The View from the Pit

Last week, I played in the orchestra pit of the University of Michigan’s Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s (UMGASS) production of The Grand Duke. W.S. Gilbert was a writer and Arthur Sullivan was a composer, and together they were a famous musical-writing duo during the Victorian era. UMGASS is a university-affiliated program that has put on Gilbert & Sullivan musicals every fall and winter semester since 1947. The Grand Duke is my second production with UMGASS, following Iolanthe last spring.

You sit in front of the stage, facing the audience and the conductor. There are special lights on the music stands that you switch on to see your music when the house goes dark. You never play anything the same way twice. Some singers speed up the tempo, some of them slow it down, but you always have to follow what they’re doing. If someone forgets a line or misses an entrance, you do your best to improvise and find your way back to the rest of the orchestra. In the Mendelssohn Theater you can’t hear anything but the person onstage and the person you’re sitting next to, so you just use your best judgment and hope for the best.

Gilbert & Sullivan musicals run for a solid two hours and forty-five minutes including intermission, and the pit musicians are playing for a majority of that time. Between Thursday night and Sunday afternoon, we played five shows. I once acted onstage in a musical that ran multiple times a week for several weeks, and that experience was not nearly as challenging as playing viola for just five performances and two dress rehearsals in one week.  

As a musician, I often think of playing my instrument as an entirely mental process. I depend on my brain to make sure the right fingers are going down at the right time, and I never realize that it’s actually my body that is doing all the work of actually producing the music. Even now I’m feeling a little stunned thinking about how when I was playing in the “Finale” of the first act in the musical, my arms were continuously moving for twenty minutes straight. It has been 48 hours since our final performance, and my muscles are still sore. The experience has made me think a little more critically about my future plans to be a freelance musician. I would need to practice a couple of hours a day and go to the gym every day to maintain my endurance for daily performances. I feel a bit silly saying this, but I really think music is a sport!

I am grateful for the experience and I had fun! But now I’m nursing my arms back to health while simultaneously preparing for my performance jury next week and my orchestra concert tonight. This is the life of a musician. I should really hit the gym.

Andrew Lloyd Webber

With the rise of popularity of the Broadway Musical Hamilton for the past several years, the entire Broadway community has gained more popularity.  While Hamilton was one of Lin Manuel Miranda’s first musicals, there are several other composers and playwrights that have created hit after Broadway hit for decades.  The most popular of these composers is Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Webber was born in London in 1948, and has been composing since 1965.  His two most famous musicals are the Phantom Of The Opera, and Cats. He has also composed Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, School of Rock, Sunset Boulevard, and Starlight Express.  Most of his most popular work, like Phantom of the Opera, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat were filmed and made into DVD’s. They were filmed as a Broadway musical using the stage and sets from when they performed on Broadway, they just did not have an audience during the filming.  Another musical of Webber’s musicals that got made into a movie was School of Rock. The School of Rock movie was different from the other two movies that were made because School of Rock was not filmed on a stage. It was filmed on a movie set, the movie was a film adaptation of the musical, whereas the other movies were just recorded versions of the Broadway shows.

All of his movies have some famous actors in them.  Johnny Osmond played Joseph in the movie of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Jack Black was the main character in the movie adaptation of School of Rock.  Webber has a new movie adaptation that is in the works. The movie rendition of his famous musical Cats is casting right now. Cats is set to star several famous actors and singers such as Jennifer Hudson, James Corden, and Taylor Swift.  Webber has been a big face in creating and composing musicals since the 1970s and he is not going anywhere soon.

Technology in Entertainment

New technology can change an entire industry.  In the entertainment industry, the invention of the camera, and then the video camera changed the way that people consume there entertainment.  The most popular form of visual entertainment used to be plays, until the video camera came along and people became fascinated by movies. Technology has changed the way that people consume media throughout time.

