From the Holly Jollies to the Heebie Jeebies: Singing Oedipus Rex

I wrote the following article for the Winter/Spring 2011 TFC Newsletter; now that it’s published I can share it here:

Nothing drives away the sentiment of the Holiday Pops closing number “I Wish You Christmas” like blood gushing from the eyes of a parricidal king at the foot of his hanged wife/mother. Such was the schizophrenic nature of the study which the men of the Tanglewood Chorus faced as we prepared for the January 6-8 performances of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex while singing through December’s concerts. Little did we realize, however, just how much performing Oedipus Rex would require us to distance ourselves from the holly-jolliness of Pops.

The complete program itself was one of the darker ones we’ve been a part of. Those choristers who felt that one doomed protagonist was not enough for the evening would be able to slip into the audience for the second half and witness Bartók’s equally frightful Bluebeard’s Castle. What better way to follow up Oedipus’s shame and disfigurement than with the inquisitive Judith opening Bluebeard’s seven doors, each more terrifying and bloody than the last, until she discovers her own impending doom: to be imprisoned with her husband’s other three wives?

From the singer’s perspective, Oedipus is certainly not as challenging to learn as other doozies like, say, the Castillian text of Falla or the unpredictable melismas of MacMillan’s Passion. Nevertheless, with the combination of non-liturgical Latin, irregular repetitions of text, syncopations and hemiolas, and orchestral doubling coming and going, we had our hands full learning the notes and words before the first rehearsal on January 2nd. The orchestration may be a timpanist’s dream—its steady doom-doom-doom triples keeping the pace, sometimes on its own, through many passages—but it provided little help for tenors and basses searching for cues or pitch confirmation. There were very few ‘memorization tricks’ available… we simply had to drill, drill, drill until we knew it cold.

What happens once you get past the notes and the text? The most rewarding part of any TFC piece can be when the chorus can focus on the character and tone we’re trying to convey to the audience. Oedipus Rex was no exception. We became pleading, accusatory supplicants begging Oedipus to save us. We bade the blind Oedipus farewell as if it were the saddest thing on earth. We personified the bloodthirsty, hysterical mob recounting the spectacle of Oedipus in a bizarre juxtaposition of chaotic chromaticism and happy circus music which Maestro Levine termed “the Tarentella from Hell.” There’s something so wonderfully visceral about an opera-oratorio that you don’t always get from sacred choral works… even if, as we learned, Stravinsky preferred his compositions to be dispassionate and emotionless.

The chorus’s tests, however, would be technical, not emotional. It became clear during rehearsal week that one of the biggest challenges would be finding a way to be heard through the heavier orchestration. In an earlier rehearsal, John Oliver cautioned us that the dynamics – or, as he put it, “a variety of fortes” – had lured us into shouting the music, perhaps as a continuation of the default Pops singing style. He coached us on “making the weight of our tone more than the weight of our breath,” and warned us about “singing on the capital, not on the interest.” Yet at the orchestra rehearsals, Maestro Levine urged us again and again to be more fortissimo, to sing through the vowels and to send the sound to the rafters. Rather than quieting the orchestra, he implicitly challenged us to find a way through them. The gauntlet had been thrown.

The result was perhaps some of the most intensely focused, efficient, and “in character” singing we’ve ever done in order to cut through the brass-heavy orchestration. John gave us more tricks to better support our sound: leaning onto the small of our backs to get that extra push of volume… closing our vowels and visualizing them delivered vertically rather than broadly… throwing our consonants forward and sustaining our vowels through the wall of sound from the orchestra. It was quite rewarding to hear the difference in the chorus room and to carry that momentum through on stage. And carry it through we did!

Not surprisingly, the reviews of the performances from local critics tend to focus on the compositions themselves, with an emphasis on the soloists more than the chorus. Was Russell Thomas formidable enough as Oedipus? Did Michelle DeYoung pace herself while singing Jocasta so she could shine as Judith in the second half? Was Albert Dohmen’s Creon swallowed up by the orchestra? (Since the credentials of the BSO and Maestro Levine are unquestioned, then surely the fault must be that of the soloist… or perhaps Stravinsky, himself.) Those who did deign to comment on the men folk behind them called our singing “strong, clear, [and] well-shaped” (The Boston Globe) or “formidable, fast-moving fronts of sound” (The Faster Times) or simply “outstanding” (The Boston Phoenix).

Nevertheless, compliments from the critics are rarely the external validation  our chorus seeks – just before intermission on that Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the applause of the audience was all the reward we really needed. In the end, the performances were all certainly something our own mothers/spouses could be proud of.

3 responses to “From the Holly Jollies to the Heebie Jeebies: Singing Oedipus Rex

  1. Pingback: More Lob Than Ever Gesang Before | Just Another Bass

  2. Pingback: Critical Reviews of the Verdi Requiem | Just Another Bass

  3. Pingback: Suffering, oppression, and struggle | Just Another Bass

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