Sydney Opera House

Thirty-eight years in the pit


Thirty-eight years in the pit

When cellist Henry Urbanavicius and violist Marilyn Wilson, longest-serving members of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (AOBO), joined the ensemble in 1973, neither of them imagined that they would spend the rest of their working lives playing opera. The reason for their staying power is simple: they love what they do.

Wilson, a Sydney Conservatorium graduate who originally trained as a pianist, decided to explore other possibilities after four years in the pit. She took long leave, went overseas and studied in Italy and the UK. But she was back before long. ‘I love the way opera comes together,’ she says. ‘You start off by learning your part at home, then you get together with other orchestral musicians and the conductor, then the singers arrive. It all comes together like a jigsaw puzzle.’

Urbanavicius, also a product of the Sydney Conservatorium, considered giving up when he developed repetitive strain injury. Yet he overcame it and stayed on. ‘It’s rewarding to work with highly intelligent people with whom you have so much in common,’ he says.

The orchestral musicians, who have worked with every Opera Australia music director – Edward Downes, Richard Bonynge, Simone Young, Richard Hickox – agree that their favourite Opera Australia conductor was Carlo Felice Cillario.

‘He was a consummate musician, often difficult to follow but with a musicality that was unequalled,’ Urbanavicius remembers, adding that he’d much rather play with a conductor who is very difficult to follow, than play with someone who is uninspiring. ‘A fabulous conductor, like this summer’s Massimo Zanetti in Butterfly or Guillaume Tourniaire in Carmen, inspires you even though you’d performed those works hundreds of times,’ he says. 

Wilson too, loved working with Cillario. ‘He occasionally blew up but he was such a warm human being.’

In the almost 40 years that the twosome have played in the Orchestra, they have witnessed many highlights. To Wilson, the War and Peace production conducted by Edward Downes and staged to celebrate the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973, stands out. ‘I remember this huge cannon going off; I always worried that the ball would land in the pit!’ Other treasured memories are of Falstaff, any Joan Sutherland performance and Julius Caesar with Yvonne Kenny and Graham Pushee.

Urbanavicius will never forget La bohème with Luciano Pavarotti, or the concert with Pavarotti, Sutherland and Marilyn Horne.

Opera Australia has changed in many ways over the years, and to orchestral musicians, one of the good ways is that the Company no longer uses prompters positioned in a centre-stage box that juts down into the pit. ‘My bow was always hitting the prompt box because I was right in that spot!’ Wilson laughs. These days, prompters, if used, operate from the wings.

Opera Australia has also grown in size and reputation since 1973. Urbanavicius says: ‘It’s a much bigger company and it’s better known throughout the world, with the result that it attracts a wider range of international conductors and singers.’ When the schedule comes out, everyone wants to play in the operas conducted by exciting conductors, Wilson says.

If there have been highlights, the musicians have also experienced challenges during their long careers with the AOBO. To Wilson, the most outstanding one has been the amount of playing that the orchestra does. ‘When my children were growing up I rarely sat down to have a meal with them in the evenings because I was always at work. My husband would get home at 6pm and I’d be out the door at 6.30pm.’

These days, life in the pit is not quite as hectic. ‘There are more permanent as well as casual players – our conditions have definitely improved. But even if you’re only doing four or five calls in a week, it’s not as if they’re all within three or four days and you can have two or three days clear. Or you might be playing four and be on call for another two or three performances. So you still can’t go out.’

Urbanavicius’s biggest career challenge has been the repetitive strain injuries – common among orchestral players everywhere – that he began to develop 15 years ago. ‘At one stage I thought I would be unable to continue playing,’ he remembers. He overcame his difficulties with the help of the Company’s rehabilitation program, which secured him access to a physiotherapist, a gymnasium and if he wanted to, a psychologist. ‘The end result is that I am much fitter today than I was 15 years ago,’ he says.

Over the years, from the vantage point of the pit, these musicians have seen the odd thing go out of whack. Wilson remembers, with a laugh, the time the revolve in Fiddler on the Roof was supposed to change while the orchestra repeated a section of music. ‘The revolt became stuck and we ended up doing the repeat six times before they managed to turn it!’

Urbanavicius remembers when someone was reading a map on stage in Simon Boccanegra, next to a candle. ‘It caught fire and this hand reached out from behind the curtain and poured a glass of water over it!’ There was also the time a possum ran across a railing in the pit…

Both musicians are confident that Opera Australia will survive the next 38 years. ‘The way to do it is to continue employing high-calibre singers and conductors,’ Urbanavicius says. Wilson feels that the Company has to keep performing contemporary repertoire, ‘even though it’s not always easy for us to play or for the audience to listen to.’

Coming from such long experience with the Company, that is probably very good advice.