Seattle Opera’s assistant conductor Phil Kelsey has a passion for music that is as contagious as it is omnivorous. A self- described Ring junkie, he not only coaches our singers but teaches at the University of Washington, plays harpsichord, listens to jazz and Indian classical music, and rises in the early hours to catch international soccer matches before taking the ferry from the Kitsap Peninsula to Seattle Opera’s offices.
As Seattle Opera’s assistant conductor, what are your responsibilities during performances?
I am responsible for what I call “noises off,” which is any music that gets performed from the wings or backstage. There is a shocking amount of this music in opera. Hardly an opera goes by without some sort of fanfare or drum roll or dance band or choruses or any number of things that are supposed to sound like they are coming from a different space than the one that the stage and orchestra occupy. All this offstage music has to coordinate with the orchestra, which means that I’m looking at a closed-circuit TV monitor of the conductor, I’m conducting instrumentalists and singers backstage, and trying to make it all coordinate in time. It’s a bit tricky because sound is delayed when it comes from a distance, so that offstage musicians have to play a little bit ahead of the orchestra at all times, and the amount of how much ahead depends on the set. If the set is wide open and lets a lot of sound pass through, then there’s a tiny time delay. If you’re playing from behind huge constructions, it can take a long time for the sound to travel.
How do you figure out the time delay?
The question is how do you figure that out in only one musical rehearsal before the two dress rehearsals! We perform our parts backstage, and one of my colleagues gives us feedback from the auditorium—it’s a little behind, it’s a little ahead, it’s a little too loud, it’s a little too soft.
And these offstage instrumentalists are called the banda, correct?
A fun thing about traditional Italian opera was that pretty much every town had their own municipal band (or “banda”). They would bring them in to play offstage marches and dance music. Because every band was a little different, the band music in Donizetti and Verdi is almost never scored. Every bandmaster arranged it for their band. So I am also sometimes the band arranger. We try to make to make a small but noisy bunch of instruments sound like a wonderful raucous loud bunch of instruments.
Will there be a banda in Attila?
You will hear some fanfares. The soldiers are called to battle with fanfares and then you hear women’s voices singing prayers. Carmen had stuff from beginning to end, and Bizet wrote it very cleverly. He would stop writing for a particular instrument in the orchestra and give them time to get backstage. Maybe the Opéra-Comique in 1875 was on as tight a budget as we are.
At orchestra rehearsals, what do you listen for?
Wrong notes and balance issues. If there’s an error, I need to ask, was it someone’s momentary misery or a wrong note in the printed music? If it’s wrong once, it was probably a mistake; if it’s wrong twice, then there’s something wrong in the parts.
You can hear a single wrong note?
I’d better be able to hear it. It could be well buried, but I can hear that there was something wrong somewhere and it was a D natural so who’s playing a D natural? There’s the culprit.
You are also a vocal coach during the rehearsal period. Can you explain the difference between a coach and a voice teacher?
The basic distinction is that a voice teacher teaches technique and a vocal coach teaches repertoire style interpretation. As a coach you want to be able to share with singers your experience of a wide range of repertoire and style. If you sing a line in Handel and Mozart the way you sing Puccini, it comes out all wrong. Singers are the only instrumentalists that usually have both a teacher and coaches, because they are the only instruments that live inside their machine. They are in a poor position acoustically to evaluate what they sound like because they’re inside the sounding board, which is why they need voice teachers. The other difference between a singer and, say, a clarinet is words. An opera singer with an international career is as liable to have to perform intelligently in Italian, French, German and who knows what else. Coaches help singers not only with the correct pronunciation but with the correct understanding of the text. So most coaches, like me, are language junkies.
What languages do you know?
I’m pretty fluent in German, I read French, I understand Italian, I’ve studied Russian, I’ve studied Japanese, I’ve studied Czech diction and will happily try to pronounce just about anything correctly. It was way fun to do an opera in Hungarian, for example. I learned so much about the way that language works.
You must know the singers pretty well, as some come back again and again.
That’s a very, very fun part of the job. It becomes an extended family.
Photo by Bill Mohn
This Staff Chat first appeared in Seattle Opera’s program for Carmen in October 2011.