The BIG PICTURE—in the production of an opera, who among the collaborators has it and what influence is exerted? On the advent of the first anniversary of the world premiere of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, the Steiny Road Poet spoke with her collaborating music director John Yaffé and realized how important a wide lens vision is to the success of a new opera.
The short answer is that each of the Stein opera collaborators developed a large view regarding the outcome of the work. The Steiny Road Poet did so by choosing Gertrude Stein and the plight of the artist facing her critics as the subject matter and then by writing words that combined not only the story but also the lyric poetry that appealed to the composer. Composer William Banfield did so by guiding the Poet to further develop the conflict between Gertrude and her art critic brother Leo and then by creating music that unfolds the emotions in Gertrude's struggle to realize her life as an artist. By the nature of the job, the artistic and stage director had to have the widest possible view and vision for a new opera. Encompass New Opera Theatre Artistic Director Nancy Rhodes provided the means to bring the opera to life on stage by carefully choosing and working with music directors, cast and other supporting artists and by serving as a sounding board to the librettist and composer during the development process.
THE MAESTRO'S PROCESS
In bringing a new work to its premiere, total immersion is not merely the domain of the librettist, composer and stage director. John Yaffé described the following steps he takes as a music director in preparing a work for public performance:
Read the libretto (or, in the case of a musical, the book) to get a general feeling of style and who, specifically, the characters are.
Yaffé said he does not separate the aspects of theater and music because one flows right into the other.
Study the music to understand how the music brings the drama to life.
Yaffé's process is to "get inside the music and the drama." He said, "I try to find out how I can make that marriage of text and music as natural and as inevitable as possible."
Learn to sing all the vocal parts himself, so that the he will have a visceral connection to the singers as he rehearses the music with them.
Yaffé said every good opera conductor must have "a singer's soul inside of him," even if not a particularly good voice.
Start rehearsals with singers to make sure they are singing the right notes and correct rhythms, and that the diction is clear. Help the singers become confident with the musical dimension so they can work unencumbered with the stage director.
"Since the singers' instruments are in their bodies, I act as a second pair of ears to monitor all aspects of their preparation. Even though I know the piece well by this point, I try to put myself in the place of the first time listener and make sure that I can understand everything the singer is saying," said Yaffé.
Work with orchestra musicians closer to the opening night. Study the parts for the individual instruments, then rehearse with the musicians: First he and the orchestra alone, next together with the singers (the Sitzprobe), followed by a rehearsal in the theater, and finally the dress rehearsal.
"The Sitzprobe (where we introduce the orchestra to the singers and the singers to the orchestra) is an additional process of getting to know each other, adding another level of personnel and texture to the piece, working together to integrate singers and orchestra into an accurate, seamless, and dynamic fabric."
Once all the performers assemble in the theater for rehearsals, new problems require attention. For example, the singers need to adjust to the change between piano rehearsals versus rehearsals with the full orchestra.
"This [phase of the process] has to do with the coordination between stage and orchestra when the singers go back to their actual staged performance. They are in a new context hearing the orchestra playing off to the side or in front of the stage instead of the piano. They have to get used to hearing new things. There are balance concerns when the orchestra is added. For example, the orchestra might be too loud and the singers can't be heard. Or maybe the orchestra needs to be louder. Usually we send someone out into the audience, either a musical assistant or a singer who is not presently needed on stage, to give us feedback."
When asked if Yaffé deviated from this process with the Stein opera, he said it's not unusual in working with a brand new work to make adjustments to the music to improve the overall flow and rhythm of the dramatic action as dictated by the composer. Once the piece goes on stage in the rehearsal phase, one begins to understand that "certain moments drag, other moments are too abrupt and need more time in order to be understandable or need more time for a particular message or emotional moment to get across."
"Sometimes you find that certain music is ill-conceived or, in the case of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, there were a number of sections where orchestra music was underscoring dialogue and we found that the music buried the dialogue. So, we had to clear that out, either by an alteration in the instrumentation, to make the music softer, or by cutting that music all together, so that the dialogue could be heard. Sometimes you have transitions between scenes for which you need more time, and the composer hasn't provided it. So, either new music must be written, or, in the case of the Stein opera, we were able to do some repeats of existing music to bridge those transitions. This is the kind of thing that goes on all the time in Broadway musical theater.
"Until the piece is fully fleshed out technically, and until the [stage] director's ideas are realized, you don't know what kind of connective tissue you are going to need. So, we did have some of that in this piece, and it had to do with the manner in which the composer William Banfield worked. He wrote this wonderful music, and on certain levels it was fully realized, but others, it was only sketched—the idea being that, as the production unfolds, the needs will reveal themselves, and the music would be tended to accordingly. Fortunately, we had enough material in the piece to draw from."
HAVING THE NERVES FOR NEW WORK
What makes John Yaffé especially fit for developing a world premiere production of a new opera is that he grew up with a father who taught dramatic arts and who was an actor in live theater, film and television. John hung out in the theaters where his father worked and he helped with whatever job handed to him. "I like process work. Working on new pieces is very exciting for me. Not everyone has the nerves for working on new pieces." He says many music directors prefer working on what pre-exists because there are guideposts, like existing recordings.
YAFFÉ AND CABARET THEATER
Raised in Los Angeles, and a graduate of California State University, Yaffé worked for New York City Opera when he moved east in his 20s. He grew up, musically, in German opera houses, where he worked as an opera coach and conductor. During his time in Germany, he became interested in Berlin cabaret ("Brettl") and its origins in the "Überbrettl" of that city at the turn of the 20th century.
Because the Steiny Road Poet considers the Encompass New Opera Theatre treatment of her character called the Master of the Libretto to be in the tradition of Berlin cabaret theater, she asked Yaffé if his interest in cabaret music might have affected his approach to the Stein opera.
"The Stein opera is not cabaret, which was, traditionally, in short forms (songs) and usually politically and socially charged. What Banfield wrote is very much an American opera in a style with which we're familiar from the second half of the 20th century. It's the language of composers like Aaron Copland, Douglas Moore, and Marc Blitzstein. It's that American musical feeling that's open, spacious, lyrical, and optimistic. But the especially charming thing about Banfield's music is the more contemporary smooth jazz element. Nonetheless, there's a feeling for irony [in the Stein opera] that has the aroma of cabaret. It's the personal responsibility of the conductor to be in contact with all these colors on the emotional palette, because, as a conductor, you're not a creative artist, you're a re-creative artist. You have to be able to walk into whatever the sentiment of the moment is and bring it alive."
To interpret "the awesome body of work you are entrusted with," Yaffé said, "you have to go beyond being a serious conductor, or a good musical analyst, or the tag as a conductor with a good sense of humor."
STEIN OPERA REVISITED
If John Yaffé had this project to do over, he said he would have preferred to have entered the work much earlier in its development.
"I would have preferred that the composer had been more available for revisions. I wish that the orchestration had come along earlier so that all the of the things that needed to be revised, relative to what had evolved in the rehearsal process, could have been taken care of not at the last minute, and not under stressful conditions, but within a humane framework. Other than that, because the production was being handled by people with a lot of experience, on both the musical and staging end, it went as smoothly as one could possibly hope. There was a great body of willing and dynamic performers. Nancy Rhodes' strength is always to make the most out of the least, to take minimal resources and spin something really colorful and dynamic. I wouldn't have done anything different, but I would like to have joined the project earlier."
Thus on the first anniversary of the world premiere of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, the Steiny Road Poet stands in awe anew of what was accomplished. She had no idea how a music director works or how extraordinary the work and dedication was of John Yaffé.