Rogue Valley Symphony Orchestra Music Director Martin Majkut is currently conducting Brava! Opera Theater’s production of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” to be performed March 3-6 at the Camelot Theatre in Talent. We met after a rehearsal one afternoon to discuss the challenge of opera.
MM: From a technical point of view, opera is a challenge for a conductor. The challenge is tracking everyone’s movement and making sure that they are in sync together. In opera, you have the orchestra: they’re in their seats. Then you have the singers and the chorus: all in movement, and they don’t hear the orchestra very well.
When you stand on the stage, and the orchestra is down in the pit, you sometimes hear very little. Say: you run up some stairs, you’re breathing heavily, you hear some sounds from a distance, and you’re basically singing more or less to a vacuum. You don’t get that beautiful symphonic support that the audience gets. So you really rely on the conductor to cue you, to lead you.
There’s an element of unpredictability in the opera: the fact that singers’ voices are very fragile instruments. They react to weather, or how they feel. Every singer sounds a little different each day, and I like to accommodate them. If I hear a singer who has a particularly great day, and wants to hold those long notes a little longer, I’ll let them.
You hear the tempo you want. But maybe you get a voice that’s a little lighter and needs a faster tempo to shine, or it’s very heavy, so you need to slow down. You have to have to mold it slightly differently to accommodate them.
EH: How do you conduct an opera?
MM: In general, the right hand is reserved for beating, and the left hand is more expressive. Usually I conduct with the right hand: My right hand would be a little lower, and I save the left hand for throwing cues.
I try to sing with the singers, not sing, but mouth the words. I breathe with them. If I inhale at the same spot and the same speed as I want them to, they’ll land perfectly. They just copy that human reaction. Often, if my hands are busy, I track them with my eyes and I breathe with them, and that’s super smooth.
EH: Tell me about “Orpheus and Eurydice.”
MM: This was a revolutionary opera, when it came out. Opera has always had a tendency to go towards excess. Opera started very simple in the early 17th century. By the end of that century, it was all about virtuosity. Gluck was one of the people who put it back on track. It’s powerful, through its simplicity.
EH: What is the state of opera today?
MM: Opera is alive and well because we need these big stories. Music heightens all of the emotions, and now with multimedia: (this one will feature video as well).
Movies took a lot of cues from opera. When you see movies like “Star Wars,” it’s not just that music plays a big part of it, but they’re epic stories. They call it space opera.
Now opera is taking cues from the movie industry with technology and fanciful video projections. But it’s all live, it’s not in a can; it’s different every evening, and I think that’s what draws people to it.