Putting It Together: The Piano Parts of Europera 3 - Detroit Opera

Putting It Together: The Piano Parts of Europera 3

What do opera production and furniture building have in common?  The old adage “Follow the instructions!”

Words by Matthew Principe, Detroit Opera Staff

Many opera scores from the 19th and 20th centuries come with instructions included – dynamic and tempo markings and perhaps entrances and stage directions within the score. Some composers include notes to prepare the musicians even before a page of music begins.

Sounds easy, right?  Just perform what’s there!

This may be the game plan for traditional operas, but preparing for performances of works by John Cage, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, may take a bit more meticulous preparation before the rehearsal process even begins.

“Now with respect to European opera I’m making a circus.” Cage said. “A circus is not a single thing, but a plurality of things". – John Cage BBC radio interview, 1990.

Composer John Cage. Credit: Creative Commons image via Wiki Art

Detroit Opera’s Gary L. Wasserman Artistic Director Yuval Sharon has experience producing John Cage’s works, having directed Europeras 1 & 2 in Los Angeles, and Songbooks with the great soprano Jessye Norman. “We are always striving towards an idea of perfection in opera, and that idea usually comes from somebody else. I think what John Cage is trying to do in Europeras is to liberate us from that kind of thinking. We let go of perfection and get to be free. And we gain that sense of freedom by relinquishing all the traditional ways that we put a production together, put a performance together.”

Here are the performance notes from John Cage’s score:

To make a theatre which is the synergetic coming together of its separate elements, the lighting, the singing, the piano-, the record-playing, the brief intrusion of a composite tape of more than a hundred operas superimposed (truckera), brief flashes of light in the performance space, the movement of the singers from one spot to another in the performance space or to the chairs at the back of the stage: 75 lights 3256 cues. Six singers each singing six arias of his or her own choice (Gluck-Puccini). 140 1-16 measure excerpts from Liszt's Opera Phantasien two pianists; fragments of 300 78's played on 12 electric victrolas by six composers, the performance of truckera, the performance of the lighting, 70 minutes. Europera 3

Instead of an orchestra, the accompaniment for Europeras 3 & 4 comes from the piano - specifically the opera fantasies by Franz Liszt (1811-1886), a Hungarian composer and virtuoso pianist, transcribed (or as I like to say “remixed”) works for solo piano from over 100 other composers. Some of these are in the form of arrangements, orchestrations, fantasies, reminiscences, etc.

Composer and pianist Franz Liszt and editions of his transcriptions of operatic works.

The pianists are instructed to play 140 excerpts, lasting from one to sixteen measures, over the course of the 70-minute duration of Europera 3. How is this supposed to work?

Splitting 140 excerpts between two pianists means assigning 70 excerpts each. That’s convenient, since that corresponds to the running time of 70 minutes: One excerpt, per pianist, per minute.

Pianists John Etsell and Marina Stojanovska (l-r) with director Yuval Sharon (r) devising the piano excerpt assignments for Europera 3. Photo: Matthew Principe

Pianists John Etsell and Marina Stojanovska selected the transcriptions they’re comfortable performing.  We then addressed four questions:

  • 1. Which Opera Phantasie will they perform?
  • 2. How many measures? [We have the boundary of no more than 16 measures].
  • 3. Where in the music shall they start?
  • 4. When in Europera 3 shall they begin the excerpt?

"The spirit of Europeras is to leave as much decision-making as possible to chance", Yuval continues. “When we leave things to chance, it kind of bypasses all of the traditional ways in which we think about organizing a performance.”

Yuval Sharon writes down the piano excerpt assignments. Photo: Matthew Principe

Using a random number generator, the team went question by question to create a timeline of their entire performance. The results are sometimes humorous – only one measure and one chord! – whereas other moments could be quite ornate with a flourish of many notes.  Whatever the excerpt, the pianists must have strict discipline to play only the predetermined excerpt and adhere to the timecode of each minute, so that all 140 excerpts can be performed in the allotted 70 minutes.

“Some of these transcriptions I’ve played and others I haven’t yet done.” Stojanovska explains. “They may be harder to jump into those two measures without having any context, so I may add a couple of measures before [the excerpt] to give me a vision of what I’m doing.”

After marathon sessions, all 140 excerpts have been determined. Between them, they will perform excerpts from 26 different opera fantasies by Liszt.

Now the pianists must prepare their “scores” with all the different excerpts and practice for the performances . What will this all sound like?  We won’t fully know until the pianists, the singers, the records, and “truckera” come together when John Cage’s “circus” comes to town in March.

We’ve created a playlist for you to familiarize yourselves with them. When you attend Europeras 3 & 4, perhaps you’ll recognize the excerpts:

To secure your seats, visit the Europeras 3 & 4 page.

For further reading: On John Cage’s Europeras 3 & 4 by James Pritchett


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