Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Three Keyboards in the ARIADNE Orchestra

Our orchestra for Ariadne auf Naxos features the three wise men of Seattle Opera’s music department: Head of Coach-Accompanists DAVID MCDADE at the piano, Chorusmaster JOHN KEENE on harmonium, and Assistant Conductor PHIL KELSEY on the celeste. It turns out Strauss was very intentional about his use of these three keyboard instruments, all of which are rarely found in an opera orchestra. I asked our three wise guys some questions about one of the most intriguing scores we’ve ever presented, and found out much about Strauss’s magical music.

In the Ariadne orchestra pit
Elise Bakketun, photo

David McDade, how often have you played the piano part in Ariadne auf Naxos?

David McDade: Twice before (2004 and 2010). It’s peculiar; several bars can be played with one finger, while others are virtuoso flourishes. It turns out the third time is the charm; I feel I can really play it now!

Whose side is the piano on, in this tug of war between serious and comedy?
David McDade: The clowns. I create a sort of dance-hall atmosphere for them in the Prologue, and I’m the dominant instrument in Zerbinetta’s aria. But once Bacchus arrives I join with the “serious” harps, and in the final pages I play extravagant arpeggios as the music swells and the fireworks go off. So if I begin as a comedian, I am certainly won over by the love story!

John Keene at the harmonium and David McDade at the piano
Elise Bakketun, photo

How do you sync what you’re doing, particularly in the big Zerbinetta aria, with all the craziness that’s happening onstage?
David McDade: I just follow the maestro, and the onstage craziness actually syncs with me. Our onstage pianist, actor Kyle Cable, learned the piano part so he could mime it effectively onstage. Someone told me they thought he really WAS playing the part onstage!

David McDade accompanies Sarah Coburn as Zerbinetta in the recitative of her big aria

John Keene, why is the harmonium in this opera?

John Keene: At first I wondered why this unusual instrument was necessary, given the pared-down scale of the Ariadne orchestra. But the harmonium is audible because the orchestra is so small. It gives a quality of majestic grandeur to the character of Ariadne, yet it has this uniquely homey quality. A real organ might be too big, too grand, too sacred for this show-within-a-show. I think Strauss was taking advantage of the harmonium’s odd color to locate us on this mythic island—where is it, exactly?

What’s the technical challenge of playing the harmonium?
John Keene: The instrument I’m playing, which belongs to David Dahl of Tacoma, is about a hundred years old. Some later harmoniums had electric mechanisms, but this is a period instrument which you operate by foot, pumping pedals to operate its bellows. It’s not very precise, rhythmically; it doesn’t respond like a piano. That’s why Strauss wrote mostly chordal progressions, which can be more vague, rhythmically. There’s often a delay, based on how full the bellows are. The lower pitches require more air and respond slower. I’ve had to learn how to keep the bellows full of air—something you don’t have to worry about when playing the piano.

John Keene at the harmonium

John Keene accompanies Issachah Savage as Bacchus

Phil Kelsey, Seattle Opera has now done four productions of Ariadne auf Naxos. What are your fondest memories of working on this piece?

Phil Kelsey: Nadine Secunde sang Ariadne wonderfully in ’91. Jane Giering-DeHaan was our Zerbinetta in 2004, but my memory of her with that role goes back ten years earlier, to when she first auditioned for Speight Jenkins. I played piano at that audition; I remember she said, “I’m prepared to sing Zerbinetta’s aria, but you might not want to hear all of it.” But she kicked butt, and Speight didn’t stop her. She was wonderful. She made it all the way to the end, and then Speight said, “That was just about the best I ever heard!”

Another memory I have of that 2004 production: my stepson, who was then about 19 or 20, and a fan of heavy metal, came to it and he’s talked about it ever since. His favorite opera ever. Chris Alexander’s production totally sells the show to that demographic.

Phil Kelsey's hand, about to turn the page on the celeste part
Elise Bakketun, photo

As the celeste, what’s your role in this opera?
Phil Kelsey: The celeste is associated with Bacchus. That’s why, in the Opera proper, the celeste contributes one little four-note pattern in Ariadne’s opening aria and then does not play again until Bacchus comes in with “Circe! Circe!” I have a 41-minute long rest. After that I play a lot, mostly to characterize Bacchus and his magic. The celeste is a kind of magic instrument. In the Prologue, it accompanies the Composer’s final conclusion: “Musik ist eine heilge Kunst” (Music is a holy art).

Phil Kelsey accompanies Kate Lindsey as the Composer

Strauss was obsessed with the genius of Mozart’s transitions, particularly how he shifted between comedy and serious in operas such as Don Giovanni. What do you think about the twists and turns, the about-faces between serious and silly, in Ariadne auf Naxos?
David McDade: The Prologue is all about transition. The music changes with every thought, and the dramatic tension never lets up, so it’s one of the finest conversations in music I know. Often things turn on a dime – BAM! we’re in a new scene - but so organically that it works.

Phil Kelsey: Yes, the Prologue has this mosaic quality. It’s all accompanied recitative, a fantastic text, with musical snippets of stuff you’ll hear later. Musically, it’s hard to follow the Prologue unless you already know the opera; it’s as if the characters are wearing only part of their costume. But that’s also the fun of it. The text is crucial. In America, Ariadne only started taking off once we had supertitles in our opera houses.

The Opera is much easier to follow, musically. The transitions are not so abrupt; as Ariadne is finishing her big aria, suddenly a few clowns peek out around the corner, and ok, now we’re doing something else. And when the comedians leave and the nymphs return, there’s a brilliant transition—Strauss kicks us down a half step, harmonically, and suddenly we’re in a completely different key. With a million more sharps.

David McDade: And that final love duet is just one tune after another, a seamless flow of song where I’m not even aware of transitions. Ariadne asks “Is there no passage? Are we already there?” Indeed!

Phil Kelsey and John Keene in the pit
Elise Bakketun, photo

Okay, saving the hardest question for last. What is Ariadne auf Naxos about?
David McDade: This opera illustrates conflicting attitudes about “high” and “low” art and ultimately demonstrates they are aspects of the same theatrical experience and complementary to each other.

John Keene: At first you think it’s crazy and impossible, and what you find out is that there isn’t a wall between the two worlds. They morph into and out of each other - we're all more alike than we are different.

Phil Kelsey: It’s difficult to reduce Ariadne auf Naxos to something that fits in a fortune cookie. That said, it’s either: “You think your life is over because he dumped you, but it’s not true.” Or: “Another opening, another show!”

David McDade: And—perhaps on a personal level for Strauss and Hofmannsthal—it reveals the often unspoken loneliness at the heart of every artist.

Photos: David McDade (Jonathan Vanderweit), John Keene and Phil Kelsey (Alan Alabastro)

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