Thursday, March 28, 2013

Inside the Prompter's Box

Carrie-Ann Matheson with Mariusz Kwiecien
in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Last Saturday I made an early morning trek to the Met for a Young Associates event. We were having brunch backstage on the fifth floor in one of the rehearsal rooms, followed by a talk with Met prompter Carrie-Ann Matheson.  We have all seen the little box on the front of the stage when attending a performance, even though more and more productions do not have a prompter's box anymore. If a production is in collaboration with another opera house, chances are there will not be one.

Sometimes it just doesn't fit the director's vision, like in the recent productions of Rigoletto and the upcoming Giulio Cesare. Sometimes a prompter's box was not planned.  Not all opera houses require a prompter, but at the Met it is almost a necessity due to the sheer size of the stage. It can be difficult for the singers to see what the conductor is doing, or even hear what the orchestra is playing, so it is the prompter's job to be a lifeline.  The way to get into the prompter's box is by climbing a few stairs, then taking a seat into the hydraulic chair which rises to the height of the stage.  Inside are two video monitors (one showing the conductor) and an audio feed.  How much work the prompter has to do depends on the conductor and the singers.  The orchestra tends to play a beat behind the conductor, so it is up to the prompter to attach the singers either to the orchestra or to the conductor. The orchestra of the Met is amazing though, and they will follow the singers no matter what, even if the conductor is being unclear.

From a conductor's standpoint, most of them are focused on the orchestra and leave it up to the prompter to pay close attention to the singers and signal the beat.  Maestro Levine, for example, wants the prompter to provide the singers with cues.  From a singer's standpoint, it al depends on who the singer is.  Some rely completely on the prompter, others merely glance.  It depends on their personality, but other factors play a role as well, such as whether this is a new production or whether the singer has performed this role before.  The prompter sits in on the rehearsals and gets to know the singers' personality and how they react.  By the time the show goes on stage, they can read their faces like a book.  Carrie-Ann communicates with the singers with her hands, a sign language for prompters and opera singers and visits their dressing rooms before the show begins to see how they are feeling that day.

One extreme example of prompting was during a performance of Tristan und Isolde a few years back.  While many opera houses employ ear pieces these days, the Met is not one of them.  However, during this performance they had to make an exception.  The tenor in this production could not remember his lines at all, so it made for a very interesting experience for everyone involved as one prompter gave him cues from the box and another fed him the words through the earpiece from backstage.  You just always have to be one step ahead.  

Carrie-Ann started her job as a prompter on Opening Night 2007, with the premiere of Lucia di Lammermoor with Natalie Dessay in the lead.  She is one of five prompters at the Met, and she divides her time between prompting and playing the piano.  She started her career at the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program as a pianist, and when she decided to stop playing a few years ago, Maestro Levine asked her to consider prompting.  Since starting to prompt, she has played herself in the production of La Sonnambula and she has also appeared (in her role as a pianist) in The Auditions documentary.  She works with all the big names in opera who appear on the Met stage, and she has developed a trust with them.  There was no gossip about what singer forgets his lines and who can't perform without a prompter.

There are certain characteristics which make for a good prompter, confidentiality and good linguistics being one of them.  Other characteristics include a strong sense of rhythm and being a musician.  A prompter also needs good memory; they need to know a whole opera by heart.  Carrie-Ann, for example, will be prompting seven operas next season, ranging from Tosca to Falstaff.  Being a good multi-tasker is also useful, because a prompter's role is not just limited to providing the first few words to a line if necessary.  Sometimes things can go wrong on stage and the prompter is the only one who notices it.  For example, in a performance of Turandot (in this case pronounced with a t), a prop had rolled onto the middle of the stage, right where one of the lead singers had to stand in a few minutes.  Carrie-Ann made sure to point this out to someone on stage at that moment.

Opera is a live event, so things go wrong all the time.  Most of the time, however, the audience is not even aware something went wrong.  The audience is not even aware that there is a person in the prompter's box, because even if they sometimes yell out certain words, this does not carry towards the audience.  The only time when talking too loud can become a problem is during the Sirius or Live in HD Broadcasts.  Even though the singers are not miked, there are microphones attached to the stage to be able to transmit the sound across the globe.  If a prompter talks too loud, it will be audible.

