Perhaps you’d be interested to read about one of the most impressive and beautiful demonstrations of musicianship I have ever witnessed. It made national news, actually, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. While some parts may be a little hard to follow for non-musicians, I happen to know that of the approximately thirty of you who are going to read this about half have musical backgrounds. Everybody else, hang in there, it’s no worse than the undefined, unexplained machine tool parts in any other post.
Musicians collect conductor stories, not all of them complimentary. While the Toscanini model has fallen out of fashion and thanks to the union the conductor can no longer shoot you just to watch you die, there are still many opportunities for tension between commander and commanded, and perhaps musicians can be forgiven a bit of schadenfreude when Maestro displays a clay foot. Which makes the complimentary stories all the more authentic.
Few maestros seek to be loved. They all, however, enjoy being respected. Pittsburgh Opera Music Director Antony Walker certainly commanded respect. If I slip into past tense it’s because I switched orchestras and haven’t played in the pit since 2014; Antony is still conducting. I never played for Lorin Maazel, who was famous for his ear (and his lack of patience), but of all the conductors I’ve played for, Antony had the best ear. Some famous conductors have revealed themselves to be confused by pitch and timbre — understandably, tuning a chord can be tricky — but if there was a fortissimo chord and Antony said “Third horn your E is sharp” you could take that to the bank. And he could sing beautifully. Clearly he knew and could sing every role in the opera, as he often proved in rehearsal before the singers arrived.
The opera was Verdi’s Aida. April, 2008. While many associate Aida with its history of extravagant zoological staging — camels, elephants, tigers, boas — it is a masterpiece in its own right, camels or no camels. Young, dashing Egyptian commander Radames falls (secretly) for captured Ethiopian slave girl Aida, and she (secretly) for him. Aida is, unknown to her captors, the daughter of Ethiopian king Amonasro, who invades Egypt to rescue her. Radames commands the opposing Egyptian army. Lots of stuff happens, because the opera has to take three hours. Radames defeats the Ethiopians and captures their king, but because of his love for Aida, he allows Amonasro and Aida to escape, is accused and convicted of treason, and sentenced to be buried alive. The stone closes his tomb, to which we will return in a moment.
In our production, soprano Aida was fabulous. Ramfis (bass, Egyptian high priest) was great, Amneris (mezzo-soprano, daughter of the Egyptian king, in love with Radames) was great. Radames was . . . powerful. He was one of those tenors whose stock in trade was higher and louder, and in the rehearsal room he was deafening. An opera singer’s voice can be every bit as much a marvel as a 104-mph fastball, but sometimes a little goes a long way. Radames had one gear, and by the last performance we in the pit were tired of it.
An entire opera pivots on the vocal chords of the singer, who has probably flown in from France and is either just getting over a cold or just coming down with one. There are usually understudies who take over if the star is indisposed, but schedules are tight and not every company can afford to have understudies waiting in the wings for every role for the entire run, so occasionally there are gaps in coverage. Which is why, for the final performance, it was a matter for concern that Radames sounded a little raspy in the first act. A substitute from the Met had been engaged but his flight from New York had been delayed.
By the end of the second act, Radames was leaking oil rather badly, and it was clear that if he continued we had the makings of an epic party tape. Before the third act curtain rose, Executive Director Christopher Hahn walked on stage. The ED never walks on stage during a performance to deliver good news. Christopher notified the audience that Radames had lost his voice and that, for the remainder of the opera, he would pantomime on stage while Maestro Antony Walker would sing the role from the pit WHILE CONDUCTING. (emphasis mine)
Had it ever been done before? No. Never. We knew he could do it, he sang while conducting in every rehearsal before the singers showed up; he was a regular Mel Blanc of the opera. But to do it in performance was momentous and everyone in the pit was alert. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that conducting opera is harder than conducting an orchestra on stage. Given a Beethoven Symphony and a professional orchestra, a great conductor may craft a transcendent performance, but anyone with a good head of hair will make it through, the orchestra will see to that. Opera has too many moving parts and too many things going wrong more or less continuously to allow a poser to go along for the ride. Singing opera, convincingly, in full voice, in performance, at the same time as conducting it . . . unique skill set.
We return to the tomb. The stone has rolled over the entrance, sealing out light and air. Here, we must engage our willful suspension of disbelief and allow a little light, because otherwise the audience could not see the action. Radames is rejoicing, in G Major, that at least Aida has escaped, when the music shifts to minor and, as the strings chatter through a panicky diminished seventh chord, he sees a form . . . Heavens! . . . Aida! The orchestra punctuates each syllable of “A-ida” with a sharp, tense dominant D7 chord in third inversion, 7th in the bass.
“It is I,” she sings. “Son io,” resolving the dominant chord with a falling perfect fifth, D to G.
“Tu, in questa tomba!” sings Radames, a falling perfect fourth, G to D. “You! Here in the tomb!”
Our tenor sang it at the top of his lungs. It might have been anger, it might have been triumph, who knew, it was just loud. Let's look at the music above again. After Aida sings “Son i-o,” the string section plays a fortissimo descending G minor scale that crashes into a C minor chord against which Radames sings “Tu . . . in questa” on a G and then STOPS on a dime for Radames’s falling “tomb-a." The usual Radames sang the fermata G so long and loudly that everyone forgot the C minor chord, then he hit the D with a conclusive thump.
Antony sang it differently. “Tomba” was sung in dimenuendo, with a color change and with less time on the fermata, so the softer D recalled G minor and also had a chance to mingle and clash with the last of the C minor chord ringing in the hall, perfectly framing Aida’s quiet reply in D minor, the key of death.
The harmony is relatively simple to a musician (and probably gibberish to a non-musician) but so are Shakespeare's words relatively simple; my references to harmony are intended to give a glimpse of the craft behind the moment that Verdi and librettist Antonio Ghizlanzoni created. The moment is timeless in black and white; in performance its poignance depends on the interpretation. One performer ran roughshod over the moment while another intensified and humanized it. Antony’s Radames, when he discovered that Aida had crept into his tomb to die with him, was not posessed by a single emotion. Shock, horror, and grief, that the one for whose sake he had chosen death would die as well — layered with a bitter sort of joy to hold his beloved at last, at the end, the end for them both. In that single unaccompanied word and interval, there hung an eternity of ambiguity.
The memory is indelible, and moves me even now. Antony’s feat made national news, as I said earlier. “Singing Maestro Averts Disaster” declared the NY Post, Good Morning America ran a clip. Etc., etc. A "gee-whiz" item for most, deeply impressive for musicians, utterly impressive if you happened to be there. Antony’s entire interpretation and performance was superior, never mind that he did it WHILE CONDUCTING. Any musician who was in the pit that Sunday afternoon will tell you the same thing.
This story came to mind because I’ve been teaching my Duquesne University woodwind orchestral rep class on Zoom this semester. Normally we’re all in a room together and we play a work, say, a Brahms symphony or Strauss’s Don Juan, as a wind section and study it as a whole. Because we can’t do that and ensemble playing is impossible over WiFi, I’ve been focusing on individual audition preparation and strategy. Our last class of the semester was devoted to “creating a moment,” and I told them about Aida by way of example. Their assignment was to select and perform any orchestral excerpt as though your life depended on making someone cry.
Confucius say, better to aim at stars and hit fence, than aim at fence and hit ground.