Hearing Marta

6 March 2016Blog

After a full week at the Opéra de Lille, we have at last met our orchestra, the Belgian contemporary music ensemble Ictus. As is conventional in opera production schedules, a series of piano-accompanied staging rehearsals have been followed by a Sitzprobe (or Italienne), at which staging and movement are briefly abandoned and the singers and players work through the music together for the first time; we then return to the stage for the final set of rehearsals, now with the orchestra playing from the pit. Opera singers usually look forward to the Sitzprobe as their first opportunity to hear the score played by the orchestra, but of course in most cases they will have heard recordings or previous performances of the opera they are working on, and it's likely that, while the repetiteur has been playing for rehearsals, the “inner ear” of many of the singers has been drawing on memories of previous hearings to imagine the full orchestration. Not so on this occasion: this being the first production of Marta, no recording exists, and the orchestral score is sufficiently dense with glissandi and other effects impossible to reproduce on the piano that even our redoubtable répétiteur Christophe Manien has only been providing an outline of the orchestral texture. So it's really only at this quite late stage that we're genuinely hearing the music for the first time.

And yet... one of the instructions specified in the score of Marta is that all of the singers and instrumentalists are to be amplified, and the signals from their microphones integrated with the electronic samples that Mitterer has designed for the piece. The overall sound picture, in which all of these elements are balanced, combined and projected into the auditorium, is very much the responsibility of the sound engineer seated at the mixing desk. Meanwhile, slightly differently balanced versions of the score are also played through speakers in the pit for the benefit of the conductor and orchestra who might not otherwise hear the singers, and through speakers around the stage for the benefit of the singers who might not otherwise hear the orchestra. Much rehearsal time has had to be devoted to improving these mixes so that all the performers can hear what we need to hear; but it's a peculiarity of this kind of set-up that none of us on stage can really say that we know how the piece will sound in the ears of the audience. Of course, singers never hear their own sound in the way that the audience perceives it, and are taught early in our training to trust to our own resonance and technique to ensure that our sound will be heard over an orchestra, rather than trying to force out a louder and louder sound. But it's an altogether different and more unnerving experience to have to surrender control of acoustic balance entirely to a third party, and to have virtually no sense of how the interventions of our small ensemble will sound when combined with amplified soloists, the strange sounds emerging from the orchestra, and the multi-layered electronic effects being cued from a laptop in the pit.

And for what it's worth, I suspect some of us are “hearing” things that no audience will ever hear. I mentioned earlier that I think some singers effectively spend piano rehearsals listening to the orchestral score which is playing in their heads. Now that Ictus have arrived, we're hearing huge amounts of orchestral detail for the first time; but some familiar tonal reference points that were previously very clearly foregrounded in Christophe's piano reduction of the score are now being smudged by the use of glissandi, or obscured by percussion or electronics. Personally, I now find that, deliberately or not, my own inner ear is retaining these details from my memory of the piano reduction that I've now heard so many times, and that this is sometimes how I maintain my sense of tonal orientation. I'm not sure whether this is a conscious strategy or simply an unconscious function of memory; either way, it does take me another step further away from hearing what the audience will hear when the opera, itself obsessively concerned with the process of memory, is premièred on March 13th.

Wolfgang Mitterer
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