A Tribute to Margaret Juntwait: The Host of My Days

Juntwait-in-booth

Margaret Juntwait in the MET Opera Radio booth

Earlier this morning, the longtime radio host of the Metropolitan Opera Margaret Juntwait passed away from ovarian cancer. She died at the age of 58. The last Met broadcast she hosted and the last time her voice touched the ears of opera enthusiasts live was during last year’s New Year’s Eve gala of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow. To think that her beautiful voice will never soar live through the airwaves again is tragic.

I first met Margaret Juntwait when I was an outgoing, nine-year-old fourth grader. I had joined our elementary school’s Literary Magazine committee, and as MET Opera Radio SiriusXM was new that year, I wanted to write a feature on it. She kindly agreed to be interviewed about it, and I finally had the opportunity to journey to the sixth floor of the Met where the radio department is located. When I arrived, she was just as sweet to me, a nine-year-old literary magazine reporter, as she would have been to a New York Times critic or anyone from the press. I asked her the questions I prepared and she answered them to the fullest.

Little did I know that after our interview she would ask me if I would like to be interviewed on MET Opera Radio as one of the first guests on the new station. I had only joined the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus about a year earlier, and I had only mentioned the fact that I was in it once to her. I could not believe it! My family and I ventured back up to the sixth floor during a March 2007 broadcast of Turandot, in which I would be interviewed during one of the intermissions. She made me feel right at home; I did not feel nervous at all. She made the interview seem as if I was talking to an old friend; we were chatting, laughing, and even singing a little bit! I will forever cherish that sensation of friendship that she made real that night live in the studio.

Every morning I wake up to MET Opera Radio. I keep my stereo singing all through the night because I cannot get enough opera during the day. Sometimes I would even wake up in the middle of the night to Margaret’s recorded introductions to a 1980s broadcast of L’elisir d’amore, or credits after a long haul of Götterdämmerung. I one time even joked with her that I used to think she would sneak in my room and talk to me in my sleep. That is how close a presence she was, even though there were always a stereo and microphone between us.

Each morning at 7:30 when my dad and I leave the house for school, we often check what the 6:00 AM broadcast is (even though most of the time I know what it is from already having checked), or what excerpt is being played. Whenever it was timed well enough so that Margaret could tell us what it was, my dad and I would look at each other and say simultaneously, “That’s our friend!”.

In the evenings after dinner, my family and I always gather in our den to listen to MET Opera Radio broadcasts on certain days of the week. As I launched into my homework or a new book or my newsfeeds on Facebook and Twitter, I would smile when I heard Margaret arrive on the air welcoming everyone for the night. It was comforting to know that she was hosting my evening’s soundtrack as I worked on my assignments. During intermissions, William Berger often asks trivia questions, for which one can email answers to radio@metopera.org to get possible shoutouts. Whenever I was mentioned for my responses, Margaret would cheer or even say “what a surprise!”, because she always admired my knowledge of the art form.

Once I was ready to fall asleep, Margaret’s voice would often be the last one I heard for the day. Sometimes if I heard her, I would say “Goodnight, Margaret!” before I turned over and shut off the light. I wish I could have had a chance to say that “Goodnight” in person, just as she said to me hundreds of times at the end of live broadcasts. Her curiosity, passion, and love for opera will be missed by the thousands of people who tune into MET Opera Radio and WQXR every week.

As I enter as a freshman vocal performance major next year at Manhattan School of Music, just as she did after her senior year of high school, I will think of her as I walk through the hallways and when I continue to have MET Opera Radio playing in my dorm. Thank you, Margaret Juntwait, for always being a part of my day, a familiar voice, and a friend. You will be missed.

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Tossing Opera to the Younger Generation

The subject of “Opera and classical music are dying art forms” has been the dreaded fear for music lovers over the last century. As horrifying as it sounds, is it actually true? Opera companies around the world such as the Seattle Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago have incorporated opera institutes and guilds in which children and young adults can participate. Orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic host children’s concerts, such as O TannenBRASS!, and make themselves accessible to the larger public through their use of the Digital Concert Hall. If opera and classical music are still dying, is the message not getting through? For kids to be interested in these art forms, every opportunity should be granted allowing them even the opportunity to develop an interest. Maybe the classical world is working too hard and is attempting to “force feed” classical music, pushing it to the point of forcing it upon on the younger generation.

It is true that some people do not need extra nurturing to find interest in classical music. I endured Wagner’s heavy nineteen-hour Ring Cycle at age six and fell in love with opera without much previous experience. I watched the entire Ring on DVD before attending the Cycle live, and had been introduced to opera previously through recordings. However, I had grown up around my musical parents, with classical music playing constantly in my home. What about the kid who lives nowhere near the Met, surrounded by family members who never keep an ear to WQXR or opera broadcasts elsewhere, and who has had no exposure to classical music even within his or her school? He or she is not going to take on the Ring as it is, let alone “lighter” operas such as Carmen and La Bohème. For someone who has had no exposure to the art form whatsoever, I feel it is important to give him or her every single opportunity to experience it: Watered down or not.

Luckily, through the Internet, non-profit musical organizations, and other sources, opera and classical music are spreading to the younger generation. Through the Internet, for example, groups such as Opera 5 on YouTube present shortened opera plots in two to three-minute videos in order for opera to “make sense” to the naïve or uninitiated. A kid who has never heard of Richard Strauss’ drama Salome might find it funny how Salome’s step-father is somewhat of a creep or “perv”, asking his step-daughter to dance in the nude for him. They may call their videos “Opera Cheats”, but I don’t feel that watching these videos should be considered cheating if watching them leads someone to finding an interest in opera, and then proceeding to research what the real thing is like.

