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  • Terri Van Valkinburgh, Assistant Principal Viola

"Operating" is a Specialty


Most if not all of us in the Lyric Opera Orchestra went to a music school or conservatory, learning to play in a variety of ensembles. But we didn’t do nearly as much opera playing in school as orchestral or chamber music because opera takes a lot of time plus sets, costumes, and lighting, things that a lot of music schools don’t have the room or time for. Therefore, we do a good bit of ‘on the job learning’ when we start here. A few of our members were asked to play with prestigious orchestras during the off-season due to their experience as well-seasoned opera-tors, if you will. In May Neil Kimel, French Horn, was asked to play Wagner’s Die Walküre with The Dallas Symphony before Jaap van Zweden’s departure to become music director of The New York Philharmonic. He found himself sitting in a section with other opera musicians brought in for the same purpose - players from The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra (who specialize in playing Wagner operas), as well as a member from The Washington National Opera there to play the very soloistic bass trumpet part (as a string player, I never thought I’d find myself writing the words, ‘the very soloistic trumpet part’, but life and opera aren’t always what you’d expect). Neil wrote, “Deferring to the soloists’ voices at all times requires so much attention outside of just your own notes. In addition, the delicate textures that populate so much of these huge operas is so different than what people expect of Wagner. They think it’s all loud, but that is hardly the case. Many of the (Dallas) orchestra’s members couldn’t believe what it took mentally and physically to perform this work. They commented on waning mental focus and the intense physical demands of holding and playing their instruments during the opera’s 5-hour duration. A “long” symphonic concert can last 2.5 hours where this work is double that, so the more experienced opera musicians populating the orchestra could only help bolster the spirits of fatiguing players. If you have never played this work, the sheer number of notes you need to learn is big enough, but to have every moment, entrance, and nuance in your head, hands, and lips ready for a perfectionist like Maestro van Zweden who knows the score inside and out is a tall order.” Two more of our French Horn players, Fritz Foss and Samuel Hamzem, were invited to play Tristan und Isolde with The Cleveland Orchestra with Franz Welser-Most conducting. Samuel said, “I felt like they had that kind of expectation of us, because we have experience with that repertoire and we’re from a good opera orchestra like Lyric. For me it was the same feeling as when I was invited to play the The Best Of Wagner’s Ring with the National Symphony orchestra in July, playing the horn and the Wagner tuba as well." Fritz added about Cleveland, “They wanted horn players who know what is involved in playing Wagner operas - the emotional depth, the dynamic contrast, how to balance with singers, blending with the other parts, the pacing, etc. I might add that the Cleveland horn section plays on a different type of horn than we do, a larger bored and nickel-plated Conn 8D. They could have hired freelancers or students in town who play on that type of instrument, but they asked us because of our unique set of skills and experience.” It takes a few years to get the hang of playing opera. When it’s done right, all the elements mesh together into something larger and more dynamic than each individual part. Part of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s legacy is fostering, appreciating, and investing in an orchestra with these skills. We’re excited to keep that legacy alive and vibrant for the future.


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