Sydney Opera House

Virtuoso performances all round


Nightingale filled with virtuoso performances

In an opera with a title like The Love of the Nightingale, most people would expect to hear gorgeous singing. Indeed, Richard Mills’ work, which opens at the Sydney Opera House this month, offers lovers of the soprano voice some of the most exquisite 21st-century music written for it, performed by the magnificent Emma Matthews.  

On the instrumental side, opera lovers could be forgiven for expecting to hear virtuoso performances from the flute, which has had a long association with the soprano voice, and of which the flute/soprano cadenza in Lucia di Lammermoor is probably the most famous example. 

AOBO Principal Flute Libby Pring is looking forward to combining her playing in Nightingale with Emma Matthews’ “beautiful, gorgeous light soprano voice”. “Emma is one of the orchestra’s favourite singers – she is such a fine musician,” Pring says. “With her, you always get the feeling that apart from singing beautifully, she’s really thought about how she’s going to perform each phrase.” The flute plays a particularly important role in the final soprano aria in Nightingale, a lyrical vocalese that ends in the recorded call of a real nightingale. 

Performing with singers can be challenging when instrumentalist and singer are unable to establish visual contact. But a re-arrangement of pit musicians, aimed at ensuring that the woodwind section is heard in the auditorium, has gone a long way towards addressing the issue. The flutes are now in the front, “right under the nose of the conductor,” says Pring.

When performing the ‘Flute Cadenza’ from Lucia di Lammermoor with Matthews and Richard Bonynge a few years ago, Pring just stood up and played. Some years earlier, when Sumi Jo was performing the role with Simone Young conducting, and before the new pit seating arrangements had been made, Pring stood on the conductor’s podium. “It was very exposed, yet much easier to do that way.”

If it is sometimes difficult for singers and instrumentalists to see each other, hearing singers is never an issue.  “We have speakers in the ceiling underneath the stage, so that we can hear the singers clearly wherever we sit. But we’d hear them without speakers: the human voice, when bolstered by the whole body, is a huge instrument – much bigger than any of the little instruments that we play. During a studio sitzprobe, singers can easily drown us out if they want to.”

Pring, who fell in love with opera when as a student in Vienna she saw many of the world’s great singers perform, has played for the Opera since 1987. For her, there’s nothing else. “The joy of playing in an opera orchestra lies in listening to the singers and accompanying them,” she says. “I can’t imagine playing in a symphony orchestra and not having that extra challenge.”

For audiences, the challenge of contemporary opera is often that the music can be difficult to understand. Pring’s advice is to get as much exposure as possible. “To appreciate a new opera, you have to hear it several times, and preferably live, as listening to a recording is just not the same.”

Her own journey into an appreciation of the post-Romantic repertoire began with Richard Strauss. “It’s hard to get audiences to go to his operas because if you don’t know the works, they’re a bit of an intellectual exercise,” she says. “But when you’ve heard a Strauss opera a few times, it’s just beautiful.”

For her, the next step along from Strauss was Alban Berg’s Lulu and Wozzeck. “Once again, you can only really learn to appreciate these works if you hear them many times, like we do in the orchestra. Once you get to know Berg, you realise just how beautiful and lyrical his music is.”

From there, it’s a short step to embracing other 20th-century and 21st-century opera.

The Orchestra loved playing Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men, even though it was difficult, Pring says. Brett Dean’s Bliss was even harder. “The notes didn’t conform to what we’re used to in tonality – the score was full of accidentals and accidents waiting to happen. It took hours and hours to learn. But putting it together was a lot of fun.”

Richard Mills’ Batavia, performed in Sydney in 2006, was another challenging score to learn. “But I enjoy playing Richard’s music, there is always so much happening in his scores.”

Playing opera – no matter which era it is from – suits Pring perfectly. “I love it because I love accompanying singers. You can’t be too much of an ego maniac in the AOBO because you’re hidden from view and after a while you realise that most audience members kind of forget that you’re there.

“Although if you have a bad orchestra in the pit, people do notice.”