GÄRAGEDÄMMERUNG Part 3: AUTUMN 2020

Once the instrumentation had been settled, I had about six weeks to get the entire project written. (This has been a source of some amusement amongst my friends in the theatrical orchestration world, who generally have three weeks or less to score an entire Broadway musical of typically 2500 measures.)

Some of this was simplified by removing interstitial orchestral measures to make the best use of the limited amount of time each scene was allotted.

Yuval wanted to respect Wagner’s original vocal lines by keeping them as intact as possible, and had tailored his excellent translation to scan to the existing notes: this required very little tweaking from me.

The first task was to get the singers learning the new text, so it had to be inserted into existing vocal scores via PDF (in our case we used the Peter’s edition as being a little more pianistically manageable than the Schott’s). I felt it was imperative that those who were new to their roles learn them from the original material in order to anchor their vocal lines, before getting acquainted with my reduced orchestrations.

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I then determined the order of work by practicality and what would take the copyist longest to accomplish. The first scene took me only a few hours one afternoon. The Immolation scene was next as it had the largest number of instrumental parts and would take the longest for their extraction (and therefore proofreading). Then the Rheinmaidens/Siegfried scene, so the two percussionists could have as much time as possible with their fairly demanding parts.


IMG_0258 (1)I left the Alberich / Hagen scene for last, as I had next to no knowledge of the accordion – practical or theoretical – and wanted as much time as possible to get a feel for the instrument in order to produce a part that was at least somewhat idiomatic. This situation was made more challenging by the fact that almost no two accordions are alike, and as the players shifted, I kept trying to adjust the part for their extant instrument. Under the circumstances, it was intensely gratifying (and slightly amusing) to have the player who ultimately undertook the gig compliment me on the excellence of the scoring!

As involved as all this may sound, in hindsight my own part on this remarkable project seems trivial, especially considering the months of intense logistical planning and preparation that preceded rehearsals, involving top experts in their field. Just to reiterate the complexity of one of the performance evenings:

  • Across a three hour span, twelve groups of spectators confined to a maximum of eight vehicles per group would proceed through six performing spaces.
  • Each group of spectators in their cars would arrive in the opera’s staff parking lot for a wide screen video prologue, then proceed into the helix parking garage for the other five scenes.
  • Because safety rules mandated that the vehicle windows be up at all times, audio had to be fed via the cars’ radios. (Which was a tragedy: the MOT’s garage possessed stunning acoustics. Even on the roof level, with no over-arching shell, the surrounding buildings provided Christine with an extraordinary reverberatory platform. Residents in the adjacent buildings were frequently observed glued to their windows when she rehearsed, which she always did in full voice.)
  • As all six scenes would be performed simultaneously, each would need its own audio feed via its own radio station. Which required six different radio station frequencies to be licensed for the duration of the production. Each of which had to be independently finessed and managed to achieve an optimal balance between voice and instruments.
  • This, and the logistics of stewarding twelve groups of cars through six scenes with very specific timing, required an army of stage managers, coordinators, and sound supervisors – not to mention stagehands – to make it all run seamlessly and on time.
  • Which included the perfectly timed audio cues for the performers, critical to starting and ending g each piece.

To say nothing of the vigilant safety protocols instituted during them. Prior to arriving in Detroit, we had to take online quizzes regarding the procedures that would be in place, sign numerous assurances to adhere to them, and provide last minute test results. At every rehearsal location temperatures were checked, and spacing demands rigorously observed: no joke when trying to adequately space the instrumentalists for both safety and interaction.

The army of superb technicians who brought off this complex operation still leaves me in awe. To say nothing of the musicians, who met the logistical and conductorless challenges of this demanding music with aplomb. A special shoutout to concertmaster Eliot Hausen who didn’t bat an eye at leading the Immolation Scene from his violin as if it was second nature.

I’m especially indebted to Bill Billingham of Lyric Chicago Opera, who as part of the co-commission was one of several members of their staff sent to assist in the production. Amongst his other myriad talents, Bill proved to be a proofreading wonder, no mean feat given the extreme differences and paring down from Wagner’s original. Also Suzanne Acton, MOT’s chorus director, who was charged with handling a continually shifting roster of instrumentalists, both during preproduction and rehearsals.

I bow to Yuval Sharon, who broached this audacious project to me with the ease of putting on an amateur review in a barn, and who bore the endless onslaught of exigencies, problems, challenges, and setbacks with an unfailingly tireless, enthusiastic and supportive demeanor.

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And how to express my admiration for the peerless Christine Goerke. Just to have the opportunity to watch this legendary artist sail repeatedly through the entirety of the Immolation scene, one of the major hurdles of the rep, on the open roof of a parking garage with no acoustic backing with all the effort of buffing her nails. The entire company would watch agog as she repeatedly hurled gleaming top As and Bs into the Michigan skies like fireworks.

