Making the Music Backstage

But before the stories…

If you’re an aspiring performer, go now to today’s brief and cogent post on Grecchinois. Excerpt: “…apprenticeships are about planning for the future as much as they are about honing one’s craft. The reality is that when it comes down to it, this is a job, just like any other, and it is the task at hand that is the priority – not my development and career trajectory. It makes me wonder how much more I would have learned as a Studio artist here had I not been so focused on the future and gave more of my attention to the tasks that were at hand then.”

Jason Heath’s orchestra pit post put me in an anecdotal mood last week, resulting in my previous entry about my own orchestra pit moments and today’s sequel about backstage conducting. I surprise myself by being able to remember these moments at all, for my pitiful longterm memory is the stuff of legend. But they say that our memories are only as good as the stories we tell, and I guess I’ve called on these tales often enough to retain them. (The fact that they’ve supplanted all remembrance of things like my children’s childhoods and my own wedding is a bit frustrating, though…)


There are princes in this Fach, but some of the prime scum of the business, too. I had the pleasure of conducting backstage during Trovatore, and the offstage tenor & harp serenade had to be performed from the lockrail. That meant that the singer, harpist and I were dozens of feet above stage right on a skinny catwalk with a cranky member of the stage crew. The harpist and I spent the whole time trying to keep the two testosterone-charged gentlemen from killing each other – one hurling curses in English, and other in Italian. Earlier in the show, offstage left, when I was desperately trying to conduct the chorus nuns, this same divo took the opportunity to whisper in my ear that “women shouldn’t conduct because there are always four things moving, and you don’t know which two to watch.” [Insert my unprintable epithet here.]


I worked at Washington (National) Opera at a time when the company was a healthy but smaller (than now) regional company with a shoestring staff. There were seasons that three of us coaches covered all 8 shows. Looking back, I’m not sure now how or why I did it. There was one performance of Barber that was simultaneous with a board meeting across the street at the Watergate. I had to accompany a singer at the board meeting and conduct the men’s chorus in the Barber Act I Finale (“La forza! La f’orza! Aprite qua!”) The stage manager’s score showed me exactly how many minutes into the act the chorus sang, and I sat at the board dinner watching the minutes tick by until I was supposed to be waving my arms backstage right. (This was pre-cell phone, so there was no real-time communication possible with anyone in the theatre.) Of course, the dinner dragged on, I pushed the hapless singer through her aria at what must’ve been an alarmingly vivace pace, and ran across the plaza with only 15 seconds to spare, breaking a heel of my only set of pumps in the process. (Yes, those guys could’ve sung “La forza” just as well without me, but it was my job to be there. And I was terrified of losing it.)


It seemed that the electronic organ was the last thing to be put into place during the shift before the Romeo & Juliette scene. And it needed to be played on the downbeat. Missed the cue many times in rehearsal, and of course, took the heat, in spite of the fact that I couldn’t make any sound come from the damn thing when it wasn’t plugged in yet. Between tech rehearsals and opening, I decided to bake up a storm every morning before work and take huge quantities of treats to the crew every evening. I have no scientific evidence that it worked (it was probably just due to increasing scene shift efficiency), but by opening, my keyboard was one of the first things to be set during the shift. (My ultra-feminist colleague was awash in horror and shame that I would stoop so low.)

Nike Ad

Sometimes, a backstage conductor is responsible for cueing an orchestra player who travels from the pit for an isolated musical moment. In Butterfly, there’s a gong that needs to be played from backstage prior to the Bonze’s entrance. I pleaded with the percussionist to leave a mallet backstage for emergencies, but to no avail. As I suspected, one night he arrived for the cue sans anything to hit the gong with. As he ran back downstairs, I did the math and realized he wouldn’t get back in time. I told my buddy Alan Held (a now internationally famous singer, then at the very beginning of his career, singing the Bonze) to pay no attention to whatever noise came from backstage when he made his entracne. I grabbed the closest thing I could find to the consistency of a mallet – my black Nike sneaker – warmed up the gong and let it rip. Almost had a grievance filed by the union (a non-card-carrying musician playing an instrument in a union house), but it blew over. Always thought I should’ve been in a “Just Do It” ad:)



Yet another few pieces of the puzzle. Quite revealing… this feels like therapy!!!


You are hilarious! These stories are great – especially on a Monday morning. “there are always four things moving…?!” Unbelievable.


Yea, well, the best part about the “four things moving” conversation is that it happened in Italian :) I’m not sure he really intended for me to understand what he was saying.


Those were the days… wasn’t that the same show where the soprano had paralytic stage fright? And who could blame her, all things considered…


No, I think the terrified soprano year was the next season. Breathing into a paper bag so she wouldn’t faint. That was the show where the Te Deum backstage setup was never right, and Maestro Fruhbeck de Burgos would stop every rehearsal cold and bellow “Keeeem” into the god mike and haul my sorry a** out onstage.

Jason Heath

Thanks for mentioning my wacky pit experiences post, Kim! Much appreciated. I check in with your blog on a regular basis.

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