It Takes a Village to Make an Opera – and hey, vat’s a Wandelprobe?

Tenor Ramon Vargas in the title role.

Werther opens Sept. 15 at the SF Opera

OK, I’ve been in theatre and opera for a million years and I just learned a new word: WANDELPROBE.

I know SITZPROBE. Sitzprobe is a term used in opera for the rehearsal that takes place with the full orchestra and the singers sitting (sitz – in German) in chairs. It is a chance for the orchestra to play all together with the singers and for everyone to just focus on the music. No blocking, no props, no tech. Just music. We had that the other day – it was gorgeous.

Today is the WANDELPROBE for San Francisco Opera’s new production of Massenet’s French opera, WERTHER, based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. VERY romantic.

SO VAT’S A WANDELPROBE, ALREADY? A rehearsal used in opera and musical theatre where actors, the orchestra, and blocking come together for the first time. I get it. That’s the first rehearsal with everything. The one you need a lot of patience to get through.

I’m loving my relationship with the San Francisco Opera this season. I’ve worked in several previous seasons as a Studio Teacher for them, which is what I am doing on the production of WERTHER. A Studio Teacher does not teach the students to sing. That is done by Maestro Ian Robertson, who is fabulous.

A Studio Teacher is someone who is required by the Dept. of Labor to be present whenever minors work in the professional entertainment industry, which includes opera, ballet, theater, film, and also photo shoots, even rodeos and circuses. A studio teacher supervises working hours and conditions and assists with homework, sometimes creates curriculum, depending on the length and complexity of the situation. You need 2 teaching credentials to get a studio teacher certificate, and I’ve got them.

So, I’ve had the privilege to attend rehearsals for WERTHER, since several members of the SF Boys Chorus and SF Girls Chorus were introduced into the process, because I am the studio teacher on the production. I’ve enjoyed watching (multi-lingual) stage director Francisco Negrin work with all the singers and the covers, as the performers sing their parts, do their stage blocking, flesh out character relationships, etc.

It takes a village to make an opera. In a normal staging rehearsal in a rehearsal room, here’s who is there, BESIDES all the singers and their covers (understudies): Director, Assistant Director(s), Set Designer (sometimes), Conductor, Prompter (in charge of feeding French words to the singers just before their vocal entrance to remind them, if they need it), Diction Coach (in charge of correcting the French diction), Pianist (who, if called upon, will sing any missing vocal part), prop person (even for rehearsal props – they’re also in charge of chairs), Head Stage Manager, Assistant Stage Managers, Studio Teacher (myself in this case), Wrangler (works with studio teacher and assists in getting kids to their entrance positions), parent chaperones, representatives from the Boys and Girls Choruses. This is just for a regular rehearsal in a rehearsal room.

And those stage managers are all cue-ing off vocal scores, not scripts or libretti. And it’s in French, ok? If you are familiar with stage management, take all that down-to-the-second complexity of timing and set it to music, in French. These people don’t fool around.

Put that on the Opera House stage, and, in addition to the ORCHESTRA, you have all manner of stage carpenters, scene movers, riggers, electricians, lighting technicians, wardrobe people, makeup and hair people. I’m sure I’m forgetting someone. IT IS VAST.

So if you get to see the beautiful production of WERTHER this season (opening Sept. 15), know that I’m back there someplace. Check out

Starting last Spring, I ALSO now work with the SF Opera Education Dept. under the direction of Ruth Nott. In this role I DO teach about Opera, but not to the performers; I teach students (SF Unified District Schools) and their teachers about Opera, preparing them for experiences with Opera both at their schools and at the Opera House. I have an amazingly intelligent and well-prepared cohort of colleagues on the teaching roster, and we meet in a Think Tank type atmosphere to brainstorm and edit activities that both we and classroom teachers use to prep kids for the opera experience. Ruth has come from doing this work with the Met in New York, and she and her assistant Dolores DeStefano have created an immense world of opera education in the 2-3 years the Education Department has been in existence.

Excerpt from the SF Opera’s Press Release on WERTHER:

San Francisco Opera presents Werther, Jules Massenet’s French opera based on Goethe’s novel, at the War Memorial Opera House opening September 15 with five subsequent performances through October 1. Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas appears in the title role alongside mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Charlotte. This new co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago, directed by Francisco Negrin and designed by Louis Désiré, debuts in San Francisco and is led by French conductor Emmanuel Villaume. These performances mark the return of Werther to the War Memorial Opera House stage after an absence of 25 years and only the fifth time it has been presented in the Company’s 88-year history.


3 responses to “It Takes a Village to Make an Opera – and hey, vat’s a Wandelprobe?

  1. This is a fantastic and informative post!

    I knew about “Studio Teachers” in function, but not in name, and I didn’t know what was required to be one. I’ve seen one around with Cio-Cio San’s son Trouble at “Madama Butterfly” rehearsals (of which I’m a part).

    Thanks! And, enjoy the rest of the run!

    Perhaps you’d enjoy my post on being a Super-Koken in Butterfly:

  2. Lua,
    Love the blog and James, for one, already misses the opera house and his time with “Werther”. See you at the next one, if not sooner.
    (James’s mom, played Max, one of the boys in SF Boys Chorus)

  3. Pingback: 2010 blog-year in review by Wordpress | Lua Hadar's Blog

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