By Tamara Vallejos
By his own estimate, Opera Colorado Music Director Ari Pelto has conducted nearly 100 performances of La Bohème—and now he brings his expertise to this upcoming production of Puccini’s masterpiece, opening Saturday at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. It’s not only the score he’s well acquainted with; Maestro Pelto has also previously worked with nearly every principal singer in this cast, and was eager to bring them all together in Denver. Today we chat with him about his work as a conductor, as well as what he thinks makes the score of La Bohème so endlessly moving.
Before we talk about La Bohème, let’s talk about the role of the conductor—because one of the most common questions people have about opera and classical music is, “What does a conductor really do?” How do you answer that question?
My mission in life is to break down the barrier between stage and pit. In the opera world, there is a literal separation: a piece of wood, the ceiling of the pit. But there is also the relative experiences of the performers. The singers and I are all together for six hours a day for four weeks in a row. We eat our meals together and we talk. We have a huge amount of time to get to know each other. We get to explore every word of the piece together. Then, only later, does the orchestra come in and get a piece of music in front of them with a lot of notes on it. My job, more than anything else, is to get the orchestra together and get them to the point where they have the deepest possible relationship with the score, in a way that’s comparable to the singer’s relationship with it, but in a tiny amount of time.
How tiny? How much rehearsal time do you actually get with the full orchestra?
I have two reading sessions at three hours each. So I have only six hours alone with them before we get to the sitzprobe [the first rehearsal with both singers and orchestra] and put it all together. And in those reads, I sing to the orchestra a lot and I tell them the story and as much as I possibly can (“Here, Mimi is doing this…”). In six hours of rehearsal, you have to be fairly efficient and get a lot of work done—so, one has to balance the practical aspects with all of this. But I’ve always found, over and over, that the orchestra says, “Oh, I’m so happy you told me the story, that that’s what we’re playing at this moment.” Because otherwise how can they know what’s happening on stage at every moment?
So you can feel and hear a difference in the music after the orchestra makes those connections?
Of course. The orchestra and those on stage live totally different experiences. But a performance cannot be truly transcendent without that perfect, organic connection between orchestra and singers. It can be good, it can be totally fine; it can actually be quite fine with a fantastic singer or through just the orchestra itself. But it can’t be transcendent without the total involvement and connection between the pit and the stage. It just can’t.
Given your deep understanding of the score for La Bohème, can you pinpoint a favorite moment in this opera?
There is something about the third act that is really irresistible. That being said, no one part can be taken away from La Bohème without losing the coherence of the whole story. The fact that it is so compelling, from the beginning to the end, is what ultimately makes it work. I mean, the greatest pieces in the world have that quality. In some operas, you can have an aria that’s a fantastic aria, or an ensemble that’s a fantastic ensemble, but maybe the whole opera isn’t that exciting. The thing about La Bohème, though, is that although there are those iconic moments (like Mimi’s aria, Rodolfo’s aria, the quartet, or Musetta’s waltz), from the beginning to the end, it’s relentlessly true, compelling, and moving.
So what exactly is it about Puccini that makes his works go straight to your heart, in a way that really sets him apart from so many other composers?
He had an incredible understanding of how to describe something real, an emotion that’s real, in a musical way. And he could set the text in a way that is both compelling as text and as drama. That’s something never to be overlooked with Puccini; he was a dramatist. He understood the human condition so well and was able to describe that musically, with an utterly, irresistibly deft hand. There are a couple ways he did that. One is through the voice. Two is the thing that’s often overlooked or just not talked about enough, from my perspective, which is his orchestration skills. His orchestration is masterful, imaginative, and incredibly innovative.
Something like a gesture, or the quality of the light coming in from the window, or maybe it’s a candle being lit—whatever the idea is, he could paint a picture to represent it, both with his melody and with the orchestration. His orchestrations are delicate, very powerful, soaring, and very disciplined. And that works for imagery, but equally so for emotions. One example I always think of is at the very end of Act I. At the end of the duet with Mimi and Rodolfo, he uses two trumpets in thirds, low in their register. It creates the most touching sound! Who would have thought two trumpets? Pianissimo, in the middle of this orchestral texture? Maybe a composer would think to use a clarinet or a bassoon, or even horns, but two trumpets? It makes this incredible sound. That’s just one example out of millions.
And what about this cast, for Opera Colorado’s production of La Bohème? What is about this group that will make for a particularly compelling show?
La Bohème is an ensemble piece that requires a group of singers who are as compassionate and in touch with each other as possible, as both performers and personalities. The chemistry that gets created has everything to do with whether an ensemble piece will work or not. Having known these singers and having admired them, both as people and performers, I felt confident that I was putting together a team that was going to come together and create a great ensemble. That was ultimately the most important part of casting this show.
Have you seen that chemistry come together as you’d hoped?
I have. Some of them had never worked together before, but now it’s so seamless that it feels like we’ve all been together forever. As I look out on them in the rehearsal room, they look like friends—like they’ve always been friends, just like their characters. I have little doubt that the audience will feel the same way.