Bob Bernard's Corner: Mavens in the Ravens

A Security Blanket for Singers

By Bob Bernard

The January 13, 2007, world premiere of Tan Dun’s opera The First Emperor was the third Met HD telecast in its inaugural season of transmissions live via satellite into venues around the world. This production had Plácido Domingo in the title role of Emperor Qin, with Maestro Dun conducting.


Domingo’s role – a middle-age career addition to what presently stands at one hundred and fifty-one roles – motivated him to strive to emulate the Chinese vocal style. So it was prudent of him to rely (as necessary) upon the services of a prompter. Because the Met hadn’t yet sufficiently isolated the relative locations of prompter and transmission microphones, our audience at the Laemmle Playhouse in Pasadena was able to hear many of the prompter’s cues.

Now, of course, the Met’s HD telecasts proceed very smoothly. For the October 26, 2019, telecast of Manon the first intermission featured an interview with the prompter, Assistant Conductor Joshua Green. A pre-recorded segment showed Mr. Green entering the prompter site from below, implementing the hydraulic lift to carry him up to stage level and settling in for his interview with program host Nadine Sierra:


Mr. Green’s cubicle is equipped with three audio monitors, two video monitors, a light (to illuminate the score) and a fan. He delineated his typical during-performance tasks: “I mouth the lines to each singer [just] before they are to be sung, whether or not I think they need it, because I’m never sure until I hear some confirmation, and I continue to monitor them in real time – just in case.” He also monitors the spoken dialogue, as he added: “I have to be ready to intervene, should someone jump a line.”

Mr. Green’s summarized the real-time tasks of a prompter, but, to be complete, a prompter’s early preparation is just as essential to success, and LA Opera’s production of Wagner’s Ring in 2009-2010 required both the full participation of prompters in the end-to-end rehearsal process, but also the physical and mental wherewithal to work with and endure the extraordinary ambient in-performance conditions that went along with this massive production.

Wagner designated Wotan’s Ravens to be harbingers of woe, but in LAO’s production of The Ring, the Raven figures on either side of the stage were efficacious creatures, each containing a prompter who functioned as an on-stage surrogate for Maestro Conlon.

That LAO used two prompters followed from a domino-like series of realizations:

  1. Maestro Conlon always uses a prompter, a policy particularly appropriate given the massive score for The Ring.
  2. The stage design made no accommodation for a centrally located prompter’s box, being that the production’s rotating disc protruded so far forward towards the orchestra pit.
  3. Given the above, the