Chloe Veltman/NPR/Chloe Veltman/NPR
To reach the blower’s lodge at the San Francisco Opera, Matthew Piatt goes under the stage and takes a long, narrow corridor.
Then he climbs a metal ladder.
“I always have to be careful not to rip my pants,” says Piatt, as he hoists himself into a seat and presses a button to propel himself upwards several feet, using a hydraulic lift . From this vantage point, Piatt can see the entire scene through an opening the size of an average suitcase.
Piatt is the prompter for the production of Antony and Cleopatra, a new opera adapted from Shakespeare’s play by John Adams, considered one of the world’s greatest living composers. Like the play, it is about the cursed romance of the Roman general and the Egyptian queen.
The prompter is invisible to the audience, and he may be just one person among the approximately 250 cast and crew members, but he plays a major role in keeping everything from going off the rails.
Inside his box are bare bones. There is a wooden stand to hold a musical score, monitors to see the conductor, a fan to cope with the heat, a telephone to call stage management in the event of an audio power failure or video, and a small electronic keyboard, conveniently Velcroed to the side of the box, to help the prompter give pitches – although Piatt said this is rarely necessary, as most people who do this work have perfect pitch .
“We always joke about setting up a bar, but we haven’t done it yet,” he laughs.
Piatt will spend the entirety of each performance during the race hidden under a hood in this stuffy little enclosure, located right at the edge of the stage, front and center.
Not all opera productions use prompters. But the performers don’t wear headphones and it can be difficult to hear the orchestra properly from the stage. it is also difficult to see the conductor under the dazzling lights. The prompter helps with clues in difficult times by speaking, shouting or waving his arms in their direction.
Piatt studied Adams’ complex score rhythmically and tonally for months in preparation (“Basically, you have to memorize the score,” he says), so he could help performers hit all the right notes in the right places. He also attends every rehearsal and takes notes on clues to give in his score, and meets with each cast member individually to develop an inducement strategy tailored specifically to that person.
“When I tell people what I do for a living, most people aren’t even aware there’s this box,” says Piatt. “And if they know about it, they think it’s hiding lights or something.”
A fragile performance – or a feeling of comfort?
John Adams’ operas employ massive forces, driving rhythms and vocal lines that mimic patterns of human speech. However, world premieres of works like atomic dr and Girls of the Golden West — both of which were held under the auspices of the San Francisco Opera – did not use blowers for the performances. That’s largely because director Peter Sellars, who collaborated with the composer on these productions, says prompters can keep performers from being in the moment.
Deborah O’Grady/Deborah O’Grady
“With a blower, you don’t get any emotional grounding, you just desperately try to save your skin,” he says. “And so that creates a rather fragile performance.”
Sellars says he prefers performers to improvise if they mess something up until they can get back on track.
But Adams says his latest work is particularly complex and disorienting for performers. There are few melodic arias and the scenes are full of rapid back and forth between characters.
“The idea of actually learning all of these inputs and getting them exactly where they belong is really a treacherous thing,” says Adams. “All I care about is that the singers are safe and comfortable.”
Incentive to action
Adams originally wrote the role of Cleopatra for someone else (Julia Bullock, who had to pull out of production about six months ago due to pregnancy.) So when soprano Amina Edris stepped in he had to start changing notes during rehearsals to better suit the timbre and range of his voice.
Cory Weaver/Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
“I’m not going to lie,” says Edris, who had never sung an Adams opera before. “It’s kind of overwhelming to be, like, ‘Okay, right after memorizing this part, now I have to reprogram my way of thinking about it again and learn a different version of it.'”
That’s why she’s grateful for the safety net that is Matthew Piatt.
“Matt is the glue that holds this show together,” she says.
In audio captured in the prompter box during a recent rehearsal, you can hear Piatt pointing to Edris as she sings a scene. It sounds loud. But it is directed towards the stage, so the audience does not hear the prompter providing pitches, lines and rhythms for the Queen of Egypt.
Even seasoned performers of Adams operas are relieved that there is a prompter. Baritone Gerald Finley starred in the world premiere production of Adams atomic dr in 2005. Now he’s playing Antony – a Roman general with a tricky death scene. He must sing face down on a staircase at the top of the stage. From this position, he cannot see the driver or a monitor.
“I can hear [Piatt] count and literally give me the beats,” Finley says. “I don’t know what I would actually do if Matt wasn’t here. Without Matt, I couldn’t die.”
Cory Weaver/Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Be proud of private thanks
Occasionally, during the curtain call, a conductor, director or cast member leans towards the hood at the edge of the stage and shakes the hand of the prompter in gratitude for the problems solved. or silently avoided.
Piatt, who has been doing this work for more than a decade, says he derives the greatest satisfaction from the more private recognition of his talents.
“The thing I’m most proud of is when a singer says, ‘I feel really safe when you’re at the dialog,'” he says. “It’s my goal that they can give the best possible performance. After all, that’s what people go to the opera for.”
San Francisco Opera Antony and Cleopatra takes place at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco until October 5, 2022.