Next time you are at the Met, look for the prompter's box and remember how one of the most important people in the opera is offstage, cueing the singers and giving them directions.  As Met prompter Jane Klaviter once said, being a prompter is like being an air-traffic controller.

The Prompter Can Be An Opera Singer's Best Friend - Orlando Sentinel 

Saturday, March 23, 2013


  • I must begin by reminding everyone about tonight's recital. Don't forget to go to Takaoki Onishi's Juilliard Graduation Recital, which will start at 8.30pm and which will be held at the Paul Recital Hall in Juilliard. Unfortunately I can't attend because I am across the street at the Met for a performance of Otello, but if you go drop us a line on how it was.
  • Friday March 15th was the second presentation of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. These recitals are a great way to listen to the new upcoming talent at the Met in an intimate setting. All events are free to the public and are followed by a reception with delicious wine by Wollfer Estate. Last week the audience had a chance to watch Ryan Speedo Green and Anthony Kalil in concert. They are both in the Lindemann Program, second year and first year respectively, and they were accompanied by Lindemann pianists Bryan Wagorn and Nimrod David Pfeffer. What I always find interesting about these recitals is the choices of music. Do not expect to hear mainstream arias, but prepare to be dazzled by beautiful music which the artists usually would not have much chance of performing. For example, Ryan performed pieces such as Urlicht and Die Vätergruft, while Anthony performed Copland's Old American Songs. The recitals are going on for several more weeks, with different artists every time. You can check the schedule on the Met's website.
  • Tuesday night saw one of the last Met Talks of the season; the topic for the evening: Handel's Giulio Cesare and the Met's new production by David McVicar. When I go see the performance in April it will be my first time seeing this opera, so any background information is always welcome. If this is your first time as well and you would like to find out more about the production and the opera, check back next week for a post on this topic.
  • Risë Stevens, beloved mezzo-soprano who had a 23-year career with the Met, died last Wednesday at the age of 99.  Although I never had the chance of seeing her perform (she stopped performing on the Met stage in 1961), there are some wonderful videos available on YouTube, including of her most famous role, Carmen.  Mrs. Stevens entered the first Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air in 1935-1936, the pre-cursor to our modern day Grand Finals (check here to read the full history), but lost.  However, by 1938 she made her debut at the Met and played a major role there ever since.  For many years she was the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Regional Auditions.  To find out more about her amazing career, you can read the New York Times obituary.  My favorite quote about her from the article is below:
"In Ms. Stevens’s 351 regular appearances at the Met, her professionalism was perhaps never more apparent than it was in one of her many productions of “Samson et Dalila.” Playing the temptress Delilah, Ms. Stevens reclined on a chaise longue to sing the aria “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix,” among the most famous seductions in opera. One night, overcome with theatrical passion, Samson flung himself onto her mid-aria.  Samson did not know his own strength. Under his considerable force, the chaise longue, on casters, began to move. Ms. Stevens sailed offstage and into the wings, still singing."
  • As part of the Young Associate membership at the Met we get to do many fun things. As a matter of fact, it is how I got involved with the auditions. This morning there was a brunch with one of the Met's prompters, Carrie-Ann Matheson, who was featured in the wonderful documentary "The Auditions." The event was aptly called "Tales from the prompter's box" and was preceded by a wonderful brunch backstage at the Met. If you have always wondered what a prompter's role really involves, check back this coming week as well for a write-up on the event.
  • Don't forget to check out the NY Times tomorrow for a great interview with Met General Manager Peter Gelb. If you can't contain yourself you can read the article online already, and it includes an amazing look at the backstage workings of the Met.  I take a backstage tour of the Met every year as part of the Young Associates Program, and it is always an unforgettable experience; each year is different.  This year I was actually lucky enough to see the lifts (discussed in the article) in action; and I got a sneak peek at next year's productions in October because the scenic shop was already working on the new production of Die Fledermaus.  In the tour they don't let you walk out on the stage because they are always busy setting up for the evening's performance, but about five years ago I had a chance to walk out on the Met stage as part of an Open Rehearsal Day.  All I have left to show of the day are some grainy pictures (this was before the iPhone era), but looking at them still makes me breathless.  If you wish to take a backstage tour of the Met, you can find more info here, but if you can take a tour during the week.  That is when the opera house is bustling with action and you can see the true workings of an opera house.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Opera Tales from Charlottesville, Virginia

As another MONC season comes to an end, the sixtieth to be precise (only the second one for me), we are approaching what we in Belgium would call 'Cucumber Time'. For us at MONC that means no applications for the moment, no emails to answer, soon no opera performances to attend... All in all, what sounds like a depressing time for someone who enjoys opera.

