The conductor is the musical leader of the opera in all its facets. He/She is responsible for the musical interpretation: what the audience hears in performance. Throughout the rehearsal process and the performances, the conductor guides the singers and the orchestra, asking them to create what he/she believes the opera’s creator (the composer) intended the opera to sound like. The conductor shapes the sound by setting speed (tempo), volume (dynamics), and by making countless stylistic decisions appropriate to the time in which the opera was written. The conductor leads the opera performances from the orchestra pit, on an elevated platform where he/she can maintain eye contact with both the singers on the stage and the orchestra musicians in the pit. Depending on the size of the opera’s cast and orchestra, the conductor can literally be responsible for keeping hundreds of people on the same musical beat! The vast amount of knowledge and training required to prepare and lead opera performances coupled with the dynamic leadership needed to command the attention and collective will of an opera cast and orchestra makes the conductor a special and highly specialized person. The conductor is often referred to as the “Maestro,” which translates to “Master” – a fitting term!
Guide to the Opera
Opera was born in Italy over 400 years ago and continues to evolve today. Different types and styles of opera developed over centuries in numerous countries across several continents. This means there is an incredible amount of variety in opera. Think of how much popular music today has changed just in your lifetime, and then imagine a genre of music that has been growing for 400 years!
In essence, opera is a synthesis of music and text where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a storytelling experience through music employing all of the visual tools of theatre: live performance, scenery, costumes, and lighting. Opera can be found in grand, majestic theaters or it can be produced in community centers, schools, churches, or even baseball fields! What’s important is the connection between the performers and the audience. All that is required to enjoy an opera production is an open mind and an open heart.
Above all you should feel comfortable attending an opera. There is no dress code and you will see attire that ranges from ball gowns to blue jeans. Many people make a night at the opera a special occasion, but what that means is different for everyone. It is true that many operas are sung in foreign languages, but like many companies today, Opera Omaha projects English translations of the text on a screen hung above the stage. Opera Omaha wants to make opera accessible to as many people as possible – the lowest ticket price is comparable to a movie ticket, and students receive even further discounts.
The director of the opera is responsible for the theatrical interpretation of the opera including what the opera looks like on stage and how the performers move. The director ensures the story of the opera is told, that the text and its meaning are communicated to the audience. The director leads a team of designers who together are responsible for how the opera appears on stage. It isn’t quite enough to compare an opera stage director to the director of a play or a film; while all are involved in the interpretation and performance of text, an opera director must have a profound understanding of music. One of the defining characteristics of opera – what makes it unique among art forms – is that music is given an equal voice to text in the storytelling. Masterful composers weave dramatic complexities through layers of music, and to fully realize the special nature of opera, directors must look beyond merely words on the page. The director is a highly skilled, dynamic, and knowledgeable individual who must know how to lead the performers on the stage as well as an entire production team backstage.
The visual artists who help realize the director’s intentions physically on stage are the designers. They typically fall into three categories: the scenic designers who design the scenery and substantial props (such as furniture), costume designers who design what the performers wear, and lighting designers who create a vast array of moods and settings simply by what lighting instruments are used as well as how and when they are used. Many costume designers are aided by wig and makeup designers who are specialized individuals within the costume department. As technology advances, design teams sometimes include projection designers who can enhance the scenery with a cinematic effect. For modern operas that use electronic musical instruments in the pit, sound designers are required to balance the electronic instruments with the acoustic instruments and the singers on stage.
The stage manager of an opera is the artist backstage that ensures that everything happens in the order it is supposed to happen and at the precise time it is supposed to happen. The stage manager does this by calling “cues” – he/she cues the conductor to begin the performance, cues the performers to make their entrances, cues stagehands to make changes in the scenery when needed, cues the lighting department to start or stop lighting effects, and even cues the curtain to come down when the performance is over. All of these cues are written in the stage manager’s score and can add up to over a thousand cues in one performance! And as if it weren’t a big enough job already, the stage manager is also a leader in the rehearsal room – tracking everything that happens in rehearsal so that every member of the production team in each department receives the appropriate information on the needs of the production. Stage managers are among the most organized people in the world!
Opera singers are trained musicians who have learned to use their breath and their body to project their singing voice in a powerful, focused manner. As the human body ages, the singer’s “instrument” changes, requiring him/her to work on their singing technique throughout their whole career. In this way, a singer never finishes their training. Unfortunately, training alone does not ensure an opera singer success. There are numerous factors beyond their control, including their own internal physiology. The best opera singers today are ones that work hard on their training and were also endowed by nature with a body conducive to operatic singing. There are numerous types of opera singers, but they can be summarized in four main categories. A woman with a high voice is called a soprano; a woman with a lower voice is either a mezzo soprano (middle) or a contralto (low). A man with a high voice is a tenor; a man with a lower voice is either a baritone (middle) or a bass (low).
The opera orchestra is the group of musicians playing musical instruments in the pit. Most orchestra musicians fall into one of four major families of instruments: strings (e.g., violin), woodwinds (e.g., flute), brass (e.g., trumpet), and percussion (e.g., drums). The size of the orchestra depends entirely on the opera and the size of the venue where the opera is being performed. Operas written in the 17th and 18th centuries tend to have small to medium-sized orchestras (30-50 musicians) while operas written in the 19th and 20th centuries tend to have medium to large-sized orchestras (50-80 musicians). The opera’s creator (the composer) chooses the instruments and the quantity of musicians (a process known as orchestration) depending on how he or she wants the opera to sound. Opera Omaha is proud to employ the musicians of the Omaha Symphony for its performances.