Coda: The Performance I Can't Forget

by Mark Lamos

Coda Hellekant lg 915
Hellekant as Massenet’s Charlotte
© Carol Pratt

ALMOST all of my most unforgettable moments in opera have happened in the rehearsal hall, long before the work reached the general public. The only lighting came from whatever was overhead or (very occasionally) a dusty window or two. Singers wore jeans or rehearsal skirts, bits of old clothes from other productions lent by the costume shops. No orchestra — just the rehearsal pianist banging away as the conductor beat time, shaped phrases, coached the musical values with the singers. There are few places in the world as full of serious play as a rehearsal room. Where else do flubs or mistakes turn into flashes of insight, moments of transcendence? 

It was the summer of 1993, and I was rehearsing Massenet’s Werther for Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York. Our rehearsals took place in a nearby high-school cafeteria that had a linoleum floor and lots of natural light. 

The opera, based on Goethe’s short but influential novel, evokes the pain of Romantic love. The young poet Werther falls passionately in love with Charlotte, affianced to another. They become obsessive and tortured in their impossible need for each other, and the opera, like the novel, ends in his suicide, which a shattered Charlotte tries to stop — too late. 

These roles were played at Glimmerglass by two of the most attractive and committed singing actors I’ve ever worked with. Our Werther, Gran Wilson, conveyed deep emotion with a passionate lyric tenor and vivid acting skills. Swedish mezzo Charlotte Hellekant, one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever known, sang with an intensity that brought every conflicting feeling into her face and gestures. Gran and Lottie were as talented as any actors I’ve worked with in dramatic “straight” theater or musical theater.

We were doing what is known as a “stumble through” of Act III. The staging had been roughed out, and now we would try to get through it without stopping too much, in order to see if it hung together — and if everybody could remember notes, acting choices, blocking, etc. This would also give conductor Stewart Robertson and the singers a chance to gauge their stamina.  

Act III is particularly punishing for the character of Charlotte. As the curtain rises, she is rereading Werther’s passionate letters, in an aria of deep emotion. Her sister enters, mentions Werther’s name, and Charlotte launches into the celebrated “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes! Ells font du bien, ma chérie!” (Go! Let my tears flow. They do me good, my darling.) She sees her destiny, trapped in a loveless bourgeois marriage. But just when you think there can be no more reserves of emotion, a passionate, helpless prayer billows out of her soul: “Seigneur Dieu!… Entends ma prière!” The music thrashes about in waves of grief and helplessness. 

Actors in the theater work to be “in the moment.” The good ones construct a technique for themselves that allows floods of emotion to be ready, if needed, when the proper mental access is opened. It’s technique used in order to achieve, momentarily, seeming freedomfrom technique. But opera singers are living musical instruments trained to give the music its due, so they need to work in a more divided way than any actor in a play. It’s sort of left brain/right brain. The fusion of the two is what’s often unattainable for singers.

As Lottie sang, she was most definitely, and almost dangerously, in the moment. Tears — occasionally a risky sign for an opera singer, because the vocal cords constrict — began coursing down her lovely cheekbones. But on she went in operatic agony. I started to cry. So did the assistant, then the stage managers. Suddenly the singing stopped, and she just let loose and cried her eyes out. “I can’t,” she gasped as the pianist petered out — “I can’t sing this.” Lottie wept and wept. It was the most profoundly truthful emotional moment I’d ever witnessed in a rehearsal room. 

Of course, the audience never saw that. They saw something very much like that, which we constructed together so that Lottie could give the emotional impact of the aria its due. And the audience, when she performed it, was deeply moved. But through her technique and control, she was able to give the impression of tears, gasps, sighs — all of which are provided for her, courtesy of Massenet. 

There have been other rehearsal moments I’ll never forget — sitting a few feet away from Luciano Pavarotti and Aprile Millo on the Met stage as they launched a blazing duet in Verdi’s I Lombardi; working with a young cast of singers on my first Bohème when, during the death of Mimì, they were all so overcome with emotion that again, rehearsal had to cease while the Kleenex was passed around. But that explosion of musical grief from Werther,in an unair-conditioned high-school cafeteria somewhere in upstate New York farm country, remains, for me, the most treasured of those moments. spacer 

Mark Lamos , a Tony-nominated director of plays, musicals and opera, is currently artistic director of Westport Playhouse.

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Current Issue: September 2015 — VOL. 80, NO. 3