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…

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A Review of Jonathan Carr’s “The Wagner Clan”

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Through a massive amount of homework and auditions, I managed to read Jonathan Carr’s The Wagner Clan: The Saga of Germany‘s Most Illustrious and Infamous Family in between. For Wagner lovers, this book is filled with the gleaming treasures of the Wagner family history. It uncovers not only Richard and Cosima’s ordeals, but also Siegfried and his siblings, Wieland and Wolfgang and siblings, and generations after!

This book is not a light read (just like Wagner’s operas and personality were not “light”). The content of the book largely covers the history of the family and how Nazism was tied into it, rather than the musical aspects of Wagner. The book mainly deals with family rivals, the chosen heir for the parent of “baby Bayreuth”, Nazism, and how marriages and extended family affected the roots of “The Wagner Clan”.

Surprisingly, this book may not be for those who appreciate Wagner solely for his music, let alone general opera lovers. In other books on Wagner, the chromatics of the famous “Tristan chord” are analyzed. The Wagner Clan, however, simply identifies which operas were performed by which conductor in what year, such as Hans Knappertsbusch conducting Parsifal  and The Ring at Bayreuth in 1951. In other words, Jonathan Carr provided readers with historical facts about the performances, rather than actual musical criticism of those operas.

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Photo: Adolf Hitler with Siegfried Wagner’s daughters Verena (left) and Friedelind (right). Friedelind trashed Hitler and the Nazis in her book Heritage of Fire.

For those who enjoy not only Wagner’s music but also the crazy family history, The Wagner Clan is pure rhinegold! The book starts with the Richard and Cosima generation and their involvement with King Ludwig II, then it moves to the children of Cosima, fathered by both Richard and Hans von Bülow. The Wagner torch is passed to Siegfried who takes over Bayreuth, while also competing with Winifred, his wife, and her close friendship with Adolf Hitler. Siegfried’s children then take over, particularly Wieland and Friedelind. Wieland stayed close to his mother and the Nazis, and directed newer, more modern productions in many German opera houses, while Friedelind escaped Nazi Germany, headed to Britain and the United States, and trashed the Nazis in her book Heritage of Fire. The book ends with Wolfgang and the inheritance of the Bayreuth throne by Eva, who sits on the throne today, and the refusal by Gottfried. The content of the book is a mapped family tree while also a timeline of the multiple generations of the Wagner family.

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Photo: All the children of Cosima Wagner with Maestro Hans Richter (from left: Eva, Isolde, Siegfried, Daniela, and Blandine)

I enjoyed The Wagner Clan immensely. Ever since I set foot on the “Green Hill” at Bayreuth last summer, I have been fascinated by its history and Wagner’s history. This book was the answer. It was well written, organized, and gave juicy details that Wagner lovers lust after. The Wagner family history is so crazy and full of operatic twists, that an opera could be written about the family itself!

I would recommend this book to Wagner enthusiasts, not general opera lovers, and those interested or studying the Third Reich. There are so many fascinating (and even funny) stories about Hitler and his closeness with the Wagner family, that a student or reader could get a good idea of Hitler and his interests. As a Wagner enthusiast and a student in Advanced Placement US History, I enjoyed Jonathan Carr’s The Wagner Clan!