Monday, February 8, 2016

Playing Piccolo in the Opera Orchestra

May 17, 2015

I'm excited to post my first blog post here today. It has taken me since last May to get around to it, so that explains the discrepancy in dates. Well, here it goes! I hope you like it.

How many people can say they love their job?  I count myself among the lucky ones who are absolutely enthralled with what they do.  When I go to work all the cares of the world melt away and I am transported to a place where my heart is filled with beauty.  I don’t go there alone, either.  Fifty or so of my colleagues in the pit and another group of approximately that number or more on the stage, along with hundreds of audience members, are taken to that place too, transported by the music of opera.  I am an opera musician and I have the best job in the world!

Throughout Michigan Opera Theater’s run of Gounod’s Faust, we have had one glorious performance after another.  The soloists of both casts are awe-inspiring, the chorus is brilliant, and the conductor brings power and freedom to the score, allowing the musicians to play with their hearts (but more about conductors in another post). 

Usually by the second weekend of the run we are on auto-pilot.  It takes a couple dress rehearsals, opening night and one more performance to get to the point where we know what to expect, then it’s just “relax and have fun”. 

Ha!  It’s nice when it works that way but the life of a piccolo player is sometimes fraught with terror.  Most of the time I sit there, counting rests, trying to stay awake.  Sometimes I tacet a whole number, in which case I can close my eyes and wait for the applause to wake me up and start paying attention again.  As I am the only piccolo player in the orchestra, if I come in on a rest or play a wrong note it is obvious who made that mistake.  I will undoubtedly get a dirty look from the conductor.  There is nothing like fear to make you stay awake.   Part of the life of a piccolo player in the pit is spent trying to stay awake and another part is spent in sheer terror waiting for a big exposed solo with a cold, temperamental instrument, not completely comfortable with what is going to come out when it’s time to play.  The rest of the time is great fun.

One of those fun moments in Faust is during the dance at the end of Act II when the orchestra is playing a rousing waltz and we can only imagine what is happening on stage.  I imagine a crowded ballroom with dancers and I want to get up and join them.  The music lifts me out of my chair and transports me to the ballroom where I am swept off my feet by one of the handsome dancers and I am twirling around the dance floor in a beautiful costume . . . time to wake up!  There is actually no time to daydream during the waltz.  The orchestra is very busy creating the ambiance for the dancing and it is one of the times when we can really open up and play.  So much of the time in opera we have to play very quietly so we don’t cover the singers but there is always a dancing scene in French opera so the orchestra switches gears from opera to ballet.  I must confess that I love to play waltzes, even the “Waltz of the Flowers” in the Nutcracker ballet - that much maligned waltz that orchestra musicians love to hate because of its repetitive nature.  I love it because it builds with each repetition until it reaches the climax.

The second waltz in Faust is also fun to play.  It is the famous “Jewel” aria which Marguerite sings after Mephistopheles leaves her a box of jewels.  It features the two flutes in little duet vignettes, a very dainty and feminine aria but a show stopper for the soprano.

I can’t talk about Faust without mentioning my favorite aria and one of the most beautiful tenor arias of all time, “Salut, demeure chaste et pure”.  It is pure magic and we had a chance to hear two wonderful tenors sing it because the show was double-cast.  The tenor who sang the final performance is a star of the popular singing group, Il Divo.  His name is David Miller and I was a fan before he became an international sensation.  I don’t know why I remembered his name, it’s such a common-sounding American name, but I remember his voice singing Lenski’s aria in Eugene Onegin many years ago.  It ripped my heart out with its passion and poignancy.  He came back a few years ago to sing Tamino in The Magic Flute, another memorable performance.  In Faust’s aria, he did not disappoint.

Sitting in the pit at such times can be quite frustrating.  I want to see what is going on and watch the singers but it’s impossible from where I sit just under the lip of the stage where, if they were using stage fog, it would fall right on top of me.  As a matter of fact, when they turn on the air conditioning, the breeze coming down from the stage is so strong, it turns our pages for us – at all the wrong times!

Occasionally I can hear that the singers are at the downstage edge and I can twist around to see the tops of their heads.  Last Sunday was one such occasion.  As I heard the voices getting closer to the edge of the stage, I leaned forward and looked up.  It was exciting to see David Miller with his mouth wide open, singing his heart out.  There was something else interesting about seeing opera from my unique vantage point - I am probably one of the few people who can say they have looked into David Miller’s nostrils!


  1. Excellent, very well written and fun!!!

  2. And funny, too, and informative! Nice work, looking forward to more!

  3. Thanks, Mary! I'm looking forward to posting more, too.

  4. Love the descriptions of your work place and your joy in the work! Thanks for the peek inside the pit.

  5. Thanks for your comments and encouragement. What would you like to hear about?