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.

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