Thoughts from a Musician's Heart
THE GREAT WORK OF GRATITUDE
Musicians, staff, and crew alike should never contemplate deep things, much less the state of their anxiety, during what we call “tech week” in the opera industry. Usually this entails several long rehearsals in a row for everyone. Sometimes glaring errors or issues appear in these final, stressful nights before a production opens. Often, they resolve themselves in the performances.
Tensions and stress are high, with little respite and almost no rest. After all, the word opera itself means great work in Latin.
My most recent tech week was just over a month ago. It was for Mozart’s comic Italian masterpiece, Così fan tutte. It was my first time conducting the work, and every person on stage was doing their respective rôles in Italian for the first time. The piece is also massive – two long acts, with almost non-stop action. This was also at the institution where I am a full-time faculty member, so I knew that the orchestra members and cast had all put in a full day of work or school before each of the three dress rehearsals.
When stress, fatigue, and a timed rehearsal are weighing upon a conductor, it is easy to develop musical myopia. One bad musical mistake (either on my part or someone else) can yield a nasty look, another mistake (either from the same person or someone else). Things that were in reasonable shape can seemingly unravel easily, extinguishing hope and welcoming the ultimate false friend - perfectionism.
All things considered, the three dress rehearsals were quite successful. Then came the “dark day,” the much-needed Sabbath before the Friday opening. I know for certain I needed the rest, and it was tantamount for everyone to come down a bit before the triumvirate of performances over the weekend.
Operas have an endless amount of detail. This detailed work is necessary for months to prepare, but then right before a performance, something else has to take shape.
We must be thankful for the abundance of this music, and the opportunity to create a work like this together. During my own dark day, I rested, studied, practiced, walked. And I actively made every “little thing” transform into the context into which it should go.
During my daily devotion and meditation time that day, I came across a passage in Colossians, Chapter 2. Here, Paul as the leader is surely conducting himself as a leader to the group he is addressing. I copied it down, and prayed it before each performance before I went up to the podium. It applies to any group of musicians, but especially in opera, where so many parts are involved, it brought me peace and purpose during the performance.
“I want you to know how much I am struggling for you … my purpose is that you may be encouraged in heart and united in purpose, so that you may have the full riches of complete understanding … be strengthened in faith and knowledge that you have been taught and have practiced, and that you too are overflowing with thankfulness.”
The performance closed on March 1st. Less than two weeks later, performing arts organizations across the globe closed their doors due to COVID-19. I know that all of us will be grateful to be “back to business” as usual, creating great works of art individually and as a group. May we be encouraged when that day comes.