Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Music Director, Flexibility Required

It is time again for the next post in our occasional series that focuses on the San Diego Opera Ensemble, our touring group of young professional opera singers.

This time we've decided to do something different and have the music director of the Ensemble, Tina Chang, tell us about what it is she does.

Mainly because I was wondering.

And here I thought Tina just played some beautiful music on the piano. Seems that's only half the story.


When I first received my contract from San Diego Opera offering me the position of Music Director and Pianist with the Ensemble, it took me a couple of reads to fully understand the prospect of the job. First of all, I couldn’t believe that I got the job (a story that’ll just have to be reserved for another time)! Having now been hired by a well-respected opera company in North America means that I’m finally getting a real taste of what the opera world is like. All my previous experiences with opera involve schools and festivals that seem to be more about the process, as it should be. While the San Diego Opera Ensemble is a young artist program (a stepping stone for young professionals), it meant that all personnel involved need to be on top of their game: coming to rehearsals prepared, ready to discuss ideas and most of all, ready to be able to perform at a short moment’s notice – especially since our touring schedule is so incumbent on schools and communities booking us.

In preparation for the position, I first start out by learning all the music for the two operas we do, plus all the recital arias and ensemble pieces. For me, it is crucial to learn all the music cold before I can begin to do anything else. This means, studying (and sometimes translating the text if they’re in a language other than English), the actual notes themselves, and most of all, how the text relates to the music. Once some sort of intelligent opinion has been formed does it allow freedom to explore other ideas presented by other musicians as we begin to work together.

Come September, when I met the members of the Ensemble for the first time, including Dr. Nick Reveles, the Geisel Director of Education and Outreach, we rehearsed and coached through all the music, talked about tempi, phrasing, and interpretive ideas in conjunction with the Stage Directors’ visions for the two operas, in addition to being the repetiteur for all the rehearsals – after all, every show we do is with a pianist, yours sincerely, so it is a great way to develop a musical relationship with the singers as I begin to know each person’s voice.

Aside from the musical aspects of the job, I’m also the one programming pieces for our recitals in various communities. As I mentioned, not only do we bring opera shows to schools, we also present recitals of arias and ensemble pieces as a way of introducing and entertaining the crowds. Being that the Ensemble is an education outreach program, we also present topics of singing and working in the professional opera world to young, aspiring performers from high school. And I’ll tell you, all this talking and M.C.’ing has improved my skills as a public speaker. One hopes to get better and better with practice.

As we started our tour in October, it was important to be aware of all the venue pitfalls and be able to adapt. Sometimes the pianos were not in the best of conditions, or the venue was either too echoey or absorbed sound like a sponge, sometimes the stage was too small, etc…. Dependent on the venue then, it is my job to be able to let the singers know what needs to be done musically so the text and the intention of the operas still gets across to the audience as if it were any other hall. As we repeat the shows over and over, it is also important to stay as fresh as possible. Often that means reminding ourselves of the intentions of whatever is about to happen. All in all, being in the ensemble demands utmost flexibility from me, the singers and the tour manager.

And, so far so good!

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