When the Met Opera Guild takes its presentations to schools in and around New York City, their representatives are not putting on fully-staged three to four-hour performances. The Guild’s various program offerings include allowing students to write their own compositions, voice instruction, student performances, and giving libretti, CDs, and English translations of operas to teachers to present to their classes. After the students are introduced to opera through this gentle approach, they have the opportunity to see final dress rehearsals at the Met itself. Instead of throwing operas such as La Bohème at them and saying, “Take it or leave it,” the Met Opera Guild coaxes their interest and then reveals to the students what the real deal actually is. Four hundred sixty New York City school children attended the dress rehearsal of La Bohème in September through the efforts of the Met Opera Guild.

Maybe some of those kids would have had a positive reaction even if La Bohème had been outright thrown at them. It was undoubtedly more meaningful to them, however, having previously had the presentations and opportunities given to them through the Guild, to have it mildly tossed to them. The younger generation is not going to suddenly become the next generation’s opera buffs with merely age and maturity nor should the opera world expect to alter or change the younger generation. That is why the more experienced side must conform for—or at the very least accommodate–the other side in order to spawn interest, not vice versa. Opera and classical music are arts that must remain accessible to everyone, not just to those who are willing to bravely plunge in without prior information or to those who have existing knowledge about the art forms. It is the informed side’s fault if the younger generation “misses a chance” to hear about or try opera. Missed opportunities for new people to experience opera, watered down or not, are unfortunate.

Without Joan Sutherland’s “Who’s Afraid of Opera?” videos using puppets and $10 sets, it is certainly possible that opera would still have interested me just as much as it does today. These delightful “condensed” versions of operas, seen at an extremely young age, could not have hurt, however, in fostering my early positive response to music as well as furthering my interest. I do not know if I would have experienced the same passion for the Ring had it been informally shoved at me in its full unadulterated form from start to finish when I first experienced it. Luckily, however, through Joan Sutherland’s videos and other “dumbed down” classical music videos, I did not miss my chance to try it. Perhaps “dumbing down” allows for opportunities for quite smart and surprising revelations—on the part of the uninitiated as well as the diehard fans.

Meistersinger Memories

The Metropolitan Opera puts Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on the stage this month. The cast includes South African heldentenor Johan Botha in the title role; James Morris/Michael Volle as Hans Sachs; German soprano Annette Dasch as Eva; Paul Appleby as David; Karen Cargill as Magdalena; and Hans-Peter König as Pogner. Die Meistersinger is being welcomed back to the Met with open arms, as last season’s repertoire included no Wagner whatsoever. The last time the Met performed Die Meistersinger was in March of 2007; I was only nine at the time. However, even at my young age, I went to the see the opera several times, and I was seen singing on stage in the final scene of Act III alongside the Met Chorus, James Morris, and the Met Orchestra, all under the baton of James Levine.

My parents introduced me to Wagner at a very young age, when I incidentally heard a broadcast of Siegfried from the Bayreuth Festival at age five. This spawned an interest that swept my family upstairs to watch the entirety of the Otto Schenk Ring on DVD, and a year later, to the Met to see the Ring live (with my teddy bear, of course). Wagner’s music, from then on, had a greater meaning for me.

I joined the Met Children’s Chorus when I was eight years old, and only about six months later I was cast as a supernumerary, a character that does not sing or speak, in Mascagni’s Cavelleria Rusticana. I knew before entering the chorus the season before, 2005-06, that Die Meistersinger would be on the stage that March. I wanted so badly to be cast, knowing that it was Wagner’s music and that it happened to be my father’s all-time favorite opera. It would have meant the world to me to sing the music of the very composer who harvested my interest in opera.

Act III Scene 2 of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg", Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007 I am pictured on the right with long blonde hair and a brown apron.

Act III Scene 2 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007
I am pictured on the right with long blonde hair and a brown apron.

In February of 2007, to my luck, I was cast in Die Meistersinger: The first opera in which I actually had a singing role. I vividly remember my mother picking me up from my fourth grade classroom so we could go into the city for “our” rehearsals. At the Met, the ten of us in the Children’s Chorus would change into our costumes, mine included a beautifully embroidered white frock, a brown apron, and a flower and ribbon-bedecked wreath pinned in my hair, and we would then head down to the Met stage. The assistant directors gave us directions about our entrances, exits, where we would leave props, how we should avoid getting in the way of the artists, and other crucial information. We would run the scene a couple of times each rehearsal, so I constantly hoped that James Levine or the directors would want to run it more than once so I could go back on the stage in my costume (or because I did not want to return to school for the last part of the day). I even once joked with Johan Botha, our Walther von Stolzing, backstage that he would have to win Eva again when we did a repeat of the scene. He let out a boisterous laugh.

The day of the final dress rehearsal came. Both of my parents were there: My mother played Second Oboe in the orchestra pit, and my father was in the audience. There was a twist, though: I sat in the audience with my dad for Acts I and II before I was called to warm up backstage for Act III. It felt so good to experience seeing Die Meistersinger for the first time with him, as he had been telling me for years how much it meant to him, and how much he looked forward to the day when he would share it with me live. That day had come.

I watched Johan Botha, James Morris, my mother, Maestro Levine, and many of the same people performing in this current December run give it their all in the first two acts. My dad then took me backstage so I could perform with them in the next act. We warmed up, put on our costumes, and headed down to the stage after we heard “Children’s Chorus to the stage (along with hundreds of others)” on the backstage PA system. After the quintet at the end of Act III Scene 1, Wagner wrote a ninety-second interlude to the second scene of the act. That is how long the talented, hard-working Met stagehands have to change the set of Sachs’ home into the meadows in the outskirts of Nürnberg for the song contest. Standing off stage right, I stood in disbelief as stagehands swirled around Sachs’ books, furniture, and desk, replacing them with banners, greenery, backdrops, and benches, let alone at least a hundred choristers and soloists. The soloists from the quintet would skip offstage just near where I was standing, so I would get waves of hello from Matthew Polenzani, who sang David, and others. It truly felt surreal to be in the middle of all of this.

