The San Francisco Opera Chorus is back in rehearsal this month, prepping the music for Puccini’s “Tosca” ahead of the company’s long-awaited season opening on August 21. Director Ian Robertson sat in the choir room with dozens of singers, hour after hour, ironing out the smallest issues of tuning, pronunciation and vocal balance to make sure everything ran smoothly when they took the stage.
And all this for a sheet music that everyone involved has played so many times before that you might think they could do it in their sleep.
When I recently sat down with Robertson to talk about his impending retirement – he plans to step down at the end of 2021, after 34 years as the company’s choir director – we had a lot of ground to cover, including his approach to his work, his life story and his long history in San Francisco. But a moment of our conversation lodged in my memory and did not leave me alone.
“I’m back in rehearsal this week, and I can feel the old energy coming back,” said Robertson. “I mean, it’s just ‘Tosca’, but it’s always useful to dig into the details of the score.”
As he said this, he made a small wave of his hand – thumb and forefinger rubbing hard against each other, a quick twist of the wrist to suggest manual effort – and I was struck at what point the groundwork underlies every aspect of what an opera audience ends up in the experience.
It’s not that I imagined the members of the Opera Chorus coming out on stage and loving it. Of Classes they have to rehearse and prepare themselves, even for a song as familiar as “Tosca”.
On the contrary, what I felt at that moment, with a mixture of admiration and gratitude, was the great distance between the meticulous analytical work that takes place in the choir room and the fluid results that you and I can enjoy in the War Memorial Opera House. . Behind every minute of public performance lie hours of painstaking, repetitive grading – work they think about so the audience doesn’t have to.
And with that insight came a slight twinge of guilt. In all the decades that I have reviewed the San Francisco Opera performances for The Chronicle, I have hardly ever had (or perhaps never made) the space to fully recognize this contribution on paper.
There are so many moving parts in any opera production – it is, notoriously, the most multifaceted branch of the performing arts – and all of these components clamor for inclusion in the short span of a newspaper review.
Everything wants to be mentioned, starting with the piece itself (there are always operators for whom “Tosca” is unknown territory) and continuing with the essential decisions taken by the conductor and the director who will shape the general character of a particular production. There are stars in the lead vocal roles, supporting singers who can make (or spoil) a particular scene with their contributions, and the chorus. There are individual design elements (sets, lighting, costume).
What fits in a short review, and where? The hierarchy passes from one lyrical offer to another. For a world premiere, the play itself is the most urgent thing a reviewer can talk about; if there is a newsworthy debut or a surprisingly good performance from a lead singer, that artist becomes the leader.
In my reviews, I usually end up dealing with the opera chorus alongside the secondary vocal performers, which means a one-sentence attempt to characterize as succinctly as possible the nature of the ensemble’s contribution to the ensemble. tonight.
A few years ago, I learned that the brevity (and, for some readers, the superficial quality) of this review had become a common joke among the members of Opera Chorus. They would look for the expected single sentence, ironically note the absence of a second sentence, and perhaps comment on how similar the current wording is to that of last year or 10 years ago.
To quote Monty Python, he’s a good cop. My reviews over the years have certainly not always reflected in detail the musical and interpretive splendor of the art of the Opera Choir – the solid technical mastery, the dramatic liveliness or the tonal range that the group conveys.
In my defense, however, most of the time my task is simply to find new words for an old truth – to work a variation on the recurring theme “Last night the chorus of Ian Robertson’s opera shone in. new”. (There are also times when this is not the case, and then no one happy.)
This in turn is a function of the enduring relationship between artistic work and artistic outcomes. All that rehearsal work in the choir room – DIY, polling, revising, and redesigning – is expressly designed not to detect. It is the infrastructure that supports a creation, which is then presented to the public as draped in a silk blanket that hides the cogs.
So when you or I sit at the opera and listen, we just have to think, “Wow, the opera choir sounds great tonight.” Because, you know, they do.