Luckily, there are several summer events for opera lovers, including in Charlottesville (Virginia) where former committee member and blog editor Sylvanna VanderPark relocated in November 2012 for work and to be a farmer.  The following is an update from her new life in the Old Dominion.

Opera Tales from Charlottesville, Virginia

"Ironically, this is not my car"

Not many people know of Charlottesville, but it is a pretty town in the Southwest of Virginia.  It is home to Thomas Jefferson's home - Monticello - and university - The University of Virginia; it is known as the Napa Valley of the East with about 35 miles of wineries and I don't know how many breweries; it is located a stone's throw away from the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley; it has more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the USA; and it is home to some of the most beautiful horse farms.

Charlottesville also has a very vibrant cultural and remarkable music scene. Yes, it is home to the Dave Mathews Band, but don’t expect for this place to be a one-note scene. There are a lot of local bands (just check out this blog to get a feel for the live music scene) who are working hard to become the next big thing.  Then there are established names who come around for big performances at the JPJ, or more intimate shows at the Paramount Theater and smaller venues even. A good resource is C-ville Weekly for staying on top of cultural ongoings.

So all of this sounds great, but of course I went through culture shock when I moved here almost four months ago from the megatropolis that is New York City. One of the first things I researched ahead of time was whether I would be able to continue my growing appreciation for the Opera. And I found my new home: The Ash Lawn Opera (ALO), run for the past two years by Michelle Krisel, formerly of the Washington National Opera, and for 24 years, an annual panelist on the beloved Met Opera Quiz.

I am thrilled to be welcomed so well and so quickly by the ALO community. I have just loved how accessible live performance is in this town, and with the ALO’s Housing Host program, you can even bring the production home with you so to speak, by donating a spare room to a performer or staff member traveling in for the season. The timing of my move and initial involvement with ALO coincided with a telemarketing call from a Met volunteer who asked me if he could sign me up for another year of my Young Associate membership. Once I explained that I would not be renewing due to my relocation, he exclaimed “ah! We’ve lost you to the Washington National Opera!!!” to which I exclaimed back to him “no! To the Ash Lawn Opera!!!”

While we do not have a Metropolitan Opera National Council District in Charlottesville, the closest venue is the Mid-Atlantic Region in Washington DC, we certainly have another display of fierce competition of our own. The ALO provides the opportunity to cultivate local talent with its various programs, and the quality of its programs is very telling based just on the interest received: over 300 artists sent in audition tapes to fill a handful of Young Artist and Apprentice Singer positions for this year. I have yet to do my homework on our local singers and all the programs in detail but I am excited about learning and profiling ALO talent.

Step by step my exposure to the Ash Lawn has been gratifying. I started by catching a family production back in December of Amahl and the Night Visitors, a more grass roots performance. The Paramount Theater was sold out! Certainly there is a larger appreciation of the opera than not in this town, with lots of spirit from and for their performers. As I have since learned, this is not representative of their summer seasons (which will once again bring 5 singers from the Met to perform this year), but a charming production for a domestic time of year.

Then I joined the Ash Lawn Opera Guild and met the ladies (all the guild member are ladies) at a Valentine luncheon in February. These guild members are fabulous women; strong and independent with sincere adoration for the music and performances. I so much enjoyed sitting around with local Southerners, Yankees, Internationals... discussing their backgrounds and world travels, and I was welcomed so warmly that hours flew by before I knew it. These wonderful guild members are on average in their 60s and above, but so young at heart and full of life, I left feeling very inspired.  At this same luncheon, I briefly had a chance to meet and speak with Michelle for the first time, with a promise to follow up with a personal meeting to discuss how I can become involved. Within a couple of weeks I found myself at the Downtown ALO office, where sitting and chatting with Michelle was just so much fun; learning about the various programs she is running, talking about life and music, what it’s like to work with Placido Domingo, living the life of an artist in Paris, and learning how to run an opera company. Once again, I found myself completely inspired and feeling quite privileged to have the opportunity to help out as she develops the Ash Lawn into a more notable institution.