Act III Scene 2 of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg", Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007 Members of the  Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus skipping around the tailors

Act III Scene 2 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007
Members of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus skipping around the tailors

After ninety seconds, most of the chorus ran or jumped onstage in excitement for Johannistag, the festival being celebrated. My entrance came just after the curtain opened, when the timpani starts rumbling. I remember the assistant director telling me “Run on right after the sausage man”, or one of the many merchants on stage selling his craft at the festival. I ran on, big-eyed, to see 4,000 faces in the Met audience, the Met Orchestra creating swells of sound, and everyone on stage enjoying the festivities. The shoemakers, the tailors, and the bakers would arrive, in that order, to present their products and make us laugh. Each of the children in the chorus were given little, fake trumpets to skip around the dancing tailors in a circle (I was always worried about tripping in my dress).  Soon after the dance started, in which all of us taunted David about “Lena” watching him dance with other girls, pointing in different directions of where she was to confuse him. The dance suddenly stopped because the master singers  were about to enter in the procession. John del Carlo, who sang Kothner, would always be one of the first masters out, walking downstage with his radiant smile. Hans Sachs would always enter last, picking up one of the children as he marched downstage to the sound of our cheers. After whispers of “Silentium”, the Chorus serenaded him in the great “Wach auf”, or “Wake up”, chorus, describing how a new day was dawning. I stood front and center, right next to James Morris, without an obstacle in the way of James Levine’s beat. Sachs responded in his monologue, praising the masters and the arts, leading to the song competition itself.

The choristers returned to their places and sat down in the grass, under the hot lights, to enjoy the contest. Beckmesser, sung by Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, began his song. He had stolen the lyrics from Sachs in the previous scene, but unfortunately he memorized the words incorrectly. We all laughed at his making a fool of himself until he stopped and blamed his performance on Sachs. As much as I feel the real children at the festival would have wanted to stay and hear Walther von Stolzing sing the Prize Song, the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus chased Beckmesser offstage after he embarrassed himself. All of us then went back upstairs to the Children’s Chorus studio, changed out of our costumes, and greeted our parents at the stage door close to midnight.

Act III Scene 2 of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg", Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007 Laughing at Beckmesser

Act III Scene 2 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007
Laughing at Beckmesser

Four more performances would follow this final dress rehearsal, and each of them were completed in the same fashion as the last. At all five performances, including the dress rehearsal, I shared the first two acts with my father in the audience, and sang on stage in Act III.

Seeing the final dress rehearsal of Die Meistersinger last Friday afternoon was tough. As I enjoyed the entirety of my Children’s Chorus career, even seeing the Children’s Chorus now sing in operas like Carmen and La Bohème makes me wistful. The children in this run are actually only supernumeraries, so they do not get to sing in the “Wach auf” chorus. However, seeing those kids up on the Met stage taking in that scene and being surrounded by Wagner’s music felt fulfilling, in that I was given the chance to perform in 2007, in place of someone else, and now someone was taking my place. Many of us choristers who sang in those performances in 2007 are now in college or are seniors in high school, and some of us are pining for careers in music!

It also made me feel good to see my mother playing in the orchestra pit, just as she was seven years ago: The lady who drove me into rehearsals, who I waved to in the orchestra pit, and who played in those very performances, continues to make me proud today. I still wave to her at every performance I attend at the Met, from the audience side instead of the stage. Die Meistersinger will always hold a special place in my heart, both as an opera and as a symbol of my family’s love of and devotion to music.

“Tuning up” for the Met’s 2013-14 Season with Metropolitan Opera Oboist Susan Spector

Opening night at the Metropolitan Opera is approaching quickly! The Met will open its 2013-14 season with a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, starring Anna Netrebko and Mariusz Kwiecien. For this opening night to be put on, however, a lot of work has had to be put in by the star singers, the chorus, the stagehands, the radio department, lots of other departments, and of course, the orchestra! My mother, Susan Spector, is the Second Oboist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and has been for twenty-two years. She sat down with me and gave me the scoop on how pre-season went, and what to expect for the upcoming season:

Photo: Susan Spector © Michael Ouzounian

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Melanie Spector (Ms.OperaGeek): Overall, how was pre-season? You just finished it yesterday with the final dress rehearsal of Eugene Onegin.

Susan Spector: It’s a shift of gears from summer to spending all day rehearsing. Some of the orchestra members have come to call it “boot camp” *laughs*! After three weeks of pre-season, it’s awfully nice to play for an audience, which is what we did in the dress rehearsal yesterday.

MS: Which operas did you rehearse in pre-season?

SS: I rehearsed Così fan tutte and Eugene Onegin, and one day with just orchestra of Falstaff with Maestro Levine. Other people have been playing The Nose and there have been a couple of rehearsals of Norma.

MS: Now that James Levine is back, I would expect that conducting from a wheelchair would be slightly different—for him and for the players in the orchestra.  Can you elaborate?

SS: There has been major construction inside of the pit and outside, leading up to it. One lift has been installed outside of the pit, a special ramp has been installed in the pit behind the players, and we’re still working out the logistics of having him enter and then resetting certain seats and stands in the orchestra once he is in the pit. As a matter of fact, the area most directly in the path of where the wheelchair needs to come through is the oboe section–where I am. Ironically, oboe players tend to have the most “stuff” or “fiddly reed things”, tuners, knives, etc. It might be a challenge for us, but we’ve done it once and it went mostly smoothly, and I have some ideas for a more speedy departure from and re-entry into the pit! (And, no, my ideas do not include skipping the overture and coming in late!”) *laughs*

MS: What are you most looking forward to playing this season and why?