For a long time the most popular form of live entertainment was plays, and operas.  People would go to a theater to have a day of entertainment of long plays by Shakespeare or other famous playwrights.  Once the video camera was introduced, plays and operas declined. The general public was fascinated with the new medium of entertainment that the video camera brought.  Plays and operas eventually found their niche audience, and have stayed in the spotlight. The niche group that plays and operas found was an elite group of people. Plays were for the highest class of people and not very accessible the general public.  This stigma is still attached to plays and operas, but it is smaller than it once was. Now plays will travel around the world so that everyone has an opportunity to enjoy their work.

Video cameras were a huge development in the entertainment industry.  Movies became very popular for the entire public, not just one demographic.  Movies popularity grew with the number of movie theaters that were added around the world.  Movies were much more accessible than plays were because people only had to travel to their local movie theater and not the nearest performance theater.  Movies were also much less expensive than plays so all types of people had the opportunity to enjoy them. With the innovations of video cameras also kept movies in the limelight.  From silent films to speaking films, then from black and white to color, and then the video quality continually improving, and finally with the introduction of the 3D movie. These innovations kept the movies new and exciting for everyone.  The theater didn’t have as much innovations as movies, which could contribute to why its popularity did not grow like the popularity of movies did.

Barber of Seville Review

This past Sunday, I had the amazing opportunity to see the music school’s performance of ‘Barber of Seville’.  Next to ‘Marriage of Figaro’, I would say that ‘Barber of Seville’ is one of my favorite comedic operas.  It is light hearted, short in terms of performance time, and full of great music.

The Barber of Seville

My favorite things about the performance…

1) The costumes.  The bedazzled pale pinks and yellows presented a delightful marriage of 1970s disco with seventeenth century Madrid.  The soprano Rosina wore a beautiful leopard print and floral empire waist dress augmented by a fiery red floral cape with turqoise satin lining.  And just about everyone wore shimmering opera wigs and red leggings.  I have seen opera take some interesting turns in the way of set and costume design.  I have seen flappers, 1950’s used car salesmen in checkered suits, as well as comedic characters in victorian full-body bathing costumes and flippers.  But this rendition of Barber of Seville stayed true to opera form and upheld the opera hair and costume adage of ‘Go big or go home’.

2) The Overture.  The opening overture alone was enough to get my mom and sister giggling next to me.  If you haven’t seen this cartoon, then stop whatever you are doing and witness the greatest integration of high opera culture and lowbrow cartoons…

Bugs Bunny in ‘What’s Opera Doc?’

3) The arias.  In addition to watching the animated brilliance of Bugs Bunny, you must listen to ‘Largo al Factotum’ if you are unfamiliar with you. Chances are, you have probably heard it countless times, and probably identify it as the ‘Figaro, Figaro’ song.  I’ll admit that before the performance, I googled ‘factotum‘ since I had heard this aria countless times, but never understood what a factotum was.

4) The humor.  Admittedly, opera humor is very different from the modern, deadpan, documentary-style humor you might see in ‘Office Space’ or ‘Modern Family’, but the physical comedy is never lacking.  Laughing out loud at opera requires you to allow yourself to laugh at things that have no pop culture references and no swear words.

If you have never experienced opera, ‘Barber of Seville‘ is a great place to start.  Opera buffa or ‘comic opera’ is the angel food cake of opera. It is light, fluffy, and full of funny hijinks that will help you unwind after a long day.

While I love opera seria or ‘serious opera’ it is not for the faint of heart.  It is often longer, denser, and much more intense than opera buffa.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are many great serious operas, but for the beginner or someone who isn’t sure about opera in general, take a listen to the overture from ‘Barber of Seville’ and revel in the accessible cadences of composer Giacchino Rossini.

The Ginger Who Sings Opera

I have always prided myself on being a natural born redhead, containing the stereotypical fiery temper but lacking the freckles, and singing opera. These two characteristics have shaped and defined me since I was a child but have also labeled me as a dying breed. Recently, National Geographic printed an article stating that redheads are likely to be extinct within the century and BBC’s Hard Talk reporter Sarah Montague stated that “Opera is one of the least watched art forms in the world”. There is nothing I can do to remove myself from the gene pool steadily marching toward extinction, but why choose a career which seems doomed to the same fate?

