Chorus Stage Time: Turandot vs. Der Freischütz

Opening night of Turandot went great! The sold-out house enjoyed it a lot. Our General Director received emails this morning from people who admitted they thought he “lost his mind” when he put Turandot on the West Bay Opera schedule, but were blown away by the performance.

In my previous post I mentioned that I hadn’t done the numbers about chorus stage time for Turandot vs. other operas. Since we’re dark tonight, I had some time today to quantify this. I compared Turandot to my previous onstage opera performance, Der Freischütz. You can see reviews of our production in the 2010 issue no. 20 of Weberiana, the journal of the Internationale Carl-Maria-von-Weber-Gesellschaft e. V.

The chorus part for Der Freischütz is typical of many operas – a couple of big scenes, often at the beginning and the end, with most of the time focused on scenes involving only the principals. I compared the chorus time on stage based on the staging in our West Bay Opera productions. For timings I used the recordings of the operas that I have: Zubin Mehta conducting Turandot with Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti; and Carlos Kleiber conducting Der Freischütz with Peter Schreier and Gundula Janowitz. Both operas have significant off-stage chorus parts that aren’t included here.

The numbers are indeed close to what I had guessed. In Der Freischütz the chorus was on stage for 38 minutes out of a 2 hour, 6 minute performance, or 30% of the opera. In Turnadot the chorus is on stage for 1 hour, 15 minutes of of a 1 hour, 58 minute performance, or 64% of the opera.

So Turnadot is indeed twice as big as a standard chorus opera part. No wonder we’re so tired but happy afterwards: “Nessun dorma” indeed!

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Coming Up: Turandot

Postcard image for Turandot at West Bay OperaIt’s less than 24 hours until Turandot opens at West Bay Opera. My wife JoAnn and I are both singing in the chorus for this production, and it has been an incredible experience.

Turandot is Puccini’s last and grandest opera. It is usually the province of the largest and biggest-budget opera companies. To get the chance to perform it as part of a volunteer chorus may well be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The same is true for the chance to see and hear it in an intimate 425-seat house.

I haven’t actually run the numbers on this, but it usually seems like an opera chorus is on stage for maybe 1/4 or 1/3 of an opera. Sometimes, as in the case of the Mozart / Da Ponte operas – or Puccini’s own Madama Butterfly – the percentage of stage time is much less.

In Turandot, the chorus is onstage for about 2/3 or 3/4 of the opera. Often when we’re not onstage, we have some offstage singing to do. Sometimes we get some long lines of singing in praise of the Emperor or in anticipation of an execution, but very often the singing is conversational, in Greek chorus style.

The result is that while the chorus part is extraordinarily rewarding to perform, it is also difficult to learn and memorize due largely to the sheer size of the part. We have a lot of experienced opera choristers in this ensemble and many of us have had the same struggles. As usual, though, we got it done and the dress rehearsals have gone very well. I can’t wait for opening night tomorrow!

How does one put such a grand opera into such a small space, including a small stage and pit? West Bay Opera’s General Director, José Luis Moscovich, had a good plan for this audacious production. Cast outstanding leads, starting with Alexandra LoBianco in the title role, David Gustafson as Calaf, and Liisa Dávila as Liù. Get David Cox, an amazing double threat as an opera singer and opera director, to direct; Maestro Moscovich conducts.

Then enlarge the chorus by 25% from the usual 24-voice maximum. Extend the set out over the orchestra pit to make way for all the people, their lavish costumes, and the beautiful set. Use lots of levels onstage so you can actually see all the people who are on it: about 50 for large scenes including principals, chorus, children’s chorus, and supers. Enlarge the orchestra, placing them all over the backstage areas of the theater, and use even more audio and video equipment than usual to keep orchestra and conductor together. The technical team has really risen to the challenge; this largest and most complex of West Bay Opera orchestras has the best onstage sound ever.

The music, of course, is astonishingly gorgeous. This is the opera that boasts perhaps the most popular tenor aria of all time, “Nessun dorma,” in Act III. The musical invention throughout the opera is incredible. Puccini died before composing the final scene, but the standard completion by Alfano gets us to the glorious conclusion as efficiently as possible.

Online ticket sales have sold out for all four performances, but you can contact the West Bay Opera box office or show up at the door to see if there might be some last-minute tickets available. If you come to the show please come backstage afterwards to say hello. Enjoy this rare chance to experience Turandot up close and personal!