SS: I am really looking forward to playing Die Frau ohne Schatten. My two favorite composers to perform at the Met are Wagner and Strauss. They probably have the most colorful, intricate, and challenging orchestral palettes of any composers of opera. Frau is also so rarely done, that I am really looking forward to its return. Also, another opera I’m looking forward to is Prince Igor. Even though I do not have a part, I am really looking forward to watching it from the audience. I look forward to hearing Noseda conduct, but I will miss playing for him. I always find his performances to be very committed and riveting (and he’s a nice guy!).

Photo: The Met’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten

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MS: Have you had any fun encounters backstage or down on C level during pre-season, or heard any other people rehearsing?

SS: I hear the Ballet rehearsing at the same time we are, and the Chorus has been back since July. I’ve run into James Morris who is here for Norma, I’ve seen the cast of Onegin, the Children’s Chorus for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Also, our orchestra lounge has also served as a temporary repair shop during pre-season:  a place where stagehands make their annual repairs to the backs and seats that need to be reupholstered in red velvet for the house. This was another surprise:  I saw the set for Onegin and there were so many mirrors on it that I thought it was the Met production of Frau!

MS: Who are you looking forward to hearing sing this season?

SS: Juan Diego Florez and Joyce DiDonato, even though La Cenerentola is all the way in April. I love Jonas Kaufmann, and I am not scheduled to play Werther, so I will be in the audience!

MS: Which conductors are you looking forward to working with this season?

SS: I love working with Yannick Nézét Séguin, and am looking forward to seeing him conduct my teacher Richard Woodhams in the Oboe Concerto of Richard Strauss with the Philadelphia Orchestra next month, and then playing Rusalka with him at the Met! I also am glad that James Levine is making his return to the podium.  He has a particular affinity for the works of Mozart and Verdi, in my opinion, so Così and Falstaff will no doubt be highlights of the season.

MS: Is there anything that you are dreading about the upcoming season?

SS: No Wagner! Where’s the Wagner? Where’s the beef?! I love playing Wagner, and I am sad that there is none of his music this year. Also, I am not playing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I love Britten, so I am a little disappointed in that. I will also miss looking up from the pit and seeing my daughter singing on the stage with the Children’s Chorus…and I will miss seeing her in light-up horns at the Ring!

MS: What happens over the summer? Are there any meet-ups during the summer? Festivals?

SS: Once the opera season ends, the members of the Orchestra usually do not see one another. We had one Carnegie Hall concert immediately following the end of the season, and then we were on vacation until after Labor Day. On September 4th, we returned and rehearsed Mahler VII in anticipation of the December Carnegie Hall concert. Some Orchestra players saw one another at the Tahoe SummerFest at Lake Tahoe, some played at other festivals, others like myself used the vacation to get a little time away from the instrument. Some people like to play different kinds of music other than opera during the summer, symphonic or chamber music, for example.  I love having the chance to go hear performances during the summer. I loved going to Covent Garden and Glyndebourne this past summer, listening to BBC Proms concerts over the Internet, and watching the performance of Elektra with Esa Pekka Salonen that streamed live from Aix-en-Provence was totally riveting.  Finding the time for opportunities to attend and listen to other performances is much more difficult when I’m in the midst of a busy opera season and my own performances.

MS: That’s nice that you get to attend things during the summer and be in the audience! What was the highlight of your summer musically, as an audience member?

SS: Seeing Britten’s Gloriana at Covent Garden while being in London at the same time as Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee to celebrate her reign was amazing! It was written for her, making it a very unique piece, and I just love his music. Also, being in London- seeing so many things on Queen Elizabeth I, the subject and main character in Gloriana, was very cool!

MS: Any last words for anxious opera fans waiting for the season to start?

SS: I think it’s going to be an exciting year for the Met: in the opera house, on the airwaves, and in the movie theaters. Opera fans can be the most fanatical fans (in a good way!), and members of the Orchestra hear that in your applause and “Bravo”s as well as in your excited tweets and blog posts. It can sometimes be difficult repeatedly playing the same repertoire, so your excitement keeps it exciting for us! It is so nice seeing a passion for opera by so many people, and it helps us remain passionate about playing.

If you would like to read more about Susan Spector read here: http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/about/whoweare/detail.aspx?customid=3 (Scroll to Susan Spector in the oboe section)

2013-2014: A Busy Season for the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus

Today the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus returns to the Met to rehearse for next season. This season will be very busy for them, because there are eight operas featuring the children’s chorus! That is quite a lot compared to past years, such as last year, where there were only four operas for the children’s chorus: Turandot, Tosca, Carmen, and Parsifal. You
might be saying to yourself, “Well, the children’s chorus parts are not very long or difficult so what’s the big deal?”. The children’s chorus rehearses vigorously for at least three days a week in the summer, two days a week during the school year, and each chorus member cast in an opera knows his or her part cold and backwards. August 5 is a very early date for the children’s chorus to return to the Met, in itself proving how busy the season will be.

Here are the operas that will feature the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus this season (I was able to take a photo of the chalkboard before I left the children’s chorus last season):

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

This opera by Benjamin Britten is a very busy opera for the children’s chorus. It features the children’s chorus as fairies along with the four solo fairies: Cobweb, Mustardseed, Moth, and Peaseblossom. The children sing in all three acts, and it is not a short opera. The rhythms and melodies for the children are also very complicated. Try saying this phrase quickly (not even to a melody): “Are you not he that frights the maidens of the villagery”. It may not be difficult now, but with a complicated rhythm and melody, it is challenging. This opera was already cast in May with members of the children’s chorus because it is so close to the beginning of the Met’s season in September. I had the opportunity to learn some of Midsummer before I left the children’s chorus, and I discovered myself that singing in Shakespearean English is not easy. At all.

