[Warning – adult language ahead]
Now that I have your attention:
Today is Wolfgang Amadeus (although some write it as “Amadé”) Mozart’s 265th birthday (and he doesn’t look a day over 250).
As a lyric mezzo-soprano, I have sung a lot of Mozart. I loved the movie Amadeus My favorite contemporary composer, Stephen Sondheim, has been referred to as the 20th century’s combination of Mozart and Shakespeare.
But the most important lesson I learned from Mozart was how to count. I learned that in a production of Cosi Fan Tutte, which I did with what was to become Milwaukee Opera Theater back in 1999. I was Dorabella, a role I had dreamed of playing (and wish I’d gotten to play again, but oh well).
Of course, I knew how to count by then. I’d been performing professionally for nearly 20 years by that time (I started in utero) and done a lot of pretty difficult music that involved complex rhythms and meter changes, so of course, I knew how to count. In theory.
Perhaps it was Richard Crittenden who really taught me how to count – without looking like I was counting. His motto was “Make the Music Happen,” and he drummed it into his students at the Crittenden Opera Workshop that everything in the music mattered, and that you had to use it to create a cohesive narrative. Never should you look like you were waiting for your entrance, or, god forbid, like you were counting the beats till you came in. You had to be emotionally engaged during the moments you were not singing, even if you were alone on stage, and if that meant that you were singing the music in your head with words that applied to your staging or emotions, that’s what you needed to do. I remember doing the Ballad of Baby Doe quintet and writing in my score, during the introductory measures, “I’m going to go over here, and then I’ll cross to the left, and now I’ll look really sad” just so that what I was doing was with intention (and I can’t hear those opening bars without singing that in my head).
Those ideas were the early seed of my learning to act in opera, which had not been part of my training up to that point. And I applied them and built upon them to gain a deeper interpretation than just navigating the stage/traffic management. But the most important application for me, in an emergency, was during that production of Cosi Fan Tutte, about 10 years after I had done the workshop.
We were doing two performances at a church on the East Side of Milwaukee, with a cast of four, no chorus. Our director was also our conductor, and it was a pretty mom-and-pop kind of production, done with piano. We were expected to come in having learned the music already and go right into blocking. It was a two-week rehearsal process. Our soprano had spent a substantial amount of time and money working on the role with a professional coach. I, on the other hand, had sat in Einstein’s Bagel Bakery every morning for about 6 months with my Sony Walkman and headphones, with the score in front of me while I drank copious amounts of Diet Coke and ate chocolate chip bagels with a schmear of peanut butter. She was completely off book and knew her part cold. I was a little intimidated by her; she knew the show backwards and forwards. I knew my part, but also knew that staging would cement any of the places where I was unsure, because I tend to be a very kinesthetic learner.
Rehearsals went well, and we were a great team. I had very high hopes for opening night.
During the Act 1 Finale, the soprano didn’t come in at a crucial point of polyphony (“tutta piena ho l’alma in petto”) where she had always come in before – flawlessly. And my entrance was based on hers. So I didn’t come in. (I suspect we had been staged so that we couldn’t really see the conductor that well, so maybe he cued us and we didn’t see it or maybe he didn’t since it had never happened before).
We were all a bit shaken by that and Act II was shaky, but we wound up okay by the end.
We had a day off before the closing performance, and I decided to sit with my score and look at the music so that I would come in no matter what and not depend on anyone. I paid special attention to the Act I finale, since that’s where we’d gone off the rails (see “train wreck,” above).
I realized that there were two beats before that section began and the soprano entered, meaning that there were six beats before I came in.
Flashing back to Richard Crittenden’s training, I thought, “Well, I don’t want to look like I’m counting to six. What is my mood there? What would I be thinking?”
And I realized that the predominant thought during that section was “oh sh!t.”
There was one “oh sh!t” before the soprano came in and three “oh sh!ts” before I did.
Hey, that could work.
But it shouldn’t have to be because surely it wouldn’t happen again. RIGHT? RIGHT?
Wrong. It happened again. But this time I was ready.
We finished the previous section and I thought my first “oh sh!t” and DAMN if she didn’t miss that entrance again. So I came in. I sang the back half of her line:
“…. piena ho l’alma in petto”
and then sang my line (“tutta piena ho l’alma in petto”) and then she realized what she had done and jumped back in on her next line.
So I guess that Richard Crittenden actually was the one to teach me to count. But Mozart – specifically Cosi (and, unintentionally, that soprano) taught me to become independent and not base my entrances on anything but the musicianship. Because it’s all there. The notes, the emotion, everything you need. If you pay attention and find it for yourself. Whether you have the help of a coach, or you sit in a coffee shop with headphones on, mouthing the words while everyone around you thinks you’re loony. It’s still on you to be so prepared that you cannot get it wrong.
So thanks, Richard. And thanks, Herr Mozart (or can I call you Wolfie?).
What methods do you use to make counting organic and part of the fabric of the piece rather than something external and contrived? “Oh sh!t” might have limited application (probably not the best choice when singing something from, say, The Messiah) but what can you find that works for you and feels natural? Perhaps it might amuse you a little bit, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’d love to hear the craziest thing you ever came up with to keep time. Tell me about it in the comments!
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