Posted in Chorus, Music, Opera | 2 Comments

Starting MusicXML 3.0

At Recordare, we are planning to start working on MusicXML 3.0 soon. We have been collecting ideas for a new version of the format since MusicXML 2.0 was released three years ago. Some of the possible new features under consideration are:

  • Improving playback support, including an instrument taxonomy for better sharing between people and applications who use different, ever-larger virtual instrument libraries.
  • Extending repertoire coverage, possibly to Chinese jianpu numbered notation, Turkish maqam music, and more. We are looking for small feature additions that broaden MusicXML’s scope, without losing the focus on common Western music notation.
  • Catching up with newer features of common Western music notation, perhaps using Elaine Gould’s upcoming book Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation for guidance.
  • Catching up with more widespread notation software features, such as percussion pictograms and better microtonal support.
  • Filling feature gaps, including MusicXML extensions that were added to the Open Score Format PVG Profile.
  • Fixing typos, ambiguous descriptions, and other problems found by MusicXML 2.0 developers.
  • Creating a specification document that combines information currently in different places like the tutorial, the DTD, and the example files.

We expect to be discussing MusicXML 3.0 a lot in the new year on the MusicXML discussion list. If you want to participate in these discussions, please join us! Signup is available online at:

http://www.recordare.com/musicxml/mailing-list

Geri Actor and I will be attending the NAMM show in Anaheim on January 13 – 16, and I will be attending Musikmesse in Frankfurt on April 6 – 9. We will be happy to meet with people at these shows to discuss new MusicXML 3.0 features. Please let us know if you would like to meet at either of these upcoming events by using Recordare’s contact form:

http://www.recordare.com/company/contact

We would like to have all the major new 3.0 features discussed on the MusicXML list in January and February. If you want to meet at Musikmesse, please don’t wait until then to propose your MusicXML 3.0 idea. At that point, it may be too late to consider ideas we are hearing for the first time. Please send us an email or discuss it on the MusicXML list ahead of time.

Best wishes to everyone for a happy holiday season and new year!

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Coming Up: El Niño

Photo of El Niño album coverIt’s December, and performances of Handel’s Messiah (plus the occasional Judas Maccabeus) are heard throughout the world. When it comes to Christmas oratorios, though, my favorite is John Adams’ masterpiece El Niño.

As with other modern-day oratorios, El Niño mixes Biblical texts with other poetic sources that comment on and develop the story. El Niño is not just about Christmas, but also about birth and powerful change. Particularly noteworthy is the inclusion of the female perspective, including key movements set to the poems of Mexican poets Rosario Castellanos and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

The San Francisco Symphony was a co-commissioner of this work, and I have been lucky enough to hear it twice. The first time was at the US premiere in San Francisco; Kent Nagano conducted with soloists Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Willard White. This was with Peter Sellars’ semi-staging and film. The performances and staging were great, but like many others I found the film to be a distraction. The second time was a concert performance at the Boston Symphony with David Robertson conducting – no staging, no film. These were also fine performances, but here I missed the staging if not the film.

I am incredibly thrilled to be singing with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus in our performances of El Niño on December 2, 3, and 4, conducted by John Adams himself. These performances should have the best of both worlds – a new semi-staging by director Kevin Newbury, but no film to pull focus from the performers. Tickets are available online. John Adams has also blogged about these performances, with more updates promised.

Several of the original solo performers return, including Dawn Upshaw (on Thursday and Saturday) plus the amazing Three Countertenors: Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Steven Rickards. The other soloists are Michelle DeYoung, Jonathan Lemalu, and Jessica Rivera (on Friday). It’s a trememdous cast whichever night you go! I know at least one friend who is coming both Friday and Saturday to hear both sopranos. The San Francisco Girls Chorus performs in the beautiful, haunting finale.

I blogged earlier about meeting John Adams at this year’s Cabrillo Festival and having him tell me “I write pretty high for tenors.” I can now verify this from personal experience! Mr. Adams really likes the high A for tenors. There is indeed a lot of high writing, usually in the loud climactic sections where the high range really helps to cut through the orchestra. All the parts are rangy though, not just the tenors. It’s effective writing: there are generally enough rests to get your strength and breath back for the high tessitura, and the sound that the audience hears is just glorious.

I’ll be in my usual spot in the third row of the chorus, towards the center. In this concert I’m a “border person” singing next to the altos. That’s always fun, but particularly in this work given the outstanding writing for altos, often in tremendous counterpoint to what we’re doing in the tenors.

El Niño is one of the first 21st century masterworks in the choral / symphonic literature. I’m a big fan of most of John Adams’ music from Harmonium onwards, but El Niño is perhaps my favorite of favorites to date. For those in the Bay Area, if you only go to one San Francisco Symphony concert this year, make it this one. If you only go to one Christmas oratorio this year, make it this one. If you are arriving early for SF MusicTech and you like classical music, come hear us!

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Dolet 5.5 for Sibelius Released

Recordare has released a maintenance update for the Dolet 5 for Sibelius plug-in. Version 5.5 improves the export of segnos, codas, and trills, along with other fixes.

One of the advantages of Recordare’s new web site design is that it makes it easier for us to send out Dolet 5 for Sibelius updates. If you ordered Dolet 5 for Sibelius from our old store, you will find that the download links and instructions no longer work. In that case, simply email Recordare at our support address or use the online contact form. We will re-enter your order into our new download system so that you may receive this and future Dolet 5 for Sibelius updates at no extra charge. If possible, please include your original Recordare order number in your email.