Tosca:

Tosca has a short part for the children’s chorus in Act I with the sacristan and then the “Te Deum” at the end of Act I. The part with the sacristan features both boys and girls, but the director, Luc Bondy, only wanted boys featured in the “Te Deum” scene, and those stage directions have been kept. The sacristan part flies by and can be difficult, especially the phrases: “Si festeggi la vittoria, e questa sera, gran fiaccolata”, which conductors tend to speed up. Since it can be sped up, the children’s chorus will rehearse those phrases to death to adapt to the conductors’ (This season: Riccardo Frizza and Marco Armiliato) tempi. It is a short part, but a difficult one.

Photo: The Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus in Zeffirelli’s production of Tosca

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Tosca also features a solo in Act III, the shepherd that sings on the morning of Cavaradossi’s execution day. It can be sung by a girl or a boy soprano (most of the time a boy soprano), and it is a scary solo, because you have nothing under you except some double basses skipping fifths from E to B, and the oboe singing in between your lines. The solo really
leaves you alone, like a lone shepherd singing to the sheep in the fields.

Die Frau ohne Schatten:

This incredible Straussian opera is making its return to the Met stage after 10 years of not being performed! It is also going to be uncut, under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. This children’s chorus part lies very high, as they represent the poor, hungry children that Barak brings home. It is in two parts, but the tops start on a high A: “O Tag des Glücks, o Abend der Gnade!”, which is a high start for a children’s chorus. As it is uncut, there might be other places where the children’s chorus could be featured, such as the voices of the unborn children near the end. Strauss is not easy.

Der Rosenkavalier:

The children in this opera are all younger children and short children, with a maximum height of five feet approximately. They are featured in Act III and play the pretend children of Baron Ochs under the plotting of Annina and Valzacchi. They sing, “Papa! Papa! Papa!” and bat Ochs to get him flustered and annoyed. It is a short part for the children’s chorus, but it is difficult because of the entrances, and identifying entrances with certain words does not help in this case because the only word the children sing is “Papa!”.

The Magic Flute:

Photo: Diana Damrau with the Three Spirits at the Metropolitan Opera in Julie Taymor’s production :

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This opera by Mozart (Well, not really since they cut almost half of it including many great parts and changed it to English) features the three spirits, or three boy sopranos. They are a key part in The Magic Flute because they guide Tamino and they prevent the suicides of both Papageno and Pamina. Solos are always exciting for the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus, special classes are even scheduled to rehearse for auditions for the solos! What boy soprano would not want his name on one of the giant posters out on Lincoln Center Plaza?

La Bohème:

Puccini gave this children’s chorus part as a gift. It is fun all around. First of all, the children’s chorus is onstage for all of Act II (I know, it is only 15 minutes long), and they have a whole lot of fun singing and not singing. The Met performs La Bohème with the iconic production by Franco Zeffirelli, and Act II features bagels, lollipops, Oreos, toys, French flags, flowers, and even gigantic wheels of cheese for the children’s chorus to use in acting. If you are in the children’s chorus and you have a cool prop (or costume as a matter of fact), you are automatically popular. You are also cool and popular if you receive a toy from Parpignol, the famous toy salesman that the children’s chorus bombardes in their solo part of the act. The children’s chorus also enjoys getting to sing in the crowd scenes, welcoming Musetta, and of course, the big parade at the end…and then waving to the audience at the end of the act.

Photo: Act II of La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera (I am somewhere in there…)

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The singing n La Bohème itself is somewhat challenging, because there are many unexpected entrances in the various crowd scenes. Some children’s chorus directors feel that this opera is a good “first opera” for a children’s chorus member
because it is not difficult, just as it is considered a good first opera for audience members. I do not believe this, at least for the singing part of it. Crowd scenes are always difficult because you are surrounded by people who are singing different lines, and for a young child who is singing in his or her first opera, it can be overwhelming. It takes a while to learn because the children’s chorus sings for the entire act, and it takes some diligence to know when to come in for those rough entrances, such as “Parpignol Parpignol Parpignol Parpignol”, before Colline can finish singing “Salame!”.

Werther:

This opera is returning to the Met’s stage for the first time in nine years! The children’s chorus is featured as the brothers and sisters of Charlotte. It is a similar part to the children in Der Rosenkavalier as the pretend children of Baron Ochs. There are about the same number of them in Werther and they are just as cheery, unlike the opera. They sing at the beginning and the end of the opera, singing “Noël! Noël! Noël!” even though it is not Christmas. They also get to interact with Werther, Sophie, Charlotte, and Le Bailli, making them a real character all together in the opera. It is almost erie when you hear them come back singing “Noël! Noël! Noël!” at the end of the opera, after Werther has shot himself and all is not happy like Christmas.

Wozzeck:

This is possibly the most difficult of all the children’s chorus operas, and yet has one of the shortest parts. The opera was composed with atonality, meaning it does not define any key. The notes are somewhat random, making it very challenging to memorize and sing for adults, let alone a children’s chorus. The children sing “Ringle Ringle Rosenkranz!” while dancing in a circle. This is complicated in two ways. First, the children have to sing this difficult melody while holding hands and skipping in a circle, and second, half of them are not facing the conductor on one diameter of the circle. The children have a difficult entrance off the beat from the orchestra, while the curtain is rising, so some children can see the conductor while others have to crane their necks to spy a monitor. All in all this is a very, very difficult opera for the children’s chorus, musically and acting-wise.

