Shall We Continuo? A Musical Conversation

by Joanna Maurer and Christoph Franzgrote, violinists

If you've attended an 18th-century opera at the Met within the last 30 years, chances are that the cellist you heard accompanying the recitatives (or “recits”) so beautifully and effortlessly was David Heiss. Since he began playing with the MET Orchestra cello section in 1982, he's become the company's go-to continuo cellist.  Violinists Joanna Maurer and Christoph Franzgrote sat down with David recently to learn more about this intriguing specialty.

Q: First of all, how about a quick, layperson’s definition of continuo? 

DH: Sure. The "continuo group" refers to the musicians who play the harmonic structure of the music during recitatives. At the Met, this usually means harpsichord and cello for Mozart operas, while in Handel operas the continuo could also include plucked instruments, like the theorbo, guitar, or lute.

David Heiss at Carnegie Hall

David Heiss at Carnegie Hall

Q: And the recitatives you accompany are typically found between arias in baroque and classical operas...

DH: Yes, they're used as a device to advance the story line - and to give the orchestra a little break! The singers switch to a musical style in which the rhythms and accents imitate spoken language. Sometimes they're accompanied by the entire orchestra, which is called a recitativo accompagnato, but more often the only accompaniment is the continuo.

Q: When did you first play continuo at the Met?

DH: It was for the Met premiere of Mozart's Idomeneo in 1982 - a terrific production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. Maestro Levine conducted, and the cast included Hildegard Behrens, Frederica von Stade, and Luciano Pavarotti.

Q: Wow, so no pressure or anything, right? Had you done any continuo playing before then?

DH: I had done lots of Bach cantatas and some oratorio playing, but not an entire opera.

Q: You're quite exposed during these recits. And when the singers really get into it, they almost sound like they're improvising. That's got to be a little nerve-wracking! Do you follow the singer, or does the singer follow you?

DH: We do it together in a musical "conversation" that creates the recitative. I need to be constantly aware of the singer's text and what the harpsichordist is doing - adjusting my tone and volume to what's happening on the stage and reinforcing the bass line of the keyboard. Every night the mix of these things is different, and I enjoy that aspect of the work.

David with harpsichordist Kevin Murphy in Kobe, Japan (June 2006)

David with harpsichordist Kevin Murphy in Kobe, Japan (June 2006)

Q: And you make it sound so natural. You mentioned Maestro Levine - does the conductor ever cue you during these recitatives?

DH: Occasionally, especially if more than one singer is involved. But most often, I follow the cues of the harpsichord player - both musically and visually - because the cello must not sound before the harpsichord, but it can't be late, or after the bass notes of the keyboard strike. That takes some getting used to.

Q: Tell us about the rehearsal process...

DH: I usually meet with the harpsichordist alone once or twice before we get to orchestra rehearsals in the pit. Sometimes there are rehearsals with just the singers, the conductor, and the continuo players.

Q: That sounds intense, working so closely with the singers. You must have to go into those rehearsals prepared to be pretty flexible…

DH: Absolutely. I remember when we did the premiere of the baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island a few years ago. The recits were composed specifically for those performances, and even during the rehearsal process they were still being tweaked to fit the opera's story line and the singer's voices.  

Q: Which operas or composers are your favorites to play, as a continuo cellist?

DH: Well, when you are considering that most of these operas are by Mozart and Handel, it's impossible to say! But Handel's Rodelinda and Julius Caesar are especially satisfying for me because of the very exposed writing.

Q: What’s the most recent opera at the Met for which you played continuo cello?

DH: Così fan tutte, just a few weeks ago.

David with harpsichordist Robert Morrison (left) and Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel (May 2013)

David with harpsichordist Robert Morrison (left) and Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel (May 2013)

Q: Have you played continuo elsewhere, besides at the Met?

DH: Yes - Telemann’s Orpheus with the New York City Opera and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Q: Has music always been a part of your life? 

DH: Fortunately for me, music education was still a requirement growing up in Binghamton, NY, and I gravitated towards it. Early on I sang in the children’s choir at my church.  When I was seven, the music teacher asked for students to play violin, and I volunteered. However, my mom suggested that the cello might be a better idea, as the violin was "too squeaky" for beginners…and their parents! I took to my 1/4-sized cello quite naturally. Of course, the cello was not a "cool" instrument, and being in the orchestra was considerably less exciting than marching band in my school. In the winter months, my cello made an easy target for snowball enthusiasts! 

Q: But you persevered. And you found your way to the Met.

DH: Yes!  I will never forget my first performances of Wagner's Tannhäuser. To be playing one of my all-time favorite operas - with this amazing group of musicians - was absolutely thrilling! And whether playing continuo or sitting in the cello section, to be a part of this world-class orchestra is both humbling and incredibly fulfilling.