One Don, Three Hats

by Kari Jane Docter, cellist

This season, I have had the unique pleasure of performing as cellist in three different guises in the Met’s production of Don Giovanni. Doing it all in the span of three consecutive weeks, I was able to immerse myself in the opera as I never had before.

First, as I have done for the past 14 seasons, I was a cellist in the MET Orchestra pit. Don Giovanni is always a pleasure, this time being no exception, with Maestro Fabio Luisi on the podium and a strong cast on stage. As great as the music is, and as fun as it can be to play and perform, Don Giovanni is a killer for string players. It is three and a half hours of playing, with just one intermission. Mozart requires a special type of concentration and physical stamina - one must be light with the bow and fingers, which, strangely, can be more tiring than “digging in,” as one can in a Verdi opera, for instance. One must also stay concentrated every second, as the singers are constantly improvising and singing slightly differently from performance to performance, especially during the recitative passages (more on that coming up), which are the conversational passages between the arias and group numbers.

Speaking of which, my next assignment was to sit in the seat of the continuo cellist, accompanying the harpsichord during the recitative passages. This role is usually played by my colleague, David Heiss, who always does an exceptional job. This being the theatre, however, David was called away at the last minute and I was called in to fill his shoes for a couple of performances. Playing continuo, alongside Howard Watkins on the harpsichord for this run, is a great challenge and a significant change from playing in the full orchestra. As I said before, during the recitative passages, the singers are "speaking" and, thus, may sing quickly one night and much slower the next, or perform with different inflections, which may cause us to place a note differently or play with a different color.

Playing continuo makes me appreciate Mozart’s operas in a way that I have never gotten to do before. While I sit and watch from my perch next to the harpsichord, so much goes on! I get to see the sneaky way that Mozart has Don Giovanni seduce his women, from coaxing Donna Elvira back to him to gently pulling Zerlina into an embrace, all done so convincingly by Mozart that this singing Don seems completely natural and believable. I get to see how Mozart expertly weaves a web around all the other cast members deceived by Don Giovanni, and how they finally get their revenge as he tumbles into the abyss in the incredibly powerful finale.

(L to R) Kari with dressers Chadd Wilson and Nancy Phillips

(L to R) Kari with dressers Chadd Wilson and Nancy Phillips

My next assignment, after David returned, was to play in the stage band. The cello plays in three different parts of the opera in three different stage bands - two onstage and one offstage. This is one of the things that makes playing in the MET Orchestra like no other orchestra. How many other people can say they get to dress up as an 18th-century court musician when they go to work? Playing a stage band, in costume, is a fun experience, not only musically, but because I get to meet some of the other people who work at the Met - people who, even after 14 years of working here, I've never seen! While we saw away in the pit, the wig, costume, and wardrobe artists are upstairs, on the second and fifth floors, making and fixing up the thousands of wigs and costumes that go through this house each season. With this stage band alone, there are 25 different people on any given night who need a court musician costume. And the stage band personnel often changes from performance to performance, which means they are constantly refitting every costume and wig every night. And that's just the stage band for one opera. Imagine the operas with huge choruses onstage! And the 25-30 operas per season that are performed each season!

As I write, I am dressed up in my wig and costume (it's beautiful, handmade, wool...kind of stuffy!), awaiting the call: "Banda to the lounge to tune.” Once we are called, we head backstage (avoiding the big stairwell, in which Don Giovanni is changing costumes), past the stagehands waiting to move the set, the dancers waiting to dance, and the supers playing servants. Soon after, we take our places onstage during the big party to celebrate Zerlina and Masetto's wedding. (Incidentally, this Act I party music may be just about the only piece of music for which Mozart wrote a rough draft - there are three different small bands playing simultaneously; Mozart had to check that the music of the three bands lined up.) Then I wait, in costume, until the graveyard scene, when the Commendatore frightens Leporello by singing from his tombstone, during which I play backstage with the trombones, a bass, and a number of wind players. And then, during the dinner scene, I play my best Tony-worthy part of being scared off (after performing with a group of eight colleagues) when the Commendatore actually shows up to dine with the Don and sends him down to the fiery gates of hell.

What an experience!