There is a lot going on at ALO and I foresee some follow up articles to keep you in touch with first hand experiences of my time here. I have barely had time to find out about our local singers, but to give you an idea of some wonderful opportunities there are for opera enthusiasts in Charlottesville, I can tell you that not only am I a guild member surrounded by colorful, sharp women, but I am also signed on with the Arts Education Committee, lead by Jean Wilhelm.  I will be helping to implement Michelle’s outreach program to children, including those in under-serviced areas, with the help of our Artist in Residence (Teaching Artist) Mary Gresock who is from the D.C. area and who works with the Washington National Opera, Wolftrap, etc... Additionally I have agreed to become a Housing Host for performers and production staff coming to Charlottesville from all over (what an honor!) to put on this year’s shows of La Boheme and Carousel (tickets are now on sale!). And last but not least, I am helping with floral arrangements for our (sold out!) Spring Gala fundraising event on March 17.  And I am not ruling out auditioning for the ALO as a community performer; 2014 may be my debut year as a stand-in!

Welcome to opera in C-ville!

Monday, March 11, 2013

2013 Semi-Finals and Grand Finals Concert in Pictures

Below is a pictorial account of the 2013 Semi-Finals and Grand Finals Concert.  
All pictures were taken by the wonderful Rebecca Fay (Photography).  Please do not use this pictures without providing due credit.

I am not sure who everyone is (and some names are not repeated under each picture for now), but if you recognize yourself just leave a comment and I will make adjustments.

Semi-Finals - Sunday March 3rd 2013

Crowd Control

The Semi-Finalists arriving on the Grand Tier

Felicia Moore from the Eastern Region awaiting the results

Rebecca Pedersen from the Rocky Mountain Region

Karen Vuong from the Eastern Region

The Eastern Region Committee: Lara Marcon, Stefanie Van Steelandt and Michelle Everett

Tracy Cox from the Western Region with Melissa Wegner (Associate Director of Auditions)

Eastern Region Grand-Finalist Matthew Anchel and mother

Middle Atlantic Region Grand-Finalist Musa Ngqungwana

Visiting District and Regional Directors in town to support their singers

Efraín Solís from the Western Region

Matthew Anchel

Anthony Roth Costanzo, Eastern Region grand-Finals winner from 2009

Victoria Livengood, Grand-Finals winner from 1984

Lara Marcon with Eastern Region supporters Dominique and Eric Laffont

Camille LaBarre introducing the judges

Matthew Anchel accepting his envelope as Grand-Finalist

Gayletha Nichols (Director of Auditions) announcing the Grand-Finalists

Brandon Cedel from the Middle Atlantic Region

Tracy Cox from the Western Region

Sydney Mancasola from the New England Region

Musa Ngqungwana from the Middle Atlantic Region

Richard Ollarsaba from the Upper Midwest Region

Rebecca Pedersen from the Rocky Mountain Region 

Thomas Richards from the Central Region

Michael Brandenburg from the Central Region

Efraín Solís from the Western Region

The Grand-Finalists 2013

Grand-Finals Concert Sunday March 10th 2013

Mercedes Bass, Ann Ziff and Camille LaBarre (Chairperson of the Metropolitan Opera National Council)

Mitchell Lathrop (President of the Metropolitan Opera National Council)

The Eastern Region Team: Lara Marcon, Michelle Everett, Danielle Strauss, Stefanie Van Steelandt and guest

Host and guest performer Sondra Radvanovsky 

Eric Owens charming the crowd

The moment of truth

2013 Grand-Finals Winners

The Grand-Finalists receiving their awards

Gayletha Nichols thanking the volunteers

Camille Labarre introducing Dominique Laffont who will give her award to Matthew Anchel

Ann Ziff, Melissa Wegner, Gayletha Nichols and Camille LaBarre

Melissa Wegner, Gayletha Nichols, Mitchell Lathrop