Monday, May 26, 2008

Kathryn Tidyman, The City Choir of Washington: From a Singer's Perspective

Soprano Kathryn Tidyman gives us another behind the scenes look at what it took to bring Wolf Trap's premiere performance of The Fellowship of the Ring to life. Thank you, Kathryn for this great report!


The City Choir of Washington received the invitation to perform The Fellowship of the Ring in March. We couldn’t begin rehearsals until April 21, though, because we were wholly engrossed in preparing for our performance of the Monteverdi Vespers at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Md., on April 17. That gave us one month—four Monday night rehearsals—to learn the notes. Some of us may have thought, “Oh, yeah, film score, lots of ‘oohing’and ‘ahhing’ and a few lines in Elfish—this should be pretty easy.” Not so. Our artistic director, Robert Shafer, who was working from the orchestral score, knew that the piece would be a challenge, not so much in vocally producing the sound (although there was one extended high B that was pretty tough on the soprano section), but in singing the right notes at the right time with all the expressive nuances it called for. Shafer was right: It was extremely challenging to us as musicians, and this became very clear at our first “piano rehearsal” with Ludwig Wicki.

Before I get to that, let me add to your comments on the professionalism, dedication, and superb technical skills of Wicki, his assistant conductor, Erik Ochsner, Sondra Harnes (director of the World Children’s Choir), Laura Lee Everett (the production manager), two of the artistic administrators at Wolf Trap—Ann McKee and Lee Anne Myslewski—and many others whom I did not personally meet.

To begin with, Wicki: He reined in and rode his massive musical forces on stage as skillfully as Arwen did her white steed carrying Frodo to Rivendell. I believe he said this was the fourth time he has conducted this work with the film. After the Wolf Trap gig, he was immediately heading back to his native Lucerne, Switzerland, for one day before heading off to Krakow, Poland, to conduct the work all over again.

The man clearly adores this music—every hairpin crescendo/decrescendo, every fading-off note of sadness or anguish, every thundering, percussive Orc battle blow. He was a joy to work with: he was so demanding—he has an ear for pitch that could make tuning forks obsolete—and he didn’t let a single chord cluster go by in rehearsals until it was perfect. Then he would say quite cheerfully, in his excellent English with its clipped Swiss accent, “Yes, yes! That is good. Now we do it three more times to be sure you have it!”

From Sunday afternoon, May 18, when we had our first piano rehearsal with him (just the adult choir) at the Barns of Wolf Trap, until he raised his baton at 8:30 p.m., Wednesday night, at the Filene Center, he spent more than 20 hours rehearsing soloists, small sections of the orchestra, the children’s choir alone, the children’s choir with adult choir and orchestra, etc. Our dress rehearsal Wednesday afternoon was the first time all the forces assembled on the Filene Center stage and we performed the work with the film. This first—and final—on-stage rehearsal—when everything from both a technical and artistic standpoint was tested—ended a mere 2.5 hours before we came back for the performance. Through it all, Wicki was (pun intended) upbeat, cheerful, energetic, and thorough—he wasn’t going to let a single detail get away until the big hand on the musicians’ union clock clicked up to the last minute of rehearsal time.

Two other reasons it all came off so smoothly were the assistant conductor, Erik Ochsner, and the production manager Laura Lee Everett. First, Ochsner: fabulous musician himself. He accompanied us on piano at our rehearsals Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had the entire piano score memorized. He also mixed the miked sound during the actual performances. He can be thanked for keeping it all balanced and making it sound acoustical (despite the mike boost) and for the overall clarity, balance, and nuances of the sound the audience heard both nights. And, Laura Lee Everett, the production manager, was amazing as well. You might think of her job as putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle using an egg timer. Okay, she had Sunday through Thursday to put the pieces together and keep them together, but she did it all in what seemed to me relative warp speed. I don’t know what was going on in her brain, but she always appeared calm, pleasant, and totally on top of all the details. If you asked her for something, she simply got it, arranged it, produced it. She teaches stage production at the University of Maryland and has been staging opera gigs at Wolf Trap on her summer breaks for the last five years. What a pro.

