Opera is considered one of the most refined musical art forms. It combines instrumental music, theater and singing to a very high level. Some of the most profound music is from the opera repertory. Many of the major composers throughout history have written operas beginning with early works of composers such as Monteverdi and continuing to the present day including Phillip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich. My NEXUS colleague, Russell Hartenberger, was the Timpanist in the Toronto Opera Company for many years and my brother Rick Kvistad has been principal percussionist with the San Francisco Opera for over 40 years. Rick explains the experience of the percussionist in the opera as “stressful boredom”.
Having just finished my third season as timpanist with the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice orchestra, I understand what Rick is saying. The percussion section and to a certain degree the timpanist mostly wait for their parts to come up. For orchestral literature, percussionists count measures rest, sometimes in the hundreds. For the opera, however, percussionists often mark the time between entrances in hours and minutes. Some percussionists have even been known to leave the pit between entrances and run errands (no names mentioned).
The Phoenicia International Festival the Voice just concluded its fifth season. This amazing five day summer festival was the brainchild of Metropolitan Opera superstars and a world-class pianist (www.phoeniciavoicefest.org). Louie Otey, Maria Todaro and Justin Kolb have created something incredibly special right here in the heart of the Catskills. The orchestra, led by Maestro David Wroe, included fantastic musicians from the New York metropolitan area, including members of the New Jersey Festival Orchestra, which Wroe conducts. Rick, Russell, Chris Earley and I have played percussion and timpani for the last several years. This year, the festival presented the Barber of Seville. In the past, the festival has presented Madame Butterfly and Rigoletto. Puccini wrote for a chromatic octave of tuned gongs in Madame Butterfly. Luckily I had a set which is a rare situation even in many of the established opera companies.
In addition to the opera production, a tremendous number of performances and workshops are given during the five day festival. This summer included a high energy flamenco concert based on Manual De Falla’s El amor Brujo.
The Friday night concert featured the orchestra in popular Spanish and Italian songs starring Maria Todaro’s father Jose Todaro. Jose is a superstar in France and he won over the audience immediately as he continued to enthrall everyone for two hours.
One of the more difficult challenges for a percussionist is to know when to play. Often, the indication in the music is to tacit (not play) until a later time without showing the measures or any music notation. That interval could be minutes or hours. Also, long segments of recitative, spoken parts go by quickly while the conductor marks this time occasionally. Knowing when these segments are over can be a challenge. In other words, stressful boredom!
It’s nice to know that summer opera is alive and well, at least in the Catskills. While funding is being cut in school music programs, arts council funding is diminishing and ticket prices are often astronomical, there are boutique style venues popping up all over the country. Just across the river, Bard College offers a summer program entitled Summerscape which often includes large scale opera productions. Right down the road from Phoenicia, the Belleayre Ski Center has a summer music festival which also offers an operatic production each summer. There’s plenty of stressful boredom to go around.