About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Midsummer Night's Dream

This past July I was lucky to have an opportunity to play in the orchestra for the Benjamin Britten opera A Midsummer Night's Dream. I would guess that most people immediately think Felix Mendelssohn when they hear Midsummer Night's Dream, and I was lucky to get to play the complete incidental music to the Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream, with singers, a few years ago. It is a beautiful, evocative, iconic piece.

The Britten opera is not so well-known, but it is also a beautiful work that evokes the fairy kingdom as an otherworldly realm with definite dangers to both the young human lovers and the rustics, who venture into the forest to plan and rehearse their play. If you are unfamiliar with the plot of Shakespeare's play, you can read a detailed summary here.

Chicago Summer Opera, an organization that provides training to young singers and affordable opera to the public, presented A Midsummer Night's Dream as part of the 2015 program. The venue was Mayne Stage, in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.

This Midsummer Night's Dream begins with eery glissandos in the strong bass, setting the mood for the world of the fairies - beautiful and enchanting, but treacherous as well. Oberon, the king of the fairies, is sung by a countertenor, which again gives an otherworldly tone to the fairy forest. Puck, or Robin, is a speaking role, though it is a rhythmic speaking. This also sets the fairy world apart from the other realms in the play. The costumes and make-up in Chicago Summer Opera's production added to the otherworldly feeling.
Tytania, queen of the fairies, with Puck

Besides the misty world of the fairies, there is also a lot of humor, as seen particularly in the rustics. At one point they are accompanied by a raucous polka and later one of the men has an aria in which he sings off-key. According to one commentator, Britten included both musical homages and satire in the opera. (The Opera 101)

As much as I enjoyed watching and listening to the singers, I was there to play in the orchestra. I have played in opera orchestras before, but this was a unique experience. The orchestra for this opera is quite small, almost a chamber orchestra except for a large percussion section. The brass section consisted of two horns, one trumpet and one trombone, and with the small string and woodwind sections, everything we played was noticeable. I played second horn, which seemed to me to be a more challenging part than first horn, though my colleague on first might disagree. The parts were very independent of each other most of the time. There are also long, long sections when we did not play, during which we had to count measures through changing meters and tempos.

My biggest challenge, though, in the whole opera was a repeated low F, an octave and a half below middle C (on a part in F). This is close to the lowest pitch a horn can play. At this point in the opera, the rustics were presenting their play to the now un-enchanted quartet of young lovers and the duke and duchess, all from Athens. One of the rustics sings a comic recitative punctuated by the second horn's low F. The second horn is the only instrument playing at this point. Though I can usually easily hit that F, this section comes after a fairly long stretch of not playing. In addition, the hall was cold! The note did not want to speak. If it didn't speak, then the singer was all by himself. I decided I would be able to hit it if I could "warm up" close to the time I would need to play it. In the dress rehearsals I realized that right before the recitative, the Athenians had a short section in which they just talked, loudly, as they were settling themselves for the entertainment. I could warm up the note without anyone hearing, under cover of their conversation. I played it, fairly softly over and over while they talked. It worked, and a lovely F came forth.

The Mayne Stage, where A Midsummer Night's Dream was staged, is a restaurant and performance space. It reminds me of Second City here in Chicago, where you can have a drink and something to eat while you watch the show. Most of the audience sat at small tables. It seemed to me to be an ideal space for attracting an audience to opera - an audience that might not go downtown to an opera at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Because it is a smallish space, the orchestra was on the floor, with the brass section on a slightly higher level on one side next to the tables where patrons sat, and the percussion of the other side next to the tables. The action took place both on the stage and on the floor in front of the orchestra. It was a creative and practical use of the space.

I'd also like to mention our conductor, Codrut Birsan. He was knowledgeable, helpful, and clear! It was a pleasure to play under him.

If you have a chance to see this opera, go!