Boston Lyric Opera is in its second season of presenting BLO Exposed. The intermission conversation series gives audience members a behind-the-scenes look into each production and invites YOU, its audience, to ask questions through social media during our Wednesday night productions at the Shubert Theatre. For BLO’s recent production of The Flying Dutchman, Megan Cooper, Director of Community Engagement, and Cecelia Allwein, Patron Communications Manager, interviewed David Angus, BLO’s Music Director.
David, what is different musically from this 1841 Critical edition as compared to the one that many people have probably heard and seen?
There are lots of [different] elements. The standard version—the one that you’ve heard for the last hundred and fifty years—was actually put together by a conductor. He basically took everything that anyone had found [in scores of The Flying Dutchman] and stuck it all together so you have every possible variant. [The standard score has] lots of information about underplay; Full of direction, lots of alternatives depending how the piece is going, and with a lot of repetition […] it became very complicated. You end up having a very, very full piece. Now you also have some excellent music, like a bit from the overture that comes back at the end of the opera. A harp has to play that. [The harp] sits for two hours and it comes back at the end of the opera again, just so it can play a wee bit. It’s not the most efficient way of using a harp. It also makes the critical edition version clearer. I feel that way the overture came in, just smash straight into the action and then you go crashing into the next number without any hesitation is much stronger dramatically. The thing just flows all the way from the beginning. It all started in the overture, the tradition that was marked. In the other version, it slows down in the forward momentum. It just gets more and more exciting in the original version. In the later version it gets more and more exciting, and then it slows down and goes to sleep, and then it gets exciting, then it goes to sleep, and it keeps doing that. The critical version is much stronger. The music builds and builds and builds and then it slows. It’s much more dramatic. And also it saves fifteen to twenty minutes on running time.
So how many orchestra members are in that pit down there?
Oh, I should have counted! Sixty-something, I think. [David confirms with us that there are 61 members of the orchestra in The Flying Dutchman.]
How do you fit them all down there?
[Leans over to pit] Anybody down there want to answer? By playing with no bows and no elbows. You should see the winds. They’re sitting like you are [knees crossed] – they’re playing instruments that are very long that involve moving their arms. And the trombones are trying not to hit the person in front of them with their slide. It’s cozy. It’s not the most comfortable, but on the other hand they are mostly enjoying that space.
Do you find anything particularly challenging about conducting Wagner’s work as opposed to other composers?
Too many notes! Our bassoon players play so fast, so many notes: tremolo, tremolo all night. They come up shaking. It’s very, very difficult. If you’re not careful, it gets very loud and overpowers the singers, so my job is very much to say, “Shh. Control.” If not, the poor singers get completely swamped. My job to try and keep everything absolutely controlled. That’s actually the biggest problem—to control it—it’s actually very easy to lose control and start smashing on, so my job is just to calm it down.
What’s different about working with this chorus than a Mozart chorus?
Well, you see the size and power of the chorus is very exciting. They also get very excited and run away. It’s very easy for them, running around and dancing and shouting, that they can run away. Whereas, it’s actually much harder to sing Mozart. Here, there’s a lot of background sound from the orchestra so they could goof off if they wanted but they don’t – we see to that. Mozart is very smooth, very languid, and very beautiful. The Flying Dutchman is full of energy and excitement. My job again is to control the energy so that they don’t get too excited and run away.
Describe how you prepare as a conductor – do you practice as the musicians or the chorus might?
I don’t practice all this stuff [motioning keeping time], that’s more experience. My job is to study the score for weeks, months - I’ve been studying The Flying Dutchman for over a year. I sit down and I play. I sing the lines. I know exactly what every instrument plays, how every vocal line goes – I study the German and understand the wordings. Because all these people play better than I can and probably can even sing better than I can, and the only way I can be an authority and say how it needs to go is by using the score. I can’t play it for them but I will know how it should go, but to do that I have to understand what every single word is doing. It takes an incredible amount of studying. On the physical side, I don’t really practice keeping time – I can do that for quite a long time.
BLO would like to thank everyone who participated in this BLO Exposed event and for continuing the conversation with us post-performance here and on our social media pages! To have your questions featured here in the future, join us at the Wednesday night performances of the 2013/14 season!