Philip Morehead talks about his transition from a professional opera career to an amateur presence in the bassoon world.
I spent almost 35 years as a member of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s musical staff and had the pleasure of working with some of the greatest singers of our time, including Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto, Fiorenza Cossotto, Alfredo Kraus, Tatiana Troyanos, Paolo Montarsolo, Sesto Bruscantini and many, many others. In my early years at the opera, many of the singers were Italian. Undoubtedly having that unique Italian sound in my ears has influenced my musical work on the bassoon, though my technique has not developed sufficiently yet to reproduce that velvety sound on my new instrument.
My work at the opera involved both piano (playing for rehearsals and assisting thje conductor) and conducting some operas, student performances and regular performances too. Some of the singers I conducted were rising young stars, some of whom are now major stars (such as Quinn Kelsey, J’Nai Bridges, Susanna Phillips, Matthew Polenzani, Will Liverman), and some well-established singers, such as Stephanie Blythe, Frank Lopardo, and Canada’s own Sondra Radvanovsky, who I conducted in a performance of Un ballo in Maschera. In my work I had the pleasure of working with the excellent Lyric Opera orchestra. For almost all of my time there the principal bassoon was Jim Berkenstock, and the contra player, who is still there, was Lewis Kirk. They were good colleagues and I enjoyed our collaborations.
The move from the podium to playing in the orchestra has certainly been challenging. Aside from the basic problem of producing the right fingerings at the right time and a decent sound under the baton of a conductor, there are the orchestral problems of tuning, counting, blending and trying to be a good support for one’s colleagues. One thing I discovered is that the minute you move from the podium to the orchestra your attitude changes, not always for the better. Fundamentally, though we’re all working towards the same goal, in many ways the relationship between conductor and conductees is an adversarial one, and it’s amazing how fast one moves from one camp to the other. Working in the North Bay Symphony I have needed all the skills I have developed over my opera years.
….a young Carlo Bergonzi
What have I learned from the great singers of my opera days that transfers to my new instrument? Certainly, the issue of legato is one of the most important. Legato involves all of the techniques of sound production: breath control, continuity of support, finding
I remember one of the operas I experienced several times (as a listener—I wasn’t assigned to the opera, but I did conduct it on the island Belle Île en mer off the coast of France) during my time at Lyric was Donizetti’s Elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), which has one of the most sublime bassoon solos in the repertoire, Una furtiva lagrima. Just listen to any one of the great tenors singing this aria, and you’ll learn all you need to know about legato. The first production during my time, my first year, was supposed to be sung by the great Pavarotti, but as he often did, he cancelled the first half of the run. Lyric Opera, at that time (early 1980’s) was very Italianate, and they would hire a replacement singer from the depths of Italy rather than use a North American. In this case, however, the replacement was Carlo Bergonzi, a singer who at that time was as important a tenor as Pavarotti, maybe more so. He was then in his 60s, but he sang performances that perfectly captured the young bumpkin that sings that iconic aria, as beautifully as I have ever heard. The audiences in Chicago didn’t know who he was, so many people turned in their tickets, not knowing they would get a performance far superior to the disinterested one Pavarotti would deliver when he finally got there.
When you have heard the creamy soprano of Mirella Freni singing La Bohème (or any other of her many roles), you are permanently rendered unable to be satisfied with anything else, no matter how musical or expressive. I don’t know if it’s the pasta or the wine or the ambience of Italy that produces this sound, but it is unique. Playing an instrument, especially a wind instrument, is at its base a kind of singing and is strongly influenced by vocalism. Many wind instrument teachers encourage their students to listen to singers to find out how to phrase and, foremost, how to play legato. We try to get as close as we can to that miraculous natural instrument.
…Philip and Sir Andrew Davis testing love potions…
Another issue (which is even more of an issue on the piano, where everything can be instantaneous) is how to play intervals wider than a second. One learns that moving over the wider intervals requires (and should require) a subtle timing that reflects the distance travelled and the effort required to travel that distance. It shouldn’t be a trivial matter to play a fifth, a seventh, an octave.
There is also the question of text. A bassoonist doesn’t have a text (in words) but should certainly be trying to communicate something, in a manner not unsimilar to delivering a text. This involves ‘unnotatable’ factors of timing and sound. As we are frequently told, the score is only the beginning: there are so many elements that can’t be written down.
There are other lessons one learns from performing opera which serve one well in the orchestra:
Listening: The singer rules in opera, or should, in my opinion. Opera timing is very dependent on the singer, and the flexibility one develops in working in the idiom is very useful in other repertoire. A good opera orchestra is always listening to the singers (if they can hear them). I remember I was conducting Carmen once and had a Micaela who was a notorious schlepper. In our one dress rehearsal I tried to conduct all that was happening in her aria and found it very difficult, if not impossible; but if I trusted the orchestra to react to her rubati, it was easy. Trust of your players is another good lesson from opera.
The ability to adapt to the immediate situation: Opera is unpredictable. When you have singers singing from memory and acting on stage, you never really know what’s going to happen once you pass the initial downbeat. I have seen well-known orchestral conductors (who shall remain nameless) trying to conduct opera and not enjoying that unpredictability. I think one either relishes it or should stay away from the form. However, that kind of living in the moment should be an important part of orchestral music as well. One should be able to react to the inspiration of the moment, either in one’s own playing or in the playing of one’s comrades. It makes for a so much richer experience.
Jim Berkenstock’s wife, Jean, was the principal flute. At one Lyric Opera Center concert we were performing the soprano aria from Lucia di Lammermoor, which involves a complicated cadenza for the soprano and the flute. The morning of that rehearsal, when I was coming to the opera house by bus, I left my scores on the bus. Luckily, I was able to get replacement scores from the library before the rehearsal and I found out to my relief that I remembered all the special things the singers wanted me to do and what the cuts were. Jean was concerned about that aria, which is a bit tricky to conduct, but fortunately, it came off well.
Philip Morehead is a board member of The Council of Canadian Bassoonists
At age 81 my aspirations for my bassoon playing are limited. But I am greatly enjoying this remarkable instrument!
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