Odds are that if you were to play one opera in your life, it would most likely be Carmen.
When recently playing principal in Arizona Opera’s Carmen production, I was reminded of how many times I have played this opera and the unique challenges it has for horn players.
For a newcomer playing opera, the horn parts at first glance look fairly simple. They are mostly rhythmic accompaniment and may not look like much. It is very easy to underestimate the difficulties that lie ahead.
Without cuts, Carmen can exceed three and one half hours. In the Arizona Opera production we took some cuts but the final time clocked in around three hours and fifteen minutes.
Compared to the epic Wagner Ring cycle, and this is barely one opera. If however you were to compare this to an average symphony or recital concert, this is huge.
Besides its length, Carmen also has many of the rarest transpositions as a challenge. These are the really odd ones that you only hear about, including:
- Horn in G-flat / Horn in F-sharp (yes, there is both!)
- Horn in A-flat
- Horn in D-flat
For the 1st and 3rd horns, there are a number of pitfalls with vocal-cue notes – sustained solo notes that give the singer onstage a reference pitch. They are many times in the oddest transpositions and in the oddest places.
The transpositions in general are tricky, and they change frequently. No matter how many times I perform this opera, I always need to be on my toes. This opera runs in a constant cycle of transpositions.
A few survival tips
Do not underestimate the challenge
For all the reasons mentioned above, it pays to prepare ahead of time.
Whenever possible, put the horn down
Lay the horn flat on your lap – or on the floor – and let your arms dangle freely at your side. Even a few minutes of this can make a big difference and, it provides opportunities to stretch and breath.
I found that even in a non-playing/resting position, holding the horn with both hands for a long time can get tiring on my wrists. Giving your hands a complete break can help.
Concentrate and balance your warm-up
Myself, I am a big proponent of an opposing warm-up when playing a big concert. In a nutshell, if the concert is comprised of music that is high, fast and loud, my warm-up will mostly be low, slow and soft.
Whenever possible, cheat a little
Does the third horn double the same note as you at the same time? Is the brass section blazing in full glory? If you do not have an assistant (which I never have had in opera) this might be an opportunity to rest.
Pace yourself for the long haul and the big moments
Opera can escalate orchestral music to a very dramatic and intense level. For the audience, the experience is a lot like going to the movies.
In Act III of Carmen, there is a very prominent first horn solo – in the Flower song. It is a big moment that happens after 90-100 minutes of playing.
The Flower song is a quiet moment, the calm before the storm that is coming. It ends with a very exposed horn duet while the lovers embrace onstage. When playing Acts I and II, I kept this tender moment in mind.
Label your transpositions
With old French music editions, a backwards eighth-note rest represents and replaces the traditional quarter-note rests which we normally see. To the uninitiated, this can be very confusing.
Compounding this are the frequently-changing transpositions notated in French.
Marking every transposition clearly in pencil might save you some unnecessary embarrassment. If a transposition remains for several pages, add reminders on each page. In the heat of the action it can be very easy to forget which key is in play and these reminders can help.
Most transposition mistakes can be avoided, with a pencil.