Photo: Alan Held and Waltraud Meier with the “Hop hop” boy in Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera

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Wozzeck also features a solo boy, who is the son of Wozzeck and Marie. He acts through many scenes of the opera, but he has his little, sad solo at the end. In the children’s chorus, we call him the “Hop hop” boy, because that is all he sings. The other children yell, “Dein Mutter ist tot!”, meaning “Your mother is dead!”, but he just sits on his hobby horse and sings “Hop hop” to himself, as if he does not understand or is preoccupied. At the end of the opera, the other children run off to see the bodies of the boy’s dead parents, while the poor, little boy is left with his hobby horse, all alone while the curtain descends.

The Metropolitan Opera Children’s is featured in other non-singing operas. For example: There are newspaper boys that yell in Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, there are children that play insects and animals surrounding Ježibaba while she makes the potion in Dvořák’s Rusalka, and there are acting parts for children in the Met’s productions of Norma and L’Elisir d’Amore. Surprisingly, the Met’s new production of Falstaff opening December 6 does not feature any children. The old
production, that even appeared at the old Metropolitan Opera House, featured children dressed as fairies and witches!

I will miss performing with the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus terribly, but I wanted to write this as an outsider to show to myself and the world how busy, yet fun, being in the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus can be. I wish all the luck and “Tois” to my friends in their performances this season. I will be cheering on from the audience…and maybe even singing along a bit…

Wagnerian Encounters at Siegfried

     Today was another amazing day at the Metropolitan Opera! I attended the matinée of Siegfried at the Met with my Dad, and my Mom was in the pit playing under Maestro Luisi. The cast included Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried, Gerhard Siegel as Mime, Mark Delavan as the Wanderer, Eric Owens as Alberich, Hans-Peter König as Fafner, Lisette Oropesa as the Forest Bird, Meredith Arwady as Erda, and Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde. It was a fabulous performance with some fun in-between backstage action.

Photo: Me and Jay Hunter Morris, who was Siegfried this afternoon! I went backstage during the second intermission to the Met Cafeteria, where all the singers hang out. He came through carrying a coke and an apple, and positively glowed at the sight of my horns. He said he was happy to take a photo!

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     Jay Hunter Morris sang and played a fun, boyish, young Siegfried…and he MADE IT! So many Siegfrieds have dreadfully crashed and burned before Act III even begins, not this guy. Mr. Morris has stamina and still had a full-tank by the end of the opera. He was entertaining to watch as well, especially around Mime. In the first act, Mr. Morris actually started to mouth the words of Mime’s lecture, making it look like he had heard it billions of times before. It was hilarious and I laughed out loud! I also felt as if he was more comfortable in the role of Siegfried than last year, but I am sure that many singers feel that way when returning to a role that they have already premiered. 

     Gerhard Siegel was a hilarious Mime. A little more toned-down than last year, it was still fun to watch. His scene with Mark Delavan was hilarious, especially with the height difference between the two. Delavan sang a powerful Wanderer, more powerful than his two previous Wotans. At some points Delavan was covered by the orchestra, especially in his scene with Erda in Act III. Other than that, he was fantastic!

     Photo: Me and Eric Owens, the Alberich of the afternoon! He came back to the Cafeteria after Act II to hang out, so we chatted for a bit. I actually know him through my Mom, because he and my Mom both studied at Temple University and they both studied oboe! How about that? He loved my horns by the way…

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     Eric Owens played a selfish, frustrated Alberich. He did not want Wotan messing his plans up again! His voice has grown so well into the role of Alberich, along with his acting. He is a joy and is positively hilarious not only offstage, but onstage as well, and brings that happiness to the audience.

     Hans-Peter König played the drowsy Fafner, hilariously passing off Siegfried’s threat saying, “I’ll devour him”. His deep voice rang through the house and created a resonance. Lisette Oropesa was a lovely forest bird. Her voice was light and clear, just like her Gilda. Speaking of that: She has a double-day today! She not only sang the Forest Bird today, but she is singing Gilda in Rigoletto tonight for the Saturday night show! Go her!

     Meredith Arwady was a great Erda. Her voice, along with her dress, flashed all around the house. That scene of the Lepage production is beautiful. It is dark blue with shiny rocks surrounding Erda’s hideaway. Her dress is covered in black agates that reflect light all over the house. Wotan also blends well with his long white hair and….oh it’s just so beautiful! 

Photo: Act III of Siegfried with Patricia Bardon (last season). Isn’t it gorgeous?!

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     Deborah Voigt did wonderfully as Brünnhilde. Her high notes were shot all around the house and were particularly ringing today. I believe that this performance was her best yet of her times singing Brünnhilde.

     This performance of Siegfried was fantastic, even without Bryn Terfel and the others of the original cast. Having more encounters backstage was also fun. Even with my retirement from the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus, it has been a privilege and an enjoyment to still be able to go backstage at the Met. There is nothing quite like seeing Siegfried walk through the Met Cafeteria in costume, carrying an apple and a coke. 

     PS: I had the opportunity also to meet the cast of Dialogues des Carmelites! I got to talk to Maestro Louis Langrée and tell him that I was in La Bohème. He chided that I was wearing a beret then, not viking horns! I also got to say hello to Patricia Racette and Elizabeth Bishop! My Dad and I got to tell her how wonderful she was as Didon when she replaced Susan Graham back in the Winter. She was touched. Not only am I looking forward to my ‘Ring Cycle 2’, but I am also looking forward to seeing Dialogues des Carmelites for the first time.

Wagnerian Encounters at Die Walküre

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Yes, that’s me. Yes, I am wearing viking horns. Yes, they light up. What the heck was I doing? Going to today’s matinée of Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera of course!

