Making more with less.
This is the mindset Dr. Alastair Wright is adopting this semester while working on UW-Eau Claire’s production of “The Threepenny Opera” (music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, Blitzstein English translation). Dr. Wright is the Lecturer of Saxophone at UWEC and has been appointed as the conductor of the orchestra for this university production.
Everyone has been making sacrifices as it relates to being safe against COVID-19, musicians especially. Among these sacrifices has been the practice of limiting the amount of players/singers in each ensemble in order to limit the amount of exposure one may face when in an enclosed rehearsal space. It was with COVID prevention in mind that the original production was cancelled.
The question then became: “What will the opera be?” The Music and Theatre Arts Department set the parameters for what could and could not be done, and from there, directors considered their options. The production commonly known as “an opera for beggars” stood strong as a potential idea. “The Threepenny Opera” quickly became the best choice for production as it was checking off nearly every box Director Ken Pereira made on his checklist: the storyline has relevance, abstract staging is common for this particular show, and best of all, the orchestra only calls for 7 players.
“The key thing is that this show involves a small number of players,” says Dr. Wright. The ensemble includes two reed players, two trumpets, a trombone, a piano, and percussion. What’s interesting to note is that the two reed players will be switching between saxophone and clarinet depending on the musical number. “By having doubling, we’re actually having fewer players, but able to explore a wider variety of colors from the orchestra.” Wright explains.
Now, one may be tempted to think that because there are fewer players in the orchestra, volume must be compromised, but this assumption proves to be quite the opposite. Kurt Weill does a fascinating job of writing the orchestration in such a way that it gives off the impression to the audience that there are more players present than there really are.
Dr. Wright elaborated on this idea, stating that Weill is very specific about which instruments he is asking to be played and in which numbers. “There’s a difference between having saxophone play in a number rather than clarinets. Saxophones can play louder, just objectively,” says Wright.
Wright also adds that “...one of the ways he [Weill] creates a big sound is through rhythm. In the overture, you’re going to hear every single instrument playing the exact same rhythm throughout because it gives it this density. It creates this illusion of having a big sound.”
Weill’s use of contrast is also extremely effective in creating this illusion of the presence of a larger orchestra. Wright discusses that Weill writes “Some numbers where it’s just piano accompanying the voices, or there’s just one or two instruments playing. And it creates the illusion that when we do have more instruments playing, it's a fuller sound.”
While “The Threepenny Opera” is the ideal COVID-friendly choice for the university’s spring production, it serves a broader purpose: providing music and theatre students valuable performance experience.
“We’ll be treating this very similarly to how we would in a professional environment,” says Dr. Wright. He explains that in real-world pit orchestra gigs, musicians may only have 2-3 rehearsals before they are expected to perform for a show. Of course, the faculty recognizes that it would be unfair to put this sort of pressure on students, so Wright is scheduling 6 rehearsals to prepare before tech week. “We’re trying to bridge that gap. Show them what the expectation is, but prepare them to be ready for real world expectations.”
Moreover, the opera production is one of the few events held by the university where we see the opportunity for collaboration among so many parts of the department – instrumental, vocal, theatre, and dance. Wright discusses the rarity of an opportunity such as this at the undergrad level when he says: “I think that’s one of the important things about the opera. Most people who play band instruments never get the chance to work with singers, and they never get the chance to work with dancers. And that is also true for singers. How often do they get to work with a chamber group like this? And how often do dancers get to work with live musicians? But in the real world, this is what’ll happen.”
While living through the COVID-19 pandemic has numerous limitations and obstacles, there are also bright spots and opportunities. “The Threepenny Opera”, as performed by the UW-Eau Claire Music and Theatre Arts Department, is evidence of that. “Weill in itself is just a really unique style. The theme, the acting, and the music itself are really quirky. It challenges musicians and singers to find this really weird style very quickly. That’s an opportunity this show gives us that we wouldn’t get otherwise.”