met opera 14-15 season preview... percussion style.


the nearly ill-fated season of the metropolitan opera starts monday, and it has tons of great operas. the season starts with a snare drum roll, ends with stravinsky, and it features a full complement of powerhouse operas. in addition to the standards, we’re also playing some kickass pieces by shostakovich, bartok, stravinsky, and john adams. if you’re reading this, you’re probably a percussionist. that means that you care more about who’s playing tambourine on carmen than who’s singing the habanera. you’ve come to the right place: this is a season preview of this year’s season…percussion style.

(note: all assignments are unofficial and subject to change. who are greg, duncan, jason, ralph, ben, and lynn? check it out here and here.) 

from last year's 'the nose,' ben harms, tomoya aomori, ian sullivan, greg zuber, rob knopper, lynn bernhardt, jeff irving, and jason haaheim

from last year's 'the nose,' ben harms, tomoya aomori, ian sullivan, greg zuber, rob knopper, lynn bernhardt, jeff irving, and jason haaheim

before we start, one more thing. if you're not in new york, don't worry! a bunch of these are at your local live in hd movie theater. i've noted the operas that will be live in hd below, and you can find your local movie theater here: united states, canada, and international.


mozart - le nozze di figaro (see it in hd!): 

as promised, opening night starts with the snare drum, performed by yours truly. traditionally, opening night includes the star-spangled banner, and this one will be special as it will be the 200th (+ 8 day) anniversary of its composition. the actual opera only has timpani, which means that it receives a low rating for this season preview. 

who’s playing? timpani: duncan.

conclusion? don’t go: no percussion. (except for opening night, and you can watch from times square or lincoln center plaza.)


photo by pedro diaz

photo by pedro diaz

puccini - la boheme: 

this opera rules, and that’s why the met has performed it 1,259 times. it even rules for percussionists. there are two drummers on stage and in costume. they play reamer drums slung on their shoulder, with traditional grip. also, they memorize music. since it's by puccini, it has unbelievably beautiful music, punctuated by lots of xylophone, bells, and some epic cymbal crashes.

who’s playing? xylo/bells: rob, stage drums: greg and lynn, other pit percussion: ben and ralph. timpani: duncan and jason switch.

conclusion? definitely go: this is a can’t miss.


verdi - macbeth (see it in hd!): 

i don’t want to say that verdi operas are all the same. they aren’t… but the role of percussion is often similar from one to the next. he definitely had a ‘style,’ which is to wait for the aria to be over, then throw in some marching band music. you’ll always hear some intense cymbal playing, and the stories are pretty complicated and exciting.

who’s playing? cymbals: greg, bass drum: lynn, field drum/chimes: rob. timpani: jason.

conclusion: do it, but not twice. 


bizet - carmen (see it in hd!): 

you’re probably not a percussionist if you don’t already know that this is a can’t miss. you can come see pretty constant complex percussion playing through this one. 

who’s playing? tambourine/castanets: greg, cymbals: rob, etc.: tba. timpani: duncan and jason switch.

conclusion: abso-freakin-lutely.  


mozart - die zauberflöte: 

spoiler alert: the bell excerpt doesn’t exist. at least, not in our production.

who’s playing? timpani: jason.

conclusion: nope.


john adams - the death of klinghoffer: 

now, this is going to be an event. this one has been in the news for months, and the protests are sure to continue. but enough about that - the percussion writing is the real scandal here. the only percussion instrument? malletkat. midi was cool, i guess, in 1991. so if you think about it that way, it’s idiomatic. you should come, if only for the spectacle.

who’s playing? malletkat: greg. timpani: jason.

conclusion: yes. come to watch string pizzicati, timpani, and other orchestra sounds come out of an electronic marimba in the pit.

(click the images below to expand. yes, that does say "chorus of exiled palestinians.")


verdi - aida: 

see macbeth - this one has similar characteristics in its verdiness. there’s some more epic cymbal playing here. one thing to look out for happens at the end. rick barbour, a retired associate percussionist, developed a nearly instantaneous method to cover the bass drum during one of the quietest parts of the opera. you see, in act iv, when the bass drum is finished, there is still around 10 minutes to the end of the piece. if you don’t immediately put the cover on, you have to sit around for the last ten minutes. we miss rick dearly, and we’ll have to see if we can carry on the tradition of the ‘barbour bass drum covering method.’

who’s playing? cymbals: rob, triangle/offstage: greg. timpani: duncan.

conclusion: actually…ya. the set is unbelievable, and the bd+cymbals are interesting enough to get any percussionist going.


shostakovich - lady macbeth of mtensk: 

COME TO THIS ONE. this is actually the highlight of the season, if not the entire opera repertoire, for percussion. the met audition that i took in 2011, and the one that mike werner won in 1996, were both filled with xylophone parts from this. shostakovich always writes great percussion, and this one is no exception. 

who’s playing? xylophone: greg, snare drum: rob, cymbals: lynn. timpani: jason.

conclusion: resoundingly yes. if you only come to one, it must be this one.


