07/19/2010 01:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bassoonist Steinmetz Tells All About LA Opera's Ring

In keeping with their appearance, bassoonists are among the most intellectual members of the modern symphony orchestra. The bassoon's origins are shrouded in mystery, and they are often used to comical effect in music from Haydn to Hitchcock. Bassoonists always know what's going on in an orchestra, and they are often fond of gourmet mushrooms.

For my article on the LA Opera Ring in the September issue of Gramophone magazine (North America edition, due to hit the streets in mid August), I spoke in part to John Steinmetz (see picture below), principal bassoon of the LA Opera Orchestra, who is as intellectual a bassoonist as any I know.

John generously shared his insights about putting together the LA Opera Ring, specifically how the creative demands of the director are integrated into the challenge of making the music come alive. Below you'll find some material from the interview that didn't make it into the article.


LV: How is all the conceptual theatrical stuff communicated to the orchestra? Are there any pre-rehearsal lectures to prepare you for the music you're playing and the type of theatrical interpretation you're being called on to support?

JS: I can't remember any opera for which the orchestra was told much about the approach to the staging. Occasionally the director comes to say hello to the orchestra, but usually our specialties keep the orchestra apart from the concerns of the staging. It's too bad, I think, but that's how it is everywhere as far as I know.

Those of us interested in theater read the articles in the paper and the program notes to find out about director Achim Freyer's take on the Ring. Those of us who can see the stage watched to take in the production and the acting, and of course that helps us to know better what to do musically. It's very strange that in an endeavor supposedly melding different art forms, the orchestra usually knows very little about the dramatic approach. And I would guess that the lighting people know very little about our concerns.

On the other hand, James Conlon, like many conductors, does speak to the orchestra about the characters and the story, and he connects them to the music we're rehearsing. He might pause to tell us part of the story in order to explain why he wants a certain expressive character or a certain sound in a passage.

As far as I can tell, conductors rarely adjust their musical approach to fit a director's theatrical approach, except that singers' placement on stage may affect balances--the orchestra may need to play more quietly for singers placed far upstage.

For the Ring, many of the players read the synopsis or libretto, and probably even more listened to recordings or watched DVDs of other productions in order to get familiar with the piece. I wasn't the only one who read more than one book about the Ring. And during rehearsals there was lots of conversation among players about the production.

LV: Is putting together Wagner the same as other operas?

JS: More or less. Each composer has a unique style that influences the way of working. Each opera in the repertory calls for a sound that is different from other works and even more different from other composers. But the tasks are the same for every opera: find out how the music goes, practice coordinating all the effects, cultivate appropriate sounds and changes of mood and atmosphere, make the expressive character vivid, learn the ins and outs of the composer's style.

Wagner is different in one very important way: the orchestra is central. The story is narrated by the orchestra, which also comments on it while delineating character and setting and even sometimes mentioning complications or future events that the characters themselves can't perceive. Wagner is famous for developing an especially supple musical language able to do all this. In Wagner's music (and in those of the composers who followed him) the orchestra is the main protagonist, so our job is much more interesting and much more difficult: we have to be able to turn on a dime emotionally, we have to invoke quicksilver changes of feeling that in other operas might take place in recitative or that might be conveyed by a glance between singers. This emphasis on the orchestra requires a lot of rehearsal, because there are so many orchestral effects, and they all require precision in order to be effective.

LV: How well did Wagner know his bassoons?

JS: Wagner wrote amazingly well for all the instruments. He seems to have consulted with instrument makers, sometimes requesting modifications in order to meet his expressive requirements. In the Ring, the bassoons (there are three) have plaintive, lyrical passages, comic moments, threatening scenes, evocations of mystery or creepiness. And lots of the bassoon writing is like mortar between the big bricks of sound from other instruments.

For further reading, John's How To Enjoy A Live Concert, available free from Naxos, is the best guide on the subject.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.