It’s a complex production to undertake, and for all the rave reviews and enthusiastic inquiries from other companies, who knows how many other iterations it will see. But it was worth every effort and potential risk, as so perfectly expressed by Yuval himself:

“We cannot just sit in silence and hope for the best. Instead, we can band together, take care of each other’s safety, and make our voices heard, telling a story of a massive RESET. We may not be in a theater, but art can still find a way.”

GÄRAGEDÄMMERUNG Part 1: SUMMER 2020

It’s been difficult to coherently organize all my news since my last post. Life since the winter of 2019 has been, to put it mildly, chaotic. Many accomplishments, many reversals, some reversals which turned out to be accomplishments. Which is a post in itself.

For better or worse, it seems that at the height of chaos, the Universe or the Force or however you care to regard it has a tendency to throw me a psychological lifeline. Which, bizarrely, most often centers around Richard Strauss’s opera Elektra

In September of 2014, struggling with a fairly flattening romantic situation, I was approached by a small New York opera company to undertake an edition of Elektra for considerably reduced orchestra. (Read all about it on my Elektra-lite blog!) While the company wound up backing out of the project, my pursuance of the edition and publicizing of it brought me two other orchestration assignments – one of them actually involving the full scale Elektra

Work on this reduction eventually came to the attention of the peerless dramatic soprano Christine Goerke, an artist I’ve admired since her days as a lyric soprano with a renowned stage presence and sense of humor, qualities that have only heightened over time. Her Armida in Rinaldo in 2000 left me both enraptured and doubled over. And her much heralded transition to the major heavyweight roles, particularly in the Wagnerian rep and its ilk, has put her in the top ranks of her fach. There never has been, nor currently is, another artist who so completely realizes both vocally and dramatically the title role of Strauss’s harrowing opera.

The above panegyric will give some indication of my astonishment when, in June of this year, with the Covid-19 pandemic having shut down the entirety of in-person performing arts across the U.S.,  Christine herself contacted me with a proposal:

Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit was shortly to announce the hiring of a new artistic director, Yuval Sharon – the recipient of widespread acclaim for his work both at his self-founded Los Angeles opera company as well as some of Europe’s most hallowed venues, including Bayreuth.

As his inaugural project, Yuval wanted MOT, in a joint commission with Lyric Opera of Chicago, to brave the new and still tricky world of safe in-person operatic experience with a reimagining of Wagner’s six hour (if you’re lucky) Götterdämmerung, the final opera of his titanic tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungs. Naturally with Christine performing her matchless Brünnhilde.

Yuval specifically conceived the production to be performed live by an opera company, or at least by operatically trained singers, and to utilize – and more importantly provide employment for – an opera company’s stage crew and orchestra. His idea was a one-hour condensing of the opera centered on four of its key scenes, with the extensive narrative material supplied by Detroit poet Marsha Music. It would be staged in the parking garage MOT owned across the street from the Detroit Opera House, one scene per level. The transition between scenes would be by Marsha’s narration and sound design by Lewis Nicolas Pesacov based on Wagner’s score.

The singers would perform Wagner’s original music with a new English translation by Yuval to make the experience less distancing for the local audience. Each scene would be accompanied by a small chamber group of instrumentalists, conductorless, working symbiotically with the singers. Would I be interested in abridging and reducing Wagner’s monumental soundscape?

In order for the production to make even partial financial sense, a minimum number of ticket holders / cars would have to be accommodated across the planned three hour span of each evening. The computations wound up at 8 cars per rotation, 12 rotations running simultaneously across that three hour period, with a 30 minute break in the middle. Meaning that each scene would be performed 12 times in quick succession every night. (On opening night, this was increased to 14 rotations due to the high demand for tickets.) Each scene could not be longer than 8 minutes so as to keep each rotation within the overall 55 minute cap. (Think the narrative rides at Disney World).

Which posed all sorts of challenges for me as the arranger and orchestrator to make each scene fit within the inflexible parameters while not being overly taxing for the performers.

Still, the chance to work with arguably one of the most imaginative directors living? On a piece I love? To help restore some work to the performing arts, and confidence to its patrons? AND TO WORK WITH CHRISTINE GOERKE?

Reader, I allowed myself to be persuaded.

WHAT’S HAPPENING: December, 2016

IMG_1144.JPG.jpgIf you follow me on social media at all, you’ll know that the last month has been profoundly disturbing to me, as it has been to most of the U.S. artistic community. The repugnance of the election cycle, the outcome, and the ensuing insanity from both the new administration and its supporters have left me traumatized and questioning the nature of the country I call home.

But I’ve learned that it avails one nothing to sit around and stew. It has been both empowering and reassuring to join with other artists here in the New York area both to express my dissent against the stated repressive intentions of the administration and to explore ways to affect the situation.

First step is to recalibrate: I’m shutting off all news sources, social media, and interruptions during the holidays and immersing myself in music, both mine and others.

If you’re a jazz fan and need a little extra swing to kick your holidays in to gear, or just to divert your mind, maybe my Spotify playlist Yuletide Swing can be of use.

Wishing all a happy, hopeful and peaceful holidays season.