Over the summer, I volunteered as a counselor at the Interlochen Center for the Arts assisting my old high school choir with the week long camp culminating in a concert after 4 days and a mere 20 hours of rehearsal. The kids were normal high schoolers, not a room of child prodigies awaiting their acceptance letters from Julliard, but students who genuinely cared about music and the creation of music in collaboration with their peers. The concert we presented was by no means perfect, “a work in progress” the audience was informed, but the sense of community which had been developed within the choir was well worth the trip. From strangers to friends in less than four days, music served as the medium for these relationships to grow. At the final campfire the normal high school cliques were nonexistent, replaced by groups of comingled freshmen and seniors defying the social standards which exist outside of choir camp. A clear example of the ability of singing to develop a community which defies social norms, experiences like this are why I sing and why I believe that music is fundamentally important for community development.

Perhaps opera and classical music are dying art forms and Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus will be revered as the Bach and Mozart of our time. Yet, I will continue to sing opera because I know that my voice is simply adding to a much larger chorus and I am part of a much larger musical community.

Not that kind of Queen . . .

I be on my suit and tie. Benjamin in hand. Nails painted. This is what I call dressed to the nines. In fact I’m the nines: a cat. Manx? Marx.


I get to my $14 dollar seat and the aisle is worth the price, let me tell you. I get to stretch my feet, bend my legs broken doll style, and stare up and the ceiling that will probably astound me for years to come. What if a lightbulb burns out? A ladder from the balcony does not seem practical. A cherry picker? At Hill?


?


The Oresteia is a trilogy by Aeschylus. Good plays. Amazing plays. Or so my freshman year self said to myself as I bought the tickets and waited weeks filled with anticipation. Each day I had flashbacks to Great Books 191 at 9 am with all of the “honors freshman.” To 2 am nights at the Law Quad while I furiously read Greek tragedy after Greek tragedy–like Gilmore Girls episodes.


I take my seat and gawk at the stage as it filled up with 400+ musicians. Orchestras, choirs, opera stars, conductors all pile onto the wooden floor and I think, “of course Hill Auditorium would break on its 100 year anniversary.” Alas, it proves me wrong. Similar to the audience of which I am a part. I think that I am the only person under 50 in the whole room. Magic. This is my type of crowd, that is, until people weeble and wobble on the stairs and I imagine person after person accidentally flinging themselves off the balcony and onto the main floor: performance art. I mean, I am performing so why wouldn’t others?


The downbeat slashes and strings go flying, lips go buzzing, throats go vibrato-ing, and I am hit head-on with French at its finest: rolled r’s. Catching glimpses of words and hearing the words projected onto the screen I am thrown into the environment every white gay male could dream of: the opera. I mean if I am to be a true queen then this should be my element. My niche. My passion.


What I love about the whole thing is that it is all a staged performance. Or rather trapped-to-the-stage. Everyone is stationary while the air is filled with movement. Easier to focus. The main singers wear outfits of sequins, blue satin, black tuxes, and they stand out of the crowd of students. My favorite part though is when this “avant-garde” opera goes spoken word and the, perhaps, oracle figure starts rapping and screaming in French about blood, and flesh, and murder, and hatred, and gods. Who doesn’t like Greek Tragedy?


*raises hand*


Let me explain: the man behind me erupts during the intermission: “Opera. Is like eggs. Today they’re scrambled. Some like them scrambled. Others like them fried. I like them sunny side up.”


I love Greek Tragedy. Give me a play and I’ll swoon. Give me a book and I’ll faint. Give me a 3.5 hour opera and my knee will start to ache and my eyes will start to get tired and my ears will start to close the world out. There is only so many times I can hear “Praise Athena” before I think about that beautiful ceiling. Or the Benjamin in my bag.


Would I have given this experience up? Hell no! This is probably one of my favorite events I have gone to because not only did I get to listen (and critique) amazing music, see talented individuals, people watch, gaze at architecture, but I was able to feel a part of an audience that I’ve always wanted to.


However.


Today I confess, sadly, that I am not an opera queen. I thought I was a renaissance queen but perhaps I’m just medieval.