music, technology & life in pasadena, california

Opera Man

Remember Adam Sandler’s SNL takeoff on opera singers, Opera Man? He skewered the pomposity of opera divos by donning a cape and waving a white handkerchief while singing (?) in a bellowing voice about various current events. It always cracked me up (…so did his Spoony Spoon Man).

Well, opera has come a long way in the last 100 years and especially in modern times. Some divas and divos may still be in our midst, but they’re not as tolerated as they once were. Opera is a big money venture and there’s no time for such nonsense. It’s been said that the only thing more expensive than opera is war.

I just finished a 5-month stint with the LA Opera beginning in November of last year with Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in which I played a short aria on solo mandolin with string accompaniment. Every night I entered the pit with the orchestra at the beginning of Act 2 and snuck out a few moments later after the aria was finished. Short and sweet, but very exposed.

Next up at the opera was Recovered Voices, an ongoing long-term personal project of LA Opera’s music director James Conlon, consisting of two one-act operas written by composers who were silenced by the Nazis. The Broken Jug, written by composer Viktor Ullman is a comedy farce and included a banjo, as well as a saxophone; instruments you don’t normally see in an orchestra, let alone in an opera pit. The Dwarf by Alexander Zemlinksy had a part for both guitar and mandolin. Because the instruments hardly ever played at the same time, I ended up playing both parts. There was also quite a large banda in The Dwarf. A banda is the term used for an offstage or onstage band that consists of music that the characters themselves in the opera can hear. In film music, it’s known as source music. So at one point somewhere around 20 players left the pit quietly and made their way to the wings. The Dwarf was a marvelous piece with echoes of Mahler and Strauss, with a bit of Korngold thrown in for good measure.

At the same time as the above project, the opera was also presenting Verdi’s Otello. In Act 2, there was a small 3-piece banda with guitar, mandolin and English horn. I remembered playing this opera many years ago when Placido Domingo sang the title role. Brian Head played guitar and Stuart Horn played the double reed. The tempo was incredibly quick and I had to play 16th notes in a very fast 6/8 time. Once again, it was only a short little bit, only two pages long, but incredibly exposed.

One more note before I wrap up…James Conlon is a great maestro who knows how to rehearse an orchestra and then inspire them during a performance. He’s down-to-earth, approachable and friendly. You can’t ask for more from a conductor. As for the LA Opera orchestra, I don’t think there is a harder working group anywhere, sometimes rehearsing all day and then playing a 3-4, and even sometimes 5 hour performance in the evening. This schedule can continue for weeks at a time, and they keep making incredible music at every turn.

March 23, 2008 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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