From the Director’s Desk: 6 1/2 Favorite Opera Terms
A blog series offering perspectives from various members of On Site Opera’s leadership team
6 1/2 of My Favorite Opera Terms
by Piper Gunnarson, Executive Director
A great privilege of working in the arts is that there is so much to learn! I came to On Site Opera from the theater industry. For the most part, opera and theater are two sides of the same coin and share quite a lot in common, but there are definitely some differences. Opera is an art form rooted in multiple languages, which wend their way into daily discussions about production planning. My friends and family delight in hearing about the various operatic terms that I impart to them; likewise, my new opera colleagues, for whom these terms are second-nature, often find their own joy in re-discovering their professional language through the eyes of an opera neophyte.
It is with this spirit of curiosity and learning that I share with you 6 ½ of My Favorite Opera Terms I have learned in my first two years working in the opera field. Please keep in mind that, in most cases, I usually heard these words before I saw them in print, which may have shaped my initial impression of them – don’t judge my misperceptions!
What I thought it was: A titanium gadget from Sharper Image that uses UV Light Therapy to eliminate acne.
What it actually is: It literally translates as “seated rehearsal” (from German), and it is generally the first time the orchestra and singers come together. It has become one of my favorite points in the rehearsal process; after a couple weeks of hearing the singers rehearse with only a piano, it is so illuminating to hear their voices supported by full orchestra for the first time.
- TOI TOI TOI
(TOY TOY TOY)
What I thought it was: I thought a piece of lint had found it’s way into the mouth of our conductor, Geoff McDonald, and that he was trying to spit it out. Turns out, I wasn’t too far off…
What it actually is: “Toi toi toi” is the equivalent of “break a leg” that we thespians use in the theater world. It’s a wish of a good luck that comes from an old German tradition of spitting to ward off the devil, and it has become curiously entwined in opera culture. This demonic origin of “toi toi toi” compared to the more pragmatically-inspired “break a leg” leads me to believe that opera people are even more superstitious than theater folk, which I never thought possible.
What I thought it was: I really don’t have a logical explanation for this, but this word immediately brought to mind one of those over-sized bubble wands that I used to use as a child in my many futile attempts to create bubbles large enough to capture our dog.
What it actually is: Very much like the sitzprobe (and also a German term), except that the singers move around the stage instead of staying seated. They might not incorporate all of the staging at this point, rather they casually wander (wandel?) their way around the stage in the general areas of their staging. This gives them a chance to hear what the orchestra sounds like when they need to stand, say, on the up-left corner of the stage versus center-stage. It also gives them a chance to understand their sight-lines with the conductor. At On Site Opera, this is a particularly critical step in the process. Our productions are always in unusual venues where the sound of the orchestra does not travel as predictably as it would in a traditional theater, so it’s important for the singers to rehearse where they stand in relation to the orchestra and conductor during each piece of music. Very often, the line of vision between the singer and conductor is obstructed by, oh I don’t know, an enormous dinosaur fossil or a wax figure of Patrick Stewart, so the wandelprobe is an opportunity for the director, conductor, and singers to find solutions.
What I thought it was: To be honest, I didn’t really stop to think about what it meant; I just had fun saying it over and over and over… Répétiteur. Répétiteur.
What it actually is: This is the fabulous person who plays piano during rehearsals! The word comes from the French word répéter, which means “to repeat” — a necessary process in any rehearsal.
What I thought it was: On Site Opera is a site-specific opera company, and our artists are mercifully flexible about performing in odd places. The wall above my desk features a photo from OSO’s Marriage of Figaro in which a singer performed on top of a kitchen counter. So, of course, I wondered…is that a counter tenor…?
What it actually is: It is incredible, that’s what it is! A countertenor is a male singer, who has an elevated vocal range such that they sound similar to the female alto voice. The first time I saw a countertenor perform was at a concert by Opera Noire in NYC. The experience absolutely caught me off guard (no one told me what to expect!), and it was mesmerizing. I have always found it interesting that the operas of the standard repertoire tend to align voice type with gender stereotypes. Does the male villain always need to be a baritone? How might we disrupt social expectations of gender if the villain or king were played by a countertenor? There is a lot of potential within opera to explore and disrupt gender definitions through voice type, and the countertenor seems like a fascinating opportunity to do so.
- TROUSER ROLE
What I thought it was: I genuinely thought this was a costuming reference, as if there were such frequent need to roll one’s trouser cuffs that it warranted its own term.
What it actually is: A male role, usually a boy or young man, that is sung by a woman, usually a mezzo soprano. My first production with On Site Opera was Mozart’s The Secret Gardener, which featured the jubilant Kristin Gornstein in the trouser role of love-sick Ramiro. During one of the performances, a relative of mine (who is not a frequent opera-goer) leaned in to ask if Kristin was meant to be playing a man or a woman, to which I replied “A man, but does it matter?” When we revived this production at Caramoor a year later, I was delighted to observe an intern shyly approach Kristin and confess that she was pursuing a career as a singer, with a specific interest in trouser roles. I loved learning that this is a specific character type to which some singers aspire!
This is not specifically an opera term, but I was introduced to it by way of OPERA America, and therefore it holds an operatic connection in my mind. (Hence the designation as a “half” term.)
What I thought it was: The first time I encountered this acronym was in relation to a new grant funding program offered by OPERA America. Upon first sight, I assumed it had to do with supporting the great “ideas” of imaginative artists. Yes, it does, but also…
What it actually is: It stands for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access. In recent years, these goals have assumed an increasingly important role in conversations within the opera field and really across all industries, nonprofit and corporate alike, about how to create more opportunities for the myriad voices that represent the cultural tapestry of our nation. I have heard variations of this concept and acronym, such as E.D.I, or simply I.D., but this was the first time I saw them assembled as a single pronounceable word. I am especially fond of how this acronym embraces so many facets of the larger goal to create an opera field that better represents the many people in it. Plus, the word formed by the acronym conveys both the creative quality of working in the arts as well as the progressive goals within its four key terms. I hope it catches on.
And there we have the 6 ½ opera terms that have most captured my mind since joining On Site Opera. Thank you to all of my opera colleagues and peers who have so warmly welcomed me into this artistic realm and taken such keen interest in helping me learn any operatic tidbit that they could share. What are your favorite opera terms?