AT THE METROPOLITAN OPERA IN NEW YORK
In February, 2007, Valery Gergiev had been engaged to conduct several performances of Tchaikovsky's opera, “Eugene Onegin,” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. As part of our film on Gergiev, we were eager to observe him at work in one of the major opera houses in the world.
Negotiations for permission to bring our documentary equipment into the Met took a couple of months, as we had to sign a number of detailed agreements. We were liable for the protection of Met property, we had to comply with the regulations of the several performing and production unions, the Met had to approve the list of our equipment, and we were told we could not bring a camera or a microphone onstage during rehearsals. Finally, though we were granted permission to shoot for several days, we were only allowed to use twelve minutes of Met material in our Gergiev documentary.
Gergiev had been Principal Guest Conductor of the Met for ten years and had developed a good rapport with the musicians; the first orchestral rehearsal went smoothly. At the second rehearsal the soloists were brought in and seated on a raised platform behind the orchestra. Gergiev's plan was to sing through the entire opera, stopping to adjust tempos and balances. He was looking forward to working again with his longtime colleagues and friends: Renee Fleming, singing the role of Tatyana, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the Onegin.
Before the rehearsal began, Renee Fleming informed me that I could photograph her face but was not to record her singing — she didn't feel she was in good enough voice. She must have known that it was impossible to lift the singing of one character out of the complete recorded sound. But she was adamant, so we were limited to recording duets and trios from scenes where Tatyana was not present.
During the following days we shot production activities—set construction, costume fittings, and makeup sessions. We filmed interviews with some of the orchestra musicians, and Fleming did allow us to film a conversation between herself and Dmitri Hvorostovsky about the frustrated love between Tatyana and Onegin.
On the day of the final dress rehearsal, as the cast assembled on stage, Fleming decided she did not want to be filmed at all, because her hair dresser had not completed the final touches to her satisfaction. No amount of begging from us or from the Met staff could budge her. A frantic call upstairs to the office of general manager Peter Gelb, brought him down to the auditorium. He went on stage and had a few quiet words with Fleming, and she acquiesced.
The climax of the opera comes at the end, when Tatyana leaves Onegin for the last time. Though she has always loved him, she must honor her marriage to a wealthy general. The lovers embrace, but Tatyana struggles to pull away as Onegin tries desperately to hold on to her. Cameraman Don Lenzer, shooting from the first row of the audience, kept them in a close two-shot for the entire scene; no shots of Gergiev. Then, as Tatyana finally tears herself away from Onegin and dashes offstage, Lenzer opened the lens, showing Onegin on an empty set, alone and desolate. Great camera work.
We planned to intercut the dress rehearsal shots of the the two soloists with close-ups of Gergiev conducting in a performance, but the Met would not allow cameras in the hall. We explained that we only wanted to set up against the back wall of the orchestra pit, well out of sight of the audience. Our Producer, Margie Smilow, finally obtained permission, but only for the last fifteen minutes of the opera. We pretended to be disappointed at this restriction, while rejoicing that we would get precisely the shots of Gergiev we wanted during the climactic finale.
First, before the evening performance began, we took the camera inside Gergiev's dressing room. As Gergiev was ending a telephone conversation with someone in Cincinnati, the soprano Anna Netrebko rushed into his room and gave him a big hug. During her early days at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Gergiev had been Netrebko's mentor, and had given her her first major operatic roles. They sat down together, and were chatting amiably when the gong sounded for the beginning of the opera. Netrebko jumped up. “Let's talk some more after the performance,” she said, and with a girlish cry danced out of the room. Gergiev stared after her for a moment, then checked his tie in the full length mirror and went out to conduct.
During the intermission before the last act, we moved the camera into the back of the orchestra pit, and waited. At the start of the final scene, Lenzer slowly zoomed in on Gergiev. What he saw was the drama between Tatyana and Onegin playing out in the expressions on Gergiev's face, conveying to the orchestra the tumultuous emotions in the music.
Later, in the editing room, we intercut the shots of the two singers from the afternoon dress rehearsal with the conducting shots of Gergiev in the performance. This gave us the powerful finale we were hoping for.
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A few weeks later I ran into Renee Fleming as I was bringing a copy of our edited tape to the Met for approval. A screening had been set up for general manager Peter Gelb, and Fleming had been invited. As we walked thought the empty hall to the lobby and took the elevator to the fourth floor, Fleming remained silent. I don't think she was angry, but she had no small talk for me.
Gelb and Fleming approved our tape.
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1. Excerpts of an interview with Sarah Billinghurst, former Artistic Manager of the Met, Feb., 2007
“I am the Assistant Manager in charge of artistic matters...I've known Valery Gergiev since 1989, when he made his operatic debut in America, during Prokofiev's opera, ‘War and Peace’ at the San Francisco Opera. We first met in Hamburg, to discuss casting, and he was late, which was not unusual. We liked each other immensely then and we've been very close colleagues and friends ever since, which is seventeen years now.
“Then I came to the Met and he became Principal Guest Conductor here. He does at least one, often two operas every year.
“That means I am involved with coping with the absolutely crazy schedule that he imposes on himself. For instance, in the time that he is doing ‘Eugene Onegin’ he's also travels to Washington to conduct Rossini's ‘Il Viaggio a Rheims.’ He is also conducting performances of ‘Falstaff.’ And he was commuting back and forth to the Kennedy Center in Washington. Every morning we would sit here anxiously waiting for the plane to land so that he would be here for the 11 o'clock rehearsal, which he somehow did — every morning. During an eight-to ten-day period, between performances of ‘Onegin’ at the Met, he's going to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Orchestra and his own Mariinsky orchestra in Toronto and other places in Canada. So he is very hard to pin down. Even when he is so busy, when he gets on the podium and the music starts, he is totally concentrated. He's transformed. And he transforms the orchestra as well.
“He's got a very unusual conducting style. And I said to one of the musicians, ‘How do you follow Valery when he is, you know, beating time, but he also has one hand over to the side, fluttering as he so often does?’ And he said, ‘well, actually he's quite easy to follow, we look at his eyes. That's where the music comes from.’ ”
2. An interview meeting with Janet Klavatir, a prompter.
During rehearsals and performance she sits under a little covered box at the center of the stage, peering out at the singers, calling out the words a beat or two before they are to be sung.
JANET KLAVATIR: I think of the prompter as an extension of the conductor's arms. We're here to help keep the singers on track get things back on track, and if they get off, help them get back. The prompter gives the first few words of every line to everyone in the production, chorus and soloists.
Q: And can you easily be heard?
KLAVATIR: Oh yes. I talk like this, sometimes I yell, sometimes I'll clap my hands if things are off musically. I snap my fingers. Sometimes I’ve been asked to give pitches. The music usually covers me.
Q: So have there ever been any disasters?
KLAVATIR: Throughout my years of prompting, yes. Prompting is a two way street. If a prompter yells “stop” or “watch me,” and the singer ignores it, it's very hard to get things back on track. But prompters are well liked by the singers, and singers who know how to use us pay attention to us, because they know we're there to help them to make the performance better.
Q: How about this little box you're in?
KLAVATIR: It's my home away from home. It has lights on a dimmer switch. There are two monitors, one on either side, that show the conductor, and the prompter's box has speakers, two of them, that shoot the orchestra sound into the box because these walls are cement and several inches thick. I'm on a chair that raises and lowers, and there's a little ladder to get in here. There’s also a telephone in case of an emergency.
Q: And does a prompter have to be a trained musician?
KLAVATIR: A very well-trained musician.
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For some good shots of Gergiev conducting, see this trailer.