For a few Brown students, a chance to redefine opera

Monday, November 24, 2008

As she started up the red-carpeted steps of the Metropolitan Opera’s grand staircase on Friday, Audrey Chait ’11 slowed to an unhurried stride and took in the elegance around her with an air of calm. It was her first time at the Met, and she was determined to make an entrance.

Chait was just one in a group of around 50 Brown community members – about half of them students – who were given the opportunity to see what goes into a production at one of the world’s foremost opera houses. In an event organized by the Cogut Center for the Humanities, they attended a closed rehearsal of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” – opening at the Met on Nov. 28 – and participated in a discussion afterward with conductor Daniel Barenboim, who, at 66, is leading a Met production for the first time in his 58-year performing career.

Most of the students, along with a few faculty members, met at Faunce Arch at 6:30 a.m. on Friday to take a bus to Manhattan, arriving just in time for the 11 a.m. rehearsal of Act I of “Tristan.” The group watched from seats in the first rows of the Grand Tier as Barenboim led the singers and the Met Orchestra through the act. For much of the rehearsal, he conducted from memory without a printed score.

With chorus members on stage in jeans, technicians adjusting lighting levels and, most obviously, the 3,800-seat auditorium almost completely empty, there was no mistaking the rehearsal conditions for a performance. This unveiling of the workings behind the finished product allowed those already familiar with this famously dense opera to notice elements that might otherwise have been obscured.

“For me, it was a chance to really look at the orchestra,” said Rose Subotnik, a professor emeritus of music. She described the interesting way in which Barenboim handled one of the orchestra’s entrances, coming in after an a cappella section “with a huge sweep.”

“You got a chance to see how the conductor reacted,” she said.

For Zach McCune ’10, who had never seen an opera performed live before, seeing the rehearsal was “a completely different experience” from listening to recordings.

“Sharing a space with the operatic experience doesn’t give you anywhere to hide,” McCune said, adding that he had been particularly affected by the collaborative nature of the rehearsal, with its sense of “working towards something.”

Barenboim worked extensively with the chorus and the orchestra, finessing musical details. Having conducted the opera dozens of times, he seemed confident in nuances of interpretation.

At one point, he stopped the chorus in the middle of the line, “Heil, Konig Marke, heil,” clearly not satisfied with the sound.

“Start the ‘Heil’ earlier,” he instructed the chorus. He encouraged them to put equal emphasis on every syllable of the words “Konig Marke,” and when they sang the passage again, the change in the weight of the words was palpable. The phrase, with a newfound rhythmic precision, suddenly seemed to make musical sense.

As Barenboim rehearsed the chorus, the four principal singers, wearing their stylized costumes, sat downstage chatting.

“The most entertaining for me was when they were working the chorus, the leads and the orchestra,” said Chait, herself a singer. “It was nice to see the singers be people.”

After the rehearsal, the Brown group met with Barenboim in List Hall – a smaller space next to the main auditorium named for Albert List, of List Art Center. Barenboim fielded questions on a wide variety of topics, from the current financial crisis to the significance of musical tempo.

For Barenboim, though, these subjects weren’t as disparate as they might initially have seemed.

“The economic crisis would not have happened if all of these bankers and governments had studied music,” he said, only half-kidding. “They would have seen that everything is connected.”

He described the choice of tempo as “the most important choice the musician makes,” in part because the use of rubato, the deliberate expansion and contraction of musical time, has consequences – any slowing down of tempo has to be “paid for” in the end with a subsequent speeding up.

Barenboim was still able to link all of these issues back to “Tristan” itself, which he called “a key work in the repertoire.”

“‘Tristan’ gives you a different perception of time,” he said.

Responding to a friendly suggestion from the audience that Barenboim himself might make a good secretary of state in the Obama administration, the conductor began a reasoned and powerful analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a subject he is uniquely qualified to address. Barenboim – who said he holds both Israeli and Palestinian passports – is, among his many duties, the musical director of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, an ensemble he founded in 1999 with Edward Said, the Palestinian-American academic.

The orchestra – which Barenboim has called “an orchestra against ignorance,” according to the New York Times – is composed of young Arab and Israeli musicians.

Barenboim spoke eloquently about the need for both sides in the conflict to appreciate the other’s position before any agreement could become possible.

In December 2006, Brown hosted a three-day visit of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra during the ensemble’s first U.S. tour. According to Cogut Center Director Michael Steinberg, Friday’s trip was made possible by the connection established then between Brown and Barenboim.

“He was very excited about Brown,” Steinberg said. “He said that whenever he came back to the States, he would come back to Brown.”

Barenboim’s extremely full schedule, however, made such a visit infeasible, so, Steinberg said, “I suggested we would bring some of Brown to him.”

The Cogut Center held an application process to select students for the trip. An e-mail forwarded to students in multiple departments asked applicants to send an e-mail “indicating their interest in this opportunity and how it fits into their Brown University curriculum.”

Steinberg said the Cogut Center got a “great response” to the e-mail, receiving many more applications than could be accepted.

The group of students who attended represented a range of academic backgrounds, he said, including the music, German studies and modern culture and media departments. Steinberg felt this diversity of interest reflected the cross-disciplinary appeal of Barenboim’s work.

“As a humanities center, we’re about the humanities and about humanity,” Steinberg said. “That kind of connection being made by a very visible, highly talented person is a wonderful model for what we do and the kind of people we want to engage with.”