By Mary Hughes and Marie Te Hapuku
This Saturday, January 30, the Metropolitan Opera will present the HD performance of Turandot with Nina Stemme in the title role, in cinemas worldwide. For the Met Chorus Artists, this show is one of the most difficult operas that they prepare, and one of the most breathtaking. The chorus sit huddled in tightly cramped stage spaces while numerous dancers and supernumeraries tumble and carry huge court banners on the stage. They often sing with their bodies facing one direction, and their heads and voices contorted in another direction - while churning out voluminous vocal sound and beautiful tonal consistency. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1987 production continues to astound audiences with its grandeur and immense scale, as it is a very demanding night from beginning to end, musically and physically.
Another interesting aspect, from a chorus perspective, is that there are several small solos that the members of the chorus perform, for what is usually, a long run (16 performances in the 2015-16 season). This includes two ancelle Handmaidens (women) in Act I, three sapienti Wise Men in Act II, and four araldi Heralds (men) in Act III. The following is an outline of what is required to perform the ancelle roles.
The ancelle singers open the opera with the full chorus, as popoli (the crowd). After performing the first 14 pages, they two discreetly exit the stage and descend one level to make a costume quick change in the storage space connected to the orchestra pit. Accompanied by three dressers, they disrobe in the dark to change into sparkling, hand-sequined robes, twinkling headpieces, and silver slippers. They enter the stage (one floor below the action currently taking place) on a lift that will ascend to high above the stage when the chorus first refers to Princess Turandot. Assisted by two stage crew members, the ancelle climb a ladder in their intricate costumes, and are loaded into separate towers. This is where Turandot and her entourage load up, and wait for their musical cue. Turandot will appear and be referred to by the chorus, but won’t sing until Act II. The cue is heard - the conclusion of the Moon Chorus [‘Perchè tarda la luna?’ - and the ancelle are given the signal that the lift is moving. They stand, and observe the chorus, the popoli, from the highest, farthest point in the theater, standing aloft separate towers, each flanking Turandot. They watch the backs of the principals and gear up for their solos, which finish in the blink of an eye.
Once the ancelle finished singing, they each take a seat on tiny stools, and wait for the end of Act I, after which the lift will go down to stage level (equivalent of one floor), when they will climb down their ladders to change back into their popoli costumes for Act II. One of our ancelle shared, “To watch Act I unfold from this, a most extraordinary perspective, is one of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences that I have ever had as a singer. It is surreal and mind blowing; to watch and listen to this score in a venue filled with thousands, while I’m seated quietly in a serene fiberglass tower, belies the flurry of activity that is taking place. It sounds corny, but the music fills me up like this every single time – there is no finer sound than the Met Orchestra playing under the principals in Non piangere Liù.”
As noted previously, the other chorus solos for Acts II and III are the sapienti Wise Men and araldi Heralds. The sapienti spend most of their intermission after Act I transforming into the powerful keepers of Turandot’s three riddles; changing scrolls to reveal the answers to Calaf and the polpoli. The four araldi open Act III and have the difficult task of singing terrifically soft, exposed music while moving in sync across the stage towards their exit. They return later in the act with Liù and Timur, to proclaim the tortures that await.
The solo opportunities available to the Met Chorus Artists vary according to repertoire. Auditions are held each year for solos available in the upcoming season, for which many choristers sing. So in addition to the vast amount of music learned by each Met Chorus Artist each year, several are chosen to prepare solos. They receive musical coachings from music staff, and are responsible to shift effortlessly between the challenges of singing with an excellent choral blend, as well as projecting as any other soloist in the the Metropolitan Opera.