The Role(s) of a Music Director

It’s an exciting time for the MYOpera family! Opening Night of The Rape of Lucretia is just two weeks away, and it’s thrilling to watch the show take shape as cast members delve deep into the music, their characters, and relationships on stage. It’s an exhilarating time for me – a time when I am consistently reminded of how fortunate I am to not only play the role of the music director as we mount a stunning opera, but also to be part of such a wonderful cast and artistic team, learning and exploring together as emerging artists and colleagues to bring an incredible work off the page and into the hearts of our audiences.

MYOpera

Vocal Score of The Rape of Lucretia by Benjamin Britten Photo: Dahlia Katz

The Role(s) of a Music Director

Preparing, rehearsing, and performing an opera is no small task. With a small, young company such as MYOpera, each member of the artistic team takes on many responsibilities that would typically be covered by several people in a larger company. The major music-related positions are the repetiteur, the conductor, and the vocal coach:

Repetiteur – aka. rehearsal pianist

Orchestras are expensive! This is where the repetiteur comes in – a pianist hired to fill in for the entire orchestra, until they are added later in the rehearsal process. They are specially trained and experienced at playing a vocal score, where all of the parts of the orchestra (sometimes over 100 instruments!) are condensed into a sort of “musical suggestion” for the piano of how to convey the music. The job of the repetiteur is to prepare the cast as best and accurately as possible for what it will feel and sound like when the orchestra joins in.

A repetiteur’s preparation is immense. Playing a vocal score is a unique challenge; Since the music is not originally intended for the piano, the reductions can be awkward or even impossible to play, and often must be re-arranged by the repetiteur themselves to better fit their hands. The repetiteur needs to be able to sing every role while they play, and conduct the opera from start to finish. They need to know it from every conceivable angle so that they are ready to predict and problem solve during rehearsals.

The Conductor

The role of the conductor is to lead the cast and orchestra/repetiteur through rehearsals and performances, making all final music-related decisions and shaping the musical arc of the opera. They communicate their ideas on the pacing and energy of the music, articulations, and phrasing, while taking into account the opera’s era and style, the composer’s musical language, and traditional performance practices. The conductor also helps make decisions on cuts and changes to the score due to possible time or cast constraints. Sometimes elements are omitted or even added to adhere to a director’s concept.

The Vocal Coach

As if it weren’t enough for an opera singer to showcase their voice in such an olympic way while skillfully incorporating staging and character (I am always amazed by their multi-tasking abilities!!), they also need to master the pronunciation and nuance of many languages that they may or may not speak. The coach is the go-to for all things diction. From the piano, they make sure the singers can be fully understood, and help them overcome musical challenges.

As the music director for MYOpera, I get to fulfill the responsibilities of all of the above roles combined – preparing and playing the vocal score, coaching during rehearsals, and leading, or “conducting” from the piano with clear physical cues and breathes.

The Vocal Score/Orchestral Reduction

Approaching an opera vocal score is a fun and exciting venture. I get to become every instrument of the orchestra at the same time – a one-man band! I love the journey of uncovering the sounds and textures of an orchestral score, and finding ways to achieve those effects on the piano. In the case of The Rape of Lucretia, Britten’s sound aesthetic includes a lot of harp, percussion, and extended string techniques such as playing on the bridge, which creates a very unique and effective soundscape. These are very particular sounds, and it’s so fun to have the freedom to think outside the box and be creative with how and what I play: re-writing parts of the score, and even using the piano in different ways such as drumming on the wood, and playing on the strings inside the piano.

In Performance: Piano vs. Orchestra

There are so many advantages to working as part of a small independent company such as MYOpera. With limited resources, we have the great pleasure of stepping up our creativity in all aspects of putting together an opera, the music being no exception. Sure, it would be luxurious to have access to a full chamber ensemble and conductor for our performances of The Rape of Lucretia. That being said, there is also luxury in removing these layers.

When performing an opera with piano, the musical side of the rehearsal process changes quite a bit from the pianist’s bench. The role of the repetiteur, whose overarching goal is to prepare the cast for what it will feel and sound like when the orchestra arrives, becomes somewhat irrelevant: the piano is the orchestra, and it’s there from the very beginning. Remove the conductor as well, and we get a wonderfully close relationship between singer and music. Taking out the “middle-man,” especially in an opera as musically tricky as The Rape of Lucretia, certainly brings many challenges, however, there are wonderful advantages to having a direct line of communication from the piano to the singers during the rehearsal process. There is suddenly a little bit more room for flexibility. We have the freedom to discuss and explore musical ideas and interpretations, and overcome challenges in a very organic and collaborative way in order to create a performance that is beautiful and possible without a conductor, and that is also authentic to who we are as individuals. We are able to move away from dictating interpretation and direction, and rather toward accentuating the ideas of the individual artists, and their strengths as performers.

The Rape of Lucretia: The Music of Britten

Britten has taken an incredibly powerful story, and has written a musical score that is equally as powerful. Britten’s focus on ensemble writing in this opera brilliantly takes us on a journey through complex and fascinating character relationships. The magic of Britten’s atmospheric writing highlights and brings to life the spectrum of emotions throughout the story, from dark and painful, to light and sunny; In the opening scene, we hear the thickness of the dark night air as the crickets chirp, and in the spinning scene, we can almost see the threads as the harp winds across a relentless line. Britten’s recurring melodies and motives represent characters in an affectingly beautiful and sometimes haunting way. The “Lucretia” theme is expressed by every male character at the beginning of the opera, and gives us a sense of each of their relationships to her. The stunning poetic text is set to music in a speech-like manner, allowing the characters to express in a way that is very natural, raw, and honest.

The human relatability of the thoughts, emotions, and experiences in this story of Lucretia have allowed it to transcend time and impact people from ancient Rome to today. For me, the music of Britten is so affective because the melodies, harmonies, and colours he chooses are so clearly governed by and integrated with the characters’ thoughts, emotional journeys, and experiences.

On behalf of the entire cast, artistic team, and crew of MYOpera’s The Rape of Lucretia, we are very excited to share our telling of this poignant and important story through the beautiful music of Britten. We hope that you will join us in what will be a powerful and enjoyable experience.

~Natasha Fransblow, Music Director of MYOpera

 

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