If you ordered Dolet 5 for Sibelius from our new store (orders from October 19 or later), you should already have received an email notifying you of your upgrade. If not, please email or contact us so we can get the upgrade information to you.

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May La Forza Be With You

This was a fun and unusual evening! My wife JoAnn and I are singing in the offstage pilgrims’ chorus in West Bay Opera’s production of Verdi’s La forza del destino. This is a brief piece just a few minutes long near the start of Act II: 18 measures of sung music for men, a few measures less for the women.

Tonight was also the 6th game of the National League Championship Series in baseball, pitting the San Francisco Giants against the Philadelphia Phillies. As we’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, many people in the cast, chorus, and audience are Giants fans as well as opera people. 

One of the perks about being in the offstage chorus is that we’re in street clothes, not costumes, so it was OK for us to hang out in the courtyard listening to the game on the radio as the eighth and ninth innings unfolded during Act I – just a few steps from the lobby where we would be singing. This was a special treat since the Giants’ radio announcers are outstanding. We were joined by a couple of audience latecomers who had to wait until Act II to get into the theater, plus some crew members en route between jobs.

The Giants’ closer, Brian Wilson, entered the game with a 3-2 lead just as the orchestra started playing the “fate” chords in the overture. For a while it looked like the Giants might win before the end of Act I. But the Giants and Wilson never do anything in the most straightforward way, so of course there were a couple of walks to extend the bottom of the ninth into Act II. Our friends in the regular chorus had to go onstage with the outcome of the game in doubt.

Fortunately the offstage chorus starts singing about 5 minutes into the act. The Giants won the game and the National League pennant with about 3 minutes to spare before the start of our offstage chorus scene.

It could get crazier. If the World Series goes to game 6 or 7 in San Francisco, those games are the same evenings as our first two San Francisco Symphony performances of Carmina burana! Fortunately this is on the second half of the program, so the games should be over before intermission, unless they are particularly long or go into extra innings. But win or lose, I expect the vibe in the audience would be way different than the usual concert at Davies Symphony Hall.

Let’s go Giants, and may La Forza continue to be with you!

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La Forza del West Bay

The reviews are in from the first weekend of Verdi’s La forza del destino at West Bay Opera, and they are raves indeed:

As all the reviews mention, the cast is uniformly strong. The biggest revelation to me has been Gabriel Manro’s powerful Don Carlo. Manro is making his West Bay Opera debut in this role. Janos Gerbern put it nicely in his San Francisco Classical Voice review:

If no weapons are involved, next time I am facing a gang in a dark alley, I want Gabriel Manro on my side. The young, lanky baritone would need only sing “Morir! Tremenda cosa!” (Die! Darn it!) and all the bad guys would run away, presto.

It’s rare that you get a chance to see such a large opera like this in a 400-seat house like West Bay’s Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. There’s one more weekend to see this remarkable production – and to hear me sing 18 measures in the Act II offstage pilgrims’ chorus. JoAnn’s also singing in the pilgrims’ chorus, but the women don’t have quite as much music.

The remaining performances are on Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday at 2:00 pm. If there are partial conflicts with Giants’ games, I’m sure you’ll be able to get the score at one of the intermissions. Buy your tickets now!

And to the Giants: May La Forza be with you!

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Celebrating MusicXML’s 10th Anniversary

New Recordare logoThis month marks a major landmark in Recordare’s history – it’s MusicXML’s 10th anniversary!

We date the anniversary from the first time that MusicXML was presented in public. This was on October 23, 2000 at the First International Symposium on Music Information Retrieval in Plymouth, Massachusetts. I gave a poster presentation on “Representing Music Using XML” which described MusicXML version 0.1 and its early implementations for Finale, Sibelius, MIDI, and MuseData.

In the 10 years since, MusicXML support has grown to over 130 applications on the Windows, Mac, Linux, and iOS operating systems. All the major music notation editors can read and write MusicXML 2.0 files, including Finale, Sibelius, Capella, and MuseScore. Similarly, all the major music scanners can create MusicXML files, including SmartScore, PhotoScore, SharpEye, and Capella-Scan. Developers of mobile sheet music apps use MusicXML to exchange music notation files with these desktop programs.

To celebrate this anniversary, we have launched a redesigned web site at www.recordare.com, including a new logo. The new site is more attractive and easier to navigate than the old site. It includes key information in German and Japanese as well as English.

MusicXML has broken down the barriers that kept musicians from getting the most out of their digital sheet music. Over the past ten years, MusicXML has become the standard when people work together to prepare written music for print, film, shows, and online services. We expect it will soon become a popular consumer format as well.

Thank you to everybody in the MusicXML community for your support and encouragement over the past 10 years. We have had great success so far, but I think the best is yet to come!

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