A Little Secret from the Opera Pit

"Know the Score" is the official blog of the Luther College Music Department. Students, faculty, and staff provide content on music tours, concerts, recitals and scholarship happening on and away from Luther's Decorah, Iowa campus.

I'll let you in on a little secret: opera tech week is my favorite week.

It's a secret because I don't think it's supposed to be anyone's favorite – to say that it's a lot of work is a bit of an understatement. I think I speak for both the singers and the pit orchestra musicians when I say how much we love to complain about it; debriefing the late nights and long rehearsals deep within the trenches of the CFL pit is certainly a bonding ritual that occurs every year. It's always the same: repetitive, monotonous, and exhausting. Not to mention that the woodwind section of the pit is without a doubt the worst seat in the house.

This year is no exception. Drs. Andereck and Whitfield, the music and stage directors, creep in and out of my line of vision from below sea level as they pace the floor, giving directions to the singers I can only hear.  My operatically inclined friends are on stage wailing on their high C's or whatever when Dr. Baldwin stops them to say, “Nope, we're not together. Start again.” for the seventeenth time.  It's probably 10:38 pm, not that I'm checking or anything.

It's certainly true that we've been rehearsing this music all semester. It's nothing new to us. Tech week began last Sunday afternoon with a marathon sitzprobe – the first run through of the opera with singers and orchestra combined. And when I say it was a marathon rehearsal, I am definitely exaggerating, it was only four hours. But four hours is a long time to focus during this crazy time in the school year. Projects, presentations, and finals loom in the near future and distraction is inevitable.

And then before we know it, rehearsals in the pit have begun. It's already been a long day, and rehearsal seems like just another item on the long to-do list that life has become in four years at this fine liberal arts institution. But then we reach that moment in Suor Angelica where the whole orchestra is swelling and the singer is soaring above the passionate chords and you swear you could just start bawling on the spot from the beauty of it all. Then there's the part in Gianni Schicchi where all you can see is an audience full of fellow students who have gathered to watch the dress rehearsal sitting with the opera faculty, all belly-laughing at the noisy action above. You're not sure exactly what's happening on stage, but it feels as though you're in on the joke.

Puccini was certainly a master of both the tragic, heart-wrenchingly beautiful as well as the endearingly humorous but accurate assessment of human nature – the musical moments of Suor and Schicchi respectively reflect these beautifully.  While the culminations of these rehearsals are the performances on Friday and Saturday night, it's amazing the depth of emotion and renewed love for the art that can be found within the monotony of opera tech week. In my years as a member of the orchestral ensembles here at Luther, I've learned that rehearsal is one of the most common times to take for granted. Checking out is easy and autopilot is second nature. It's a time where going through the motions is tempting and where refusing to be affected emotionally is less exhausting. But it seems to have taken me four years to realize the gift that rehearsal really is. The joy, the beauty, the collaborative effort, and yes, the extreme frustrations and late nights are not an experience awarded to most. It's taken years of growth and naivety to come to this conclusion. Being faced with my imminent graduation is what makes this lesson so deeply real to me, and I'm so glad to have learned the rewards of soaking this time in instead of wishing it away and letting it pass me by.

And maybe this is a cliché, but I find that what I really love about opera tech week, and about being a musician in general, is collaboration. I love to see my opera friends in their element, gobs of make-up on their faces, hair piled high while their voices perform acrobatics of which I wasn't aware mere mortals were capable. I love the bustle of the moving of sets, sneaking around back stage to grab a view of their intricacies. I love spending time in the pit, cramped with 40 of the best people you'll ever meet while Dr. Baldwin alternates whispering inside jokes and shouting, um, delicate reminders: “G NATURAL! G NATURAL!”

Opera is intense. Opera is intellectual. Opera is complex, it is beautiful, it breaks your heart and makes you cry from laughter. Opera bonds musicians to musicians and musicians to their audiences, but mostly, opera bonds people to stories.

And that is why opera tech week is my favorite.

Alexandra Robinson, bassoon
Sister Angelica & Gianni Schicchi, by Giacomo Puccini