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.

Advertisements

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):

Image

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

Image

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 :

Image


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…)

Image

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

Image

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…