Chapter 3 – Recitative Whiplash

For context on this post, go here.

First, a definition: The recitative is the portion of an opera that’s sung without full orchestral accompaniment – in this case, with just a harpsichord. Strictly, the recitative (or recit) is meant to be accompanied by a “continuo” group that often includes various keyboard, plucked, and/or string instruments like harpsichord, lute, organ, cello, etc. But in the case of this production, and in many Mozart opera productions, the accompanying instrument is a solo harpsichord.

1995 was my aural Così. (Gardner more commonly called this intelligence by the name “musical,” but I find that too encompassing.) I had recently begun accompanying my boss Peter Russell (then General Director of Wolf Trap Opera) on the annual audition tour, and I was listening to voices in a quantity and a fashion that I hadn’t done before. So I spent a lot of time thinking about Mozart’s writing for the voice, how he differentiates these six voices in Così, and what it takes to nail these roles.

Anecdotally, there was a pivotal moment in one of the performances that demonstrated how completely I had internalized Mozart’s recits.

Recitative is essentially dialogue that’s sung on pitch. It goes by pretty quickly, in the rhythm and speed of conversation. But it’s not strictly improvisatory – the composer has written it down, and the harpsichordist is given a predetermined series of accompaniment chords that guide the recit through the correct keys so that everyone arrives at the next “number” (aria, ensemble, chorus, etc) intact.

But, like speech, much of recitative sounds alike. So it’s kind of easy to get lost. And that’s what happened. We were cranking along in a recit scene when someone jumped way ahead. I heard it happen, and somehow I followed. At this point, we were in the wrong key, but I was transposing and trying to keep the melodic structure of the recit intact. Just about the time I was wondering how to modulate to the key we were supposed to be in, someone else decided to back up and sing the part that we inadvertently skipped over. OK, fine. But then, when we finished the omitted part, we came up to the part we had already done. What to do? Repeat or skip? We skipped, and I realized that we had about 5 seconds to get into the right key before we crashed into the upcoming ensemble.

Confused? No need to make sense of it. It all lasted maybe 40 seconds (and several lifetimes). And really, no one else ever knew. (We didn’t have supertitles at the time… that could’ve been awkward…) The point here is that not only was the dialogue/recit of Così completed embedded in my aural memory, so was the general sound of Mozart’s recitative. The fact that I could make it up on the spot was a revelation. (One that bore fruit ten years later in Instant Opera, but that’s another story.)

I was listening in a way, possibly with an intensity that I hadn’t been aware of before. This third one was the Così of the musical ear.

Up next, Chapter 4 – Imposter Syndrome.

One Comment

St. Peter's Trekker

Making it up as you go along…. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We’ll be thinking of you in Efes!

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