I’ve been musing on the order of things. This post has to do with Beethoven violin sonatas. I mean, sonatas for violin and piano. I mean, sonatas for piano and violin. Anyway, you get the point, or subject. This post has to do with piano trios. You list the pianist first, then the violinist, then the cellist—right? Well, as a rule, yes. But Jascha Heifetz and others may want to quarrel with you.
Turn, now, to singers. When a bunch of singers participate in a concert, they know how to enter, and they know how to exit: high to low. Sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, tenors, baritones, basses. (We can leave contraltos and countertenors aside, just for convenience.) High-to-low avoids an “After you” complication. Everyone knows his place.
The conductor brings up the rear. (Or a pianist does, if he is accompanying a mess of singers.) The conductor gets to play the gracious one.
What if you have more than one soprano, more than one mezzo, etc.? Well, that has to be finessed. Usually the singer with the more prominent part goes first. But what if there is a dispute over which is the more prominent part? Again, finessing . . .
I have smile-making memories of Ivari Ilja. He is the Estonian pianist who accompanied Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the late, great Russian baritone. On at least one occasion, Ilja had a female page-turner. After a set, Hvorostovsky would leave the stage, followed by Ilja, followed by the page-turner. But right at the door, Ilja would pause, to let the page-turner go first. He was too much of a gentleman to go before her.
Turn, now, to the opera house. No place for a gentleman! Who bows when? Who has the honor of bowing last? As a rule, the singer in the title role bows last. You may not think he is the most important singer in the show. Take Verdi’s Don Carlo. You may think that King Philip, Rodrigo, Elisabeth, Eboli, and even the Grand Inquisitor are more important. But Don Carlo bows last, for he is the title role.
Think of Der Rosenkavalier. Who is the title role, who is the “Rose Knight”? Octavian, and he, according to the rule, should bow last. (I have said “he,” and Octavian is a trouser role, but let’s not let opera dizzy us too much.)
What if an opera has two title roles? What do you do about Roméo et Juliette, Tristan und Isolde, Hansel and Gretel, Acis and Galatea, Antony and Cleopatra? Finesse, finesse.
Well, who does the finessing? Better, who does the determining? Who lays down the law, or determines the order, for the entire cast? As I understand it, the stage director does. And this man or woman has to deal with a basket of sensitivities and egos.
Let me give you a memory, on the outskirts of this subject. I once attended an opera gala in which a soprano and a mezzo did a scene from Aida. Before the end of the scene, the mezzo (portraying Amneris) exited the stage. The soprano (Aida) remained, doing some more singing, and concluding the scene. When the audience applauded, the soprano soaked in this applause, curtsying dramatically. The mezzo quickly entered the stage, giving the soprano a look that said, “This was an even-steven deal, sister. Don’t be soaking it in without me.”
This was funny, awkward, and painful, all at once.
While I’m thinking of post-opera protocol: Singers often do the opera jog, as I call it. They jog to the front, in part because they are loath to let the applause die down. They need to get front and center as soon as possible. This especially applies to the minor singers.
Well, some opera singers—you will forgive me for saying this, right?—just can’t jog very well. And I’ve seen them huffing and puffing. I have nothing but sympathy for them. And I think the opera jog should be phased out.
How do you list the singers in a program? The Met has a neat solution to this: you do it in order of appearance (vocal appearance). No fuss, no muss, no egos, no dispute.
There are other issues we could cover. Recently, an opera-world pro was telling me about the matter of dressing rooms: who gets what. That can be very, very sticky. Perhaps a post at a later date . . .