Today I attended ‘Ring Cycle 1’ Die Walküre with my Dad, and my Mom played in the orchestra. The cast included Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde, Simon O’Neill as Siegmund, Martina Serafin (debut) as Sieglinde, Mark Delevan as Wotan, Hans-Peter König as Hunding, and Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, with Fabio Luisi on the podium. As I usually do at the Ring operas, I wore my viking horns. I wear them to every Ring opera except Das Rheingold, because there are no valkyries in it. I got many “Hey, nice hat!”s and “Where did you get that hat?s” and others even wanted to get their pictures taken with me. After several meet-and-greets, I went to my seat. A couple next to me greeted me and told me how much they loved my hat. Two minutes later, I was telling them the plot of Die WalküreThey had never seen it before, so when I told them that Sieglinde and Siegfried are siblings and that they fall in love with each other, they looked freaked out. You should have seen the woman’s face when I said that Sieglinde gets pregnant! It was fun explaining the plot of a Ring opera to people who were at least twice my age.

The opera was wonderful. Martina Serafin’s debut was a success. She has a gorgeous voice that will hopefully return to the Met after her next two performances of Sieglinde. Hans-Peter König outdid himself as usual, playing the unimpressed, almost comical Hunding. Act I was overall smooth except for a Siegmund exchange. Simon O’Neill had started off the performance with an announcement from Peter Gelb, saying that he had suffered from an allergic reaction but that we would still be able to sing. Well, once Sieglinde and Hunding left the stage in Act I, so did he. Out went O’Neill and in came Andrew Sritheran from Stage Right. I noticed first off that it was a different Siegmund because Sritheran was much taller. I also noticed because Sritheran was wearing Jonas Kaufmann’s Siegmund costume from when he did it last season, while O’Neill was not. He did a fine job, especially since he came in right away to sing the two “Wälse”s, “Winterstürme,  and pull Nothung out of the tree. It was a light voice but a fine one.

Mark Delevan and Deborah Voigt created a loving father-daughter relationship for the audience. They created loving duets throughout the opera, and then a bitter-sweet goodbye at the end. Stephanie Blythe outdid herself. After she made her first entrance in Act II, my Dad and I whispered to each other that her voice was as solid as a rock. As Fricka, she acted desperate to be heard by him, and for him to finally obey her. Erda had come between them, and she knew it. Stephanie Blythe sang an outstanding and solid Fricka.

Now, the opera was indeed wonderful, but I experienced something in between that actually surpassed it. I got to hear the eight valkyrie sisters warm up for Act III!

Photo: Me with the eight valkyrie schwesters!

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Wendy Bryn Harmer, who sang Ortlinde in today’s performance, invited me backstage to hear the valkyries warm up in Studio 203! It was an incredible experience, and a LOUD one, to hear all of the valkyries warm up together, and sing through their parts. All of them posed for a picture after they were done, and they told me that they liked my horns! This was the highlight of my day! (Thank you, Wendy).

I will be attending Die Walküre again on April 26 because I have tickets to ‘Ring Cycle 2’. I can’t wait to see it all again! HOJOTOHO!

My Good-Bye to the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus

Yesterday was a tough day. It was not only the last Parsifal of the Met season, but it was also my last performance in the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus.

As you know from my “About” page, I have been in the Met children’s chorus for seven years. I joined in March of 2006 when I was eight years old, and I can still remember my first children’s chorus class when my legs were wobbling singing “Happy Birthday” for my audition. From that same class, I also remember volunteering to sing the children’s chorus part of An American Tragedy, which the Met did a few years ago, alone in front of the entire class. After that class, I also remember going home and crying because I was not able to keep up with the children’s chorus part in La Bohème because of the rapid tempo. The director had not handed out the music, so I was sitting there going, “Parpignol..par..what?!”.

Photo: My first time performing on the stage of the Met as a communion girl in Cavalleria Rusticana, October of 2006.

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Last night, seven years later, I also went home crying, but in a different way. Those were tears of happiness.

When I first entered the children’s chorus studio last night, I was greeted with so many “Happy last performance”s , “Why do you have to leave?”s, and “We’ll miss you!”s. I even got a “We don’t even talk but I’ll miss you anyway”. Along with these greetings I received a ton of supportive hugs. We all sat down to warm up and the children’s chorus director not only announced that it was the last Parsifal, but that it was my last performance. He made clear that I had been there seven years, and that I would be leaving with a lot of Met history. He also wished that I would be able to sing on the stage of the Met again, and good luck for the future in vocal training. I felt so honored.

After warming up we were called by the stage manager to go up to the Dome. As usual, I brought my Parsifal score. I followed along for the entire second scene of Act one. The end of the act came, and my colleagues and I sang our last “Selig im glauben”, and I realized that I had tears streaming down my face. My friends saw that and gave me more supportive hugs. As if that was not enough, they gave me a very special gift. All of them had spent time in the Dome writing “We’ll miss you, Melanie” notes and preparing a scrapbook full of them. Some of them even drew pictures of me and Jonas Kaufmann because they know how much I love him. I was speechless.

I said my good-byes and gave more hugs, even one to the children’s chorus director, and left the studio. I had tickets for the rest of the performance of Parsifal. My dad and I watched Act II but I simply could not concentrate or stop crying. We left after Act II, and I had a big cry in the car. I was reminded that there are bigger and better things, and that I will go far. He also reminded me that every person I have talked to about leaving the children’s chorus, said I would be back singing on the same stage again some day. That made me feel better.

I want to thank my parents, my children’s chorus friends, my twitter friends, and all of you who follow my blog for your love and support. It was a tough evening for me yesterday, but it ended in happy tears, a thoughtful scrapbook, and the reminder that I have such supportive friends. Thank you.

Here are the thoughtful entries from the scrapbook:

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My “Stage-Mother”

Tonight is the opening of Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini at the Metropolitan Opera. I will be attending the opening along with my father, and my mother will be playing oboe. My mother, Susan Spector is the second oboist of the Metropolitan Opera, and has been for twenty-one years. 