Here’s why we needed the mikes: yes, without them, the sound would have been quite different for both indoor and outdoor audiences. You wouldn’t have heard the choruses at all. I’m a soprano and was standing right next to the children, so I could hear them and I could hear the altos. But even when the tenors and basses, way on the other side of the stage, were singing by themselves, the women often couldn’t hear them. The brass percussion instruments, along with the primitive sounding drums, were in the last row of the orchestra, right in front of us. I can assure you there was no way the human voice was going to pass through those decibels to make it to the audience.

Wicki was hearing only the live sound—i.e., the miked sound was not plugged into his ear—so of course, he could hear the orchestra, but oftentimes he couldn’t hear us! He came up to us after the first onstage rehearsal and asked, “It was good? I couldn’t hear you many times but I think you are all okay, yes?” (Conductors out there, can you imagine directing your choirs and only having moving mouths to indicate that your singers were singing what and when they were supposed to? Didn’t seem to faze Wicki; he trusted us to come in when we were supposed to and sing it the way he fine-tuned it with us.)

Here’s what made it so challenging for the singers—and also very exciting. The score is timed, literally, to the second, because it has to synchronize perfectly with the film. Wicki was working from a two-volume score, probably 17 by 24 inches, that was more than 500 pages long. He also had a small monitor near the podium showing the movie and the minutes and seconds of the film. These timing cues were marked throughout his score, the orchestra’s scores, and our scores.

Our score was 63 pages long and was also cued with abbreviated excerpts from the dialog, such as, "Warning: ‘...the kind of friends you deserve.’," meaning when Bilbo Baggins utters these words in his birthday speech, we should begin counting measures and preparing to come in. But because the screen was in front of the orchestra and singers (hanging just above and behind Wicki), we could only see the backside of the screen, which meant we were watching a mirror image of the film. Because all of the sound was being projected away from us, we couldn’t always hear the dialogue. The film used English subtitles throughout, but we were reading them all backwards. This became both physically (for the eyeballs and surrounding muscles, at least) and mentally tiring.

Why did we need these cues? Because in our abbreviated scores, we had to stand or sit for many measures, and then come in, often quite abruptly. You may remember in the big Orc battle toward the end of the film, there is a relentless clanging sound in a 5/4 tempo (5 beats to a measure, quarter note gets one count). In our scores, this was indicated by a single measure with a black line running through it and the number 45 over it. This meant that we had to count 45 bars of 1-2-3-4-5, then start following our scores, so that within a few measures we could jump in.

The other tricky aspect of this performance was that we frequently had to “find our own pitch.” Not only was the pitch we were about to come in on (and it could be a cluster of several pitches) not played in the orchestra, sometimes we had to come in after a 26- or 43-second pause. For these entrances we had to use electronic pitch-givers—there was one in each section. One singer would tune in for the pitch a few measures before we were to come in, and start humming it. Then the next singer would pick up the pitch and hum it. We passed the pitch along throughout the section in this way, counted as best we could, watched for the physical cue from Wicki (raising his left hand high one measure before we were to come in and looking at us expectantly), and jumped on our notes. There were a couple of places, though, where he couldn’t cue us at all—“I would like, yes, but I cannot. I am doing too many other things. So you just do it. Just come in.”—and that was scary.

I had never seen any of The Lord of the Ring movies, and while I did watch The Fellowship of the Ring the week before the performance, I really fell in love with the music during these final four days of dress rehearsals. It’s Sunday night now and the music is still running through my head.

Everyone on the production and the arts administration staff at Wolf Trap should be commended for the superb behind-the-scenes efforts that allowed the performance to "come off brilliantly" as Stephen Brookes said in his review, “Ring Score Gets an Epic Viewing at Wolf Trap,” in the Washington Post. On both nights of the performances, the audience—unfortunately small—was very enthusiastic, hooting, whistling, and applauding at many points. One hopes if Wolf Trap offers a performance of The Two Towers next summer that the production gets the huge audience it so deserves (and we get to sing it!).
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