By Neil Kimel, French horn
At a rehearsal on Friday, March 13, 2020, the Lyric Opera Orchestra played through the entirety of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Afterward, there was a rare company meeting onstage where, among a vast array of sets and props from The Ring, we were informed that the remainder of the season and The Ring itself was canceled due to Covid-19. It was an emotional blow to all of us as the build-up to the upcoming Ring Cycles had been nearly four years in the making symbolizing the pinnacle of operatic experience.
On March 4, 2021, nearly a year to the day since we were last together, following stringent testing, epic safety protocols, and almost militaristic planning, we gathered as an orchestra on the sprawling Ken Pigott stage ready to make music once again. After we overcame our agoraphobia, the joy of being together again about to play our instruments with other human beings outside of our homes was palpable. We were there to honor our principal conductor since 2000, Sir Andrew Davis, by rehearsing and recording music he was supposed to conduct in his last season in this role.
In speaking with my colleagues, we had all been anxious about the return to the orchestra. Not just for our safety, but not having flexed the “muscle” of playing as an ensemble for almost a year was daunting. Was the maintenance we all did at home over the past year enough to keep us at the level needed to perform as a world-class ensemble? We were about to find out.
Normally in the orchestra pit, our chairs are quite close together due to the limited space and even more so when we perform Wagner due to his large orchestration. When we took to the stage for this rehearsal, our chairs were incredibly distanced from one another for our own safety. The string players and Maestro Davis were always masked and the brass players had pads on the floor in front of them to catch the condensation that we empty from our instruments. Nothing was left to chance and that was comforting to us all.
As the orchestra tuned, a sense of normalcy was happily welcomed after so long. The first piece of music we played that day was the Overture to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro which is a staple of our repertoire. Once we began to play, the time apart from each other melted away and muscle memory took over, allowing for this glorious music to come alive yet again. It was comforting that we could still play in tune, in the style of Mozart, and blend our sounds. The only difference was that this usually close-knit group was spread out over what felt like a football field. This safety protocol made listening, timing, precision, and ensemble incredibly challenging.
As the second horn, I normally sit to the left of the second bassoon. In this new configuration, she was about 50 yards away from my ears, making the audible information needed to play in complete lockstep nearly imperceptible. The instruments farthest from Sir Andrew’s ears were often told that they were playing late, but from what they saw from his baton, they played right on the beat. To be in sync with everyone else, many of us had to anticipate every note we played to be perceived as “on time”. As we rehearsed, we all adapted to this new setup and the crispness of the ensemble returned.
The more we played of Figaro and Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress (not heard at Lyric since 1994!), the more joy we all took in doing what we love and missed so much. Multiple choreographed cameras and special lighting were incorporated to better capture our performance. When this concert begins streaming online on May 16 at www.lyricopera.org, viewers will enjoy what seems like an intimate performance of this fabled music by an orchestra and singers who were so incredibly happy to once again be doing what we love to do.
Pads used to catch condensation from brass players are also used to catch condensation from puppies. Not a coincidence.
Watch the full concert here: Celebrating Sir Andrew Davis