Someone asked on Quora recently whether a robot could perform music as well as a human. What was the difference?
My answer to that question is here, but I was reminded more specifically about this problem after two Verdi rehearsals with Bill Cutter, both focused on notes, rhythm, and diction. People were worried that those rehearsals would be interminable, as Bill has a reputation for not letting anyone get away with lazy singing, doing passages over and over if they are too sloppy for his liking. But the rehearsals were fairly speedy. Even with an impressive number of singers new to the piece, we know the notes.
We know the notes, but we don’t know the soul.
You see, Verdi composes with stereotypical Italian exaggeration (four f’s? Four p’s? Really?). There are moments of extreme dramatic flourish, stuff that goes beyond what’s on the page. It’s like knowing you have to swing those Pops triplets. There are moments of magnificent terror, or of triumph, or of the caress of a caring mother. A full gamut of emotions that you have to really inhabit to perform the piece.
What surprised me is how far away our chorus is from that right now. We just don’t feel this yet. We sang some passages straight, like the Libera me chorus opening, when they desperately needed rubato. I’d say that’s due to Bill’s focus on notes and rhythm except he didn’t conduct it (“senza misura“) and we just don’t have the rhythm in our brains yet. LI-berame DO-mine de morte ae-TER-na in DI-e IL-la tre-MEN-da. Nope. Not there. When I sang this with John Oliver 20 years ago in college, he told us to sing that part like “The little old ladies muttering as they kneel in the corner by the candles at church, desperately praying to try and still make it to heaven.” Still one of my favorite images from him.
Our first rehearsal with John Oliver (some might say our first real rehearsal) is tonight, Tuesday. I’m anxiously hoping to sing his Verdi Requiem just like I sang his Brahms Requiem. I want us to sound scared. This piece needs us to be pleading and begging to be saved. It must be dark and ominous. It must be melodramatic, but it’s without irony–we believe the melodrama. Some of it is technical notes, some of it is conducting, some of it is sharing that vision of what we’re trying to communicate with this piece. We’ll get that tonight, and then Maestro Gatti will reshape it again to his liking come next week at the piano rehearsal.