Banda members warming up in costume as gypsies and Spanish musicians
Have you ever wondered about those people playing musical instruments onstage at the opera? Or hear music coming from someplace other than the pit? Is it live or recorded? Are they really playing onstage? Did you notice a lot of this in our recent production of Don Giovanni? Well, these very real musicians are referred to as the banda (listed in our program as Stageband Musicians).
In opera, a banda (which is literally just Italian for band) is an ensemble that is not part of the orchestra in the pit. It can be onstage or offstage, and plays music that the characters actually hear as part of the action.
Our banda musicians are well seasoned in the art of onstage and backstage performing at the opera, and most of them have been doing this sort of thing for us for years. It takes a steady nerve, good memory, and often some acting skills.
In the finale of Act 1, Don Giovanni has thrown a party and a lot is going on. Mozart adds to this sense of chaos in a most clever way. Here is a description by banda violinist Renée-Paule Gauthier: “There are three different groups, first playing together backstage, then playing onstage, in costumes, in different locations (from memory). For this last segment, the parts are not only different, but meant to sound a bit chaotic, although we need to be very precisely together - the genius of Mozart's writing! The fact that we're playing in different spots on stage makes it difficult to hear each other, so we rely a lot on what we see from the conductor and are listening with a lot of focus to hear as much as we can.” In fact, there is a minuet, a waltz, and a contredanse all in different meters being played simultaneously, a very bold and unprecedented musical move! In composing this, Mozart did something uncharacteristic – he wrote a rough draft to make sure it all worked, something that he usually found unnecessary.
Violinist Michael Shelton played the same part and wore the same costume the last time we did this production. In the Act 1 finale, there’s a peasant trio front stage (of which Michael is a part), a small group of Spanish-looking musicians near the back, and a gypsy trio on a balcony at the very back (including Renée).
Again, from Renée: “We get to the opera house around the time of the start of the performance. Our costumes are organized on a rack and someone from the wardrobe department is there to help, as the costumes have several pieces and layers. We all had a fitting for our costumes, and they are very comfortable to play in. After we get into costumes, we get together in a rehearsal space and play through the different segments. Then, we wait for the call to get backstage. The tricky part is for the gypsy bass player to negotiate the steep and narrow scaffolding staircase to get to the balcony on set, but he does it like a pro!”
Banda members in costume: Michael Shelton (peasant), Renée-Paul Gauthier (gypsy), and Lisa Fako (Spanish violinist)
In Act 2, offstage banda signifies the presence of the murdered Commendatore with trombones, a traditional signal of the underworld in music. And our production, updated to the 1920’s, uses offstage banda to provide the music emanating from the radio while Don Giovanni and his manservant Leporello feast. No, it’s not a recording! Clarinetist Leslie Grimm says “Playing in the banda is a blast in that I get to play music at a high caliber with excellent area musicians, all while in street clothes! Perhaps my favorite part is seeing the action backstage with so many people playing important roles - like bunches of stagehands moving giant structures, dressers coming with cloaks for the stars, and costumed singers that often engage with us as they wait to go onstage.”
Not every opera uses banda: but when it is called for, it is very important to the dramatic and musical effect. We are so grateful to have our accomplished stage musicians ready to be part of our productions!
Second Act Finale Banda with The Commendatore