limited, meaning the orchestra must treat many moments as if it were chamber music; clear leadership from the concertmaster is required. One need not “bob” one’s head, scroll, or body to lead. It is decisive use of the bow that will ideally show dynamics as well as articulation, color, and phrasing. Playing with a committed approach will help transmit clear signals for your colleagues.
Lead by example: Be punctual and dress professionally. Please learn the opera! Without a deep knowledge of all the music, you cannot be there properly for the conductor and the singers. Remember the value of positivity—apart from playing well and leading, this job is one of diplomacy, so make every effort to be positive and respectful to your colleagues.
Thrills ’n’ Chills
As an opera concertmaster, one must be prepared for the unexpected, including power outages, technical stage issues, and last-minute cast substitutions. And working with singers opens one up to a host of new experiences. One evening, during a production of Puccini’s Turandot, the lead tenor was in vocal trouble from the opening. Before the final act, I went to the conductor’s room—we agreed that if the singer started having trouble in the big aria “Nessun Dorma,” I would stand up and play it (hopefully in my best imitation of Luciano Pavarotti!). Luckily, he made it through, high notes and all, but it made for a nerve-wracking moment.
Another memorable experience was working with a legendary opera conductor, who was not afraid to stop the entire company in rehearsal multiple times to berate the lead singer that “this is not a Broadway musical!” He insisted on stylistic (and ultimately, brilliant) singing, and it paid off. After bellowing at the singer each time, he would turn to me with a wink, and say, “My apologies, Scott, but now that I’m an old man, I’m finally allowed to yell at singers!”
I’m just glad he wasn’t partial to yelling at concertmasters.
Scott Flavin was concertmaster for Florida Grand Opera from 2001 to 2019. He is professor of violin at the University of Miami Frost School of Music, first violinist of the Bergonzi Quartet, violinist for Pulse Trio and the Bergonzi Trio, as well as resident conductor of the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra.