Opera: it’s grand, indeed.
Now that’s music to my ears. It’s the sound of the bell James Harp, Artistic Director & Chorus Master of Lyric Opera Baltimore, keeps on his piano in an upstairs room at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. The bell is of the sort one might ring for service at a deli counter, but here, its tone has several meanings. It signifies the beginning & end of music rehearsals (or amusing things said during same, as well as union-mandated breaks) for the Lyric Opera Baltimore Chorus, of which I am delighted to call myself a member.
I sang with the Baltimore Opera Chorus from 2002 until the company declared bankruptcy in 2009. After a few years, I was performing in all four productions every season, so both my heart & my bank account took a nasty hit when the company folded. Since then, I’ve sung with other companies, often with colleagues from the former BOC, & had a great time, but have always held out hope that someday, we’d all get to perform at the Lyric again, with a brand-new company.
Well, sometimes, dreams do come true. Rehearsals for “La Traviata” are underway; the chorus has begun memorizing music, or, in the case of those who have sung the opera before, re-memorizing. I fall into the latter camp, but must admit that at the first rehearsal, I had a few “I’ve never seen this music before in my life!” moments. I saw looks indicating similar states of panic, or at least concern, on a few other singers’ faces. Thanks to Mr. Harp’s method of drilling music, though, words & melodies started to come back to us after a few pages.
So how does one learn opera chorus music with Italian (or French, Russian, German, Czech, etc.) text in a handful of two-to-three-hour rehearsals? Singers are expected to memorize words & music in rehearsal, not at home. Under Mr. Harp’s direction, the chorus first speaks the words in time with the music, often several times so that corrections can be made for rhythm & pronunciation. Repeated, egregious errors in either area may be met with tongue-in-cheek threats of impending human sacrifice! Next, Mr. Harp plays the various vocal lines as the singers go through the music on “doo” or some other syllable. Finally, words and music are combined. Toward the end of rehearsal, when many of the singers are beginning to think “I know this stuff!”, Mr. Harp goes back through the various scenes – out of order – & back come the panicked looks, at least to a few faces. In later rehearsals, when the music is (at least theoretically) fully memorized, Mr. Harp will ask the chorus to leave their scores on their chairs & walk around the room while singing their parts. This not only prevents us from cheating by referring to our music, it reminds us that soon, we will be asked to walk, dance, lounge around on cushions, or do whatever the stage director asks of us, all while singing. Opera is musical theater, after all, not oratorio.
For now, though, I’m still trying not to mix up the lyrics to “Brindisi”, so I’m glad we get to sing while seated. I look forward to sharing more behind-the-scenes opera tales with you & hope I will have the chance to do so for many years to come.