     There are many reasons to be excited about these upcoming performances. Eva Maria Westbroek returns to the Met for the first time after her stunning performances as Sieglinde in Die Walküre. Marcello Giordani also returns for the first time after his dropping the part of Aeneas in Les Troyens. Mark Delavan will also be an intense Giovanni as he prepares for his intense role of Wotan in the upcoming performances of Wagner’s Ring. It is another beautiful revival production with beautiful sets and costumes. But, I have one reason that most other people do not have for looking forward to Francesca da Rimini: My mom is playing onstage in costume!

     After fifteen years of waiting, my mom will finally play on the stage of the Met again, in costume! The last time she played onstage was in 1997 in the banda in the last scene of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Here is a photo of her in that banda:

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     Tonight, she will relish serenading Francesca, Paolo, and all of the other characters in Francesca da Rimini, along with the Met audience! Here is a photo of her in her Francesca costume:

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      If you see Francesca da Rimini, make sure to bring your binoculars and be on the look out (she even has some solos)! You will also see her playing onstage in Giulio Cesare later this season. Toi toi toi, Mommy!

The Dome

            For the past month, 24 children, including me, and 24 women have been singing their hearts out in Wagner’s Parsifal from the very top of the Met in a place called “the dome”. That is 48 people singing in full voice, and yet the sound still sounds like it is coming from very, very far away in the heavens. Why?

            To get to the dome, one has to make it up to the very top of the Met, either by elevator or stairs. The children’s chorus makes it up by stairs. The children’s chorus studio is on the second floor of the Met building, two floors above the main stage. We take the stairs all the way up to the sixth floor, passing costumes for this season and even next season. We finally make it up to the sixth floor where it smells like whatever the Grand Tier and Met Cafeteria are eating that day. The walk down the hallway has windows where one can have a great view of Damrosch Park and West 62nd Street. Then, we go inside the dome…

            The Met is beautiful in most of its venues, but since the dome is rarely used, I do not think it has been able to catch that beauty. It looks like a storage room. You enter the dome and see the motors of the chandeliers on your right. We walk on a little catwalk made of metal and take a couple of steps down. The stairs have gridded squares in the flooring, making it possible to stare down into the abyss of the Met below. We step on the floor, which is not made out of the sturdiest material, and find our places. About seven rows of benches, two on each side, are placed in the dome for the children’s chorus and women’s chorus to sit on. That is still not enough. Most of the children’s chorus ends up squeezing into the narrow spots between the benches and sitting on the dusty floor. The conductor stands on the stairs and the children’s chorus director sits at a tiny keyboard to play our first notes. The conductor has a television monitor to see Maestro Gatti’s beats clearly.

            The dome is lit well enough with some lights in the back and front. The gridded parts of the floor are put in the back of the dome and the front, while the choruses sit in the middle. That way, none of us can be terrorized with the thought of falling to our deaths. One woman during a rehearsal, however, did drop her score over the edge of the dome. The ceiling placed between the dome and the orchestra pit far below was able to catch it. A stagehand was able to climb down and retrieve the score. Near the spot where the score was dropped, I discovered that there is a tiny hole in the ceiling where I believe I saw the light of the conductor’s stand. It was such a bright light that I could not imagine what else it could be.

Photo: Scene from Act 1 of the Met’s new Parsifal. I cannot see this because I am far above the stage!

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            The chorus sits and listens to the end of Act 1 Scene 1 of Parsifal, where Gurnemanz is leading Parsifal to the holy ceremony. Everyone is able to hear the music clearly because of speakers placed in the dome. We listen to the rich music of the transition and then the scene changes. The chorus has five entrances, the first of which is “Der glaube lebt”, in which there is absolutely no orchestral accompaniment. It’s all on us. We sing that entrance and have to wait for the conductor to tell us to sit down. The microphones which assist in amplifying our sound are turned on and off at certain points in the music. We have to wait until they are shut off, because having 48 people get up and sit down sounds as loud as a herd of cattle stomping. After we sit down, we can listen to Titurel, who is only a hundred feet from us. For the audience, he sounds like a voice that is very, very far away, but for us, he is next door!

            Now we have ten minutes until our next entrance: “Nehmet hin mein blut”. Some people spend it watching movies on their laptops (with headphones), playing Words with Friends, knitting, or talking softly. I always follow the score and watch the chromatics go by. I have also fallen in love with Peter Mattei’s portrayal of the pain-stricken Amfortas. His “Erbarmen” scene is so moving, and watching the music and text is simply fascinating. Our next entrance comes after an incredible set of A flat major arpeggios, and we sit again.

            Our next three entrances: “Wein und brot des letzten Mahles”, and the two “Selig im glauben”s come very close together. We hear Titurel closely a couple of more times. We finally hear the alto voice close to the end of the act. She is in another dome or offstage somewhere, because she does not sound close to us. We sing our last line “Selig im glauben” and end on a beautiful C Major triad. The act ends, and we all “sshh” the people applauding at the end of Act 1, because all of us know that Wagner wanted complete silence at the end of that act. All of us gather our belongings, me taking my score, and we make the return journey climbing down four, long flights of stairs.

            It has been a special opportunity for me to sing in the dome of the Metropolitan Opera. It is rarely used and I am incredibly excited to be performing in one of the few operas that use it. It is a magical experience because of how eery and holy the result sounds a long way down in the actual opera house, and listening to and singing the holy music from Wagner’s Parsifal.

Photo: The Siena Cathedral, on which Wagner’s idea for the staging of Act I Scene 2 was based. The “Knaben”, or children’s chorus, would be placed up high in the dome of the cathedral.

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