From the Stage to the Pit

by Kari Jane Docter, cellist

The Marriage of Figaro? Four hours. Don Carlo? Five. Götterdämmerung and Die Meistersinger? Six hours. Each. Why would anyone, in their right mind, want to play in an opera orchestra? Day in, day out, the work hours are grueling, the physical demands are unrelenting, the sheer number of notes and pages of music is daunting. You sit in a dark (and often very loud) pit for hours on end. You are not the center of attention, just the back up band. The Metropolitan Opera season goes from September to May, with no break except for Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, with each musician playing four performances per week of some 25-30 operas per season. So why would anyone who had a "regular" job in a symphony orchestra chose to move to an opera orchestra, and more specifically, the MET Orchestra?

Kari Jane Docter (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

Kari Jane Docter (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

My route to the Met was circuitous. I graduated from Juilliard, took a Met audition, didn't get the job, and moved away and played in 4 different orchestras (the New World Symphony, Buffalo Philharmonic, Utah Symphony, and Minnesota Orchestra) before finally securing a spot in the cello section at the Met. At this point, I was familiar with a few operas, but I have to say, I didn't really know what I was in for: the long hours (thanks, Herr Wagner); the rehearsals, in which anything can happen (like the lead singer and the conductor getting into a fight); the cafeteria (standing next to Renée Fleming in the lunch line and not being sure what to say); but the most incredible thing was the music. I'd never experienced anything like it in all my years of being a musician.

I guess you could say it was my dream job, and after 12 seasons as a member of the MET Orchestra, I still wouldn't trade it. Don't get me wrong, it's not easy. I've been plagued with physical problems, from hand and shoulder nerve and muscle problems to chronic lower back pain. A mere two weeks into the season, my husband, Assistant Concertmaster Bruno Eicher, and I argue over who is more sleep-deprived. My kids ask, “Who is putting us to bed tonight?" every evening.

But the music! There is nothing like it. The final scene of Die Walküre wouldn't have the same heaven-bound effect without the five-hour build up before it. (I'm not being sarcastic. OK, maybe a little.) There is nothing quite like, well, every single aria in The Marriage of Figaro. And can you beat being surrounded by this amazing orchestra during the final scene of Rosenkavalier?

It turns out that I was not the only person in the MET Orchestra who felt strongly about joining the Met after working in a symphony orchestra:

Amy Kauffman (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

Amy Kauffman (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

‘The Met was my dream job. I grew up listening to the Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the Met on the radio, but the first time I heard the MET Orchestra live was when I came to a performance of Wagner's Tannhäuser while getting my master's degree at Juilliard. I had heard many great orchestras, but I had never heard an orchestra play like that, with such a warm sound and such personality and virtuosity, yet so sensitive to the singers. At that point, I was much more interested in chamber music, but when I heard the MET Orchestra, I thought, “Wow, this is chamber music!”’ - Sarah Vonsattel, violin (formerly of the Detroit Symphony)

"I'm still in a bit of a state of disbelief and have a twinge of wanting to cry or laugh incredulously every time I walk through the stage door. Playing with the MET Orchestra was the only job I had ever dreamed about. Opera is the ultimate art form, and the opportunity to be a part of it is absolutely thrilling. The music is incomparably moving and telling of the human emotional experience - oh my gosh, "Salce, Salce,” from Otello - are you kidding me? How can you not weep? The closing scene in Act 2 of Falstaff? How can you not erupt in laughter?” - Julia Pilant, horn (formerly of the Syracuse Symphony)

"Hearing so much amazing singing is rewarding. When I first started, I would sometimes go home after Mozart operas and listen to my favorite arias again just because I couldn't believe how beautiful they were." - Amy Kauffman, violin (formerly of the Houston and Pittsburgh Symphonies)

Sarah Vonsattel (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

Sarah Vonsattel (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

"I love it because it feels more like chamber music to me. You have to be so flexible with soloists, balance, and I find it more challenging than just performing in a symphony." - Boris Allakhverdyan, principal clarinet (formerly of the Kansas City Symphony)

Sarah and Boris say it well - even though there is so much going on, people bouncing around on stage, lights going on and off, props falling into the pit (hopefully not too often!), opera is chamber music. There exists between the singers on stage and the Orchestra an understanding, a "don't worry, I've got you" kind of comfort that one usually only experiences within a chamber group. For such a huge organism, the MET Orchestra can act as one in a remarkably special way, whether it be waiting for a singer to hold her high note just a little bit longer before playing the downbeat, or elaborating on a singer's improvisation at the spur of the moment.

Perhaps because of our distance from the stage, there exists a very close-knit community of musicians in the pit. There is less chance to be a "prima donna" because everyone is in it together, every one of us is sitting through the same six-hour Wagner opera. It's hard to feel sorry for yourself when the person next to you is coming from playing Die Frau ohne Schatten the night before. I miss and respect my colleagues in symphony orchestras dearly. There is nothing like playing the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, Don Juan, or Beethoven’s Fifth with an incredible orchestra. But the opera has, indeed, pulled me in. My colleague Julia Pilant puts it eloquently:

"Despite the incredible workload, my Met colleagues are so nice and supportive, always bringing their A-game to work regardless of circumstance. Because we all work so closely together (literally and figuratively), there is little to no room for any individual egos to try and take charge. It's really incredible because the talent and level of playing is truly exceptional, but we are all in it together, with and for each other."

Julia Pilant (L) with fellow hornist Anne Marie Scharer (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

Julia Pilant (L) with fellow hornist Anne Marie Scharer (Photo by Pedro Díaz)