rossini - il barbiere di siviglia (see it in hd!): 

this one is light, simple, short and sweet. pay attention to the sistro part. historically, we can’t really decide what a sistro is, other than something in the tambourine family. this opera requires a sistro, at a diabolical pace. think ‘devil went down to georgia’ meets ‘flight of the bumblebee.’

who’s playing? percussion: tba. timpani: duncan and jason switch.

conclusion: yes, but only because i know for a fact that you won’t have a bad time. 


wagner - die meistersinger (see it in hd!): 

the met’s estimated time for this opera is 5 hours and 52 minutes. i haven’t done the calculation, but i estimate that there’s about one percussion note per 20 minutes of music. that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it makes each note that much more important. 

who’s playing? percussion: tba. timpani: jason.

conclusion: if you’ve ever said, “let’s watch all three lord of the rings movies in a row,” then yes. you need an attention span. otherwise, no.


verdi - la traviata: 

see macbeth or aida, above

who’s playing? percussion: tba. timpani: duncan and jason switch.

conclusion: sure, why not?


humperdinck - hansel and gretel: 

this one is just fun. it’s short and great to listen to. there’s even a food fight on stage, with various cross-dressing singers stuffing chocolate cake into each others’ mouths. the percussion writing is a little bit like puccini - not constant but colorful and meaningful. i would definitely recommend going to this one.

who’s playing? percussion: tba. timpani: duncan.

conclusion: most definitely. this is my favorite opera to play, for a reason. 


lehár - the merry widow (see it in hd!): 

i’ve never played it*, and i don’t quite know.

who’s playing? percussion: tba. timpani: duncan and jason switch.

conclusion: dunno… ask on orchestral percussion talk?


offenbach - les contes d’hoffmann (see it in hd!): 

again, don’t know, never played it.

who’s playing? percussion: tba. timpani: jason.

conclusion: same, dunno. not enough information.


two players? come and find out.

two players? come and find out.

tchaikovsky/bartok - iolanta/bluebeard’s castle (see it in hd!):

bartok? wrote an opera? …yeah. i know his symphonic music like the back of my hand. if his concerto for orchestra or his music for strings, percussion, and celeste are any indication, it’s going to be a riot. the xylophone part is the one to pay attention to. i’ve heard that it has been done with two players, so we’ll have to see. here’s the page in question, for your information. and there’s no percussion in iolanta.

who’s playing? percussion: tba. timpani: duncan.

conclusion: most definitely. 


mozart - don giovanni: 

there’s no percussion in this. so, for us, think of it like figaro and zauberflöte, except with lots of fire on stage.

who’s playing? timpani: jason.

conclusion: no percussion.


rossini - la donna del lago (see it in hd!): 

never played it, but i’m willing to put money on the fact that the percussion is similar to barbiere. 

who’s playing? percussion: tba. timpani: duncan.

conclusion: no idea.


massenet - manon: 

this is the triangle concerto of the year. last year it was rusalka. 

who’s playing? percussion: tba. timpani: jason.

conclusion: yep, especially if you’re in a french mood.


donizetti - lucia di lammermoor: 

donizetti for percussion is like the poor man’s verdi. you only play every once in a while and it’s light and sweet.

who’s playing? percussion: tba. timpani: duncan and jason switch.

conclusion: probably….not.


verdi - ernani: 

see other verdi operas, above.

who’s playing? percussion: tba. timpani: duncan.

conclusion: it’ll be a solid night out.


verdi - don carlo: 

this verdi is different. this is one of his best pieces, and there’s a ton of good playing. it’s still pretty much all cymbals and bass drum, and a little scattered triangle, chimes, and tam tam. if verdi is beethoven, this is his 5th or 9th symphony. check it out.

who’s playing? percussion: tba. timpani: jason.

conclusion: definitely. you will not forget it. also, the last time we played this was with maazel (rip.) so this performance will be both nostalgic and much quicker.


mascagni/leoncavallo - cavalleria rusticana/pagliacci (see it in hd!): 

these two operas, again, are ones i haven’t played. i do know that the end of cavalleria is pretty amazing.

who’s playing? percussion: tba. timpani: duncan.

conclusion: i’m not sure, since i haven’t played it, but why not?


verdi - un ballo in maschera: 

it’s verdi… there are 6 verdi operas happening this year. lots of verdi.

who’s playing? percussion: tba. timpani: jason.

conclusion: yep.


stravinsky - rake’s progress: 

last but not least, stravinsky. i know this is what you’ve been waiting for, but i’m sad to say that (spoiler alert) there is no percussion in this one. 

who’s playing? timpani: duncan.

conclusion: this is the only one without percussion that i’m resoundingly recommending, but just because it’s stravinsky, there are only 3 performances, and who knows when we'll play it again?


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*disclaimer: this is the 'rob knopper season preview,' which includes the fact that i haven’t actually played all of these operas. if you’re looking for a full overview of percussion in pagliacci, which was last played on 4/10/2009 for instance, you’re out of luck. in fact, everything last played before september of 2011 falls into this category. 

rob knopper

hailed by @nytimes and james levine as needing 'louder triangle notes'. recorded delécluse: douze études for snare drum, percussionist in @metorchestra.