Tag Archives: Conducting

maestros shouldn’t need restraining orders

Our 25th anniversary party

This summer I didn’t hire an renowned caterer for our wedding anniversary whose food quality and presentation were unmatched. Here’s why. He had the idea that his food was supposed to be the centerpiece of our 25th anniversary party. Some of his ideas didn’t support our vision and our preferences for our evening. Though certainly an important element, the food was not the only element crucial to an enjoyable celebration. We ended up  having a lovely celebration and good food because balance was more important to us than one single element.  

An opera orchestra


Last month I saw an opera in which the conductor seemed to  have forgotten why the audience came to see the opera in the first place–to hear the singers, not expressly to hear the orchestra. Some friends happened to be sitting in the eighth row and had little trouble hearing the singers. By comparison, I was in the 22nd row. While the highest notes soared over the orchestra–to their credit–not to the maestro’s–many of the passages in the middle of the singers’ ranges were lost.  

To this listener, this proved very frustrating. The composer didn’t write a score consisting of only high notes. Yet, the maestro continued to pound the sound out of his skilled players, act after act, overpowering the singers. By the end of Act Two, I wished I could have served him a restraining order.  

An opera orchestra doesn’t have to be loud to demonstrate vitality. To my ear, there’s nothing more exciting than the maestro who works to support and enhance his singers, masterfully restraining his orchestra so we can hear all the timbres of all the singers in the middle-range and lower passages as well.  

British conductor and violinist Sir Neville Marriner, who founded the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields has commented on how certain instruments can eat up the sounds of singers. ‘The cellos and violas, thick in the middle, can wipe out voices,” he said of contraltos.  

And the same can be said for other instruments which are capable of smothering other singers’ ranges, if the conductor isn’t judicious. Sometimes this issue of restraint is addressed by the composer. Think of the aria in Act I of  Norma, Casta diva, in which Bellini’s simply elegant accompaniment allows the voice to float above the orchestra.  

Lacking any organic attention to restraint (via the score), it’s incumbent on the maestro to use discretion and finesse. Because like the food at our anniversary party, which was very good, the food wasn’t the reason for the celebration.  

Here’s a clip of Casta diva. In the first several seconds, you hear Bellini’s masterful composition which allowing us to hear all the rich colors in Anna Netrebko’s voice, not merely the high notes:  

  YouTube Preview Image


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If it’s Tuesday, ask Richard about ‘Rigoletto’ filmed in Mantua

Dear Richard,            

I’ve  been so excited about the live TV film transmission from Mantua of Giuseppe Verdi‘s  Rigoletto, even though most of us in the States haven’t yet viewed the complete production. I watched one of the trailers prior to the live transmission. It was fantastic, like a microcosm of everything  this production had to offer–vibrancy, relevancy, and such fresh potential–in the way that it filmed opera not as a static stage production but as if it were cinema. Shooting a stage production in the conventional way would have been child’s play compared to the ambitious treatment of Rigoletto a Manatova. So, why are people who claim to like opera picking at this production like it’s a Thanksgiving turkey carcass? This was a watershed production for opera appreciation in the 21st century. It is living, breathing musical drama, dramma per musica, that has the potential to reach new audiences. Why aren’t people who say they love opera supporting this?            

Upset in Upsala            

Dr. Richard Rohrer


Dear Upset,          

I understand and share your concern. After all, some of the most accomplished and influential talents in the world of opera are associated with this production such as Plácido Domingo, internationally acclaimed performer and WNO principal; Andrea Alderman, producer; Marco Bellocchio, director; Zubin Mehta, conductor; and dozens  more talented and accomplished artisans. As the Classical Iconoclast has said in a recent essay on the production, “[Rigoletto a Montova]  is significant because it shows the possibilities of film in expanding the potential of opera to communicate.”            

I observed some of the nitpicking you refer to, reading comments posted on various opera blogs: “Zubin Mehta thinks he’s conducting Mahler;” “Grigolo screamed his part,” and so on and so forth, when in fact the production was impressive and nothing short of inspiring, on the whole.  And the whole is supposed to be greater than a sum of parts where drama is concerned. And in this case, the parts served the whole–admirably–despite the myriad challenges of filming live while attempting to convey verisimilitude more so than theatricality. Instead of feeling like I was watching from a box seat, I felt as though I was in the room with the Duke or standing beside Rigoletto in the thunderstorm.      

Unfortunately, so many conventional opera companies are hurting–my opera house in Hankey included. By tearing down brave new ventures like “Rigoletto” a Mantova, many self-professed opera lovers/cognoscenti insinuate that they would rather see opera as we know it die on the vine than support live opera  that doesn’t meet their high, unreasonable performance expectations in every piddling way.            

What the  creative team did, filming Rigoletto on site in Mantua, live, was an incredibly daring and artistically brave  and challenging endeavor. In every way that is significant, they succeeded. Promise me, Upset in Upsala, not to bend to the nattering nabobs of negativism in the operasphere but continue to support those who take risks in order to make opera a more accessible and a more relevant art form. If you bend to the naysayers, in less than 20 years, we are all doomed to viewing nothing but long-ago filmed productions, the historic record of a once-beloved live art form.            

Optimistically yours for opera’s future audience,            

Dr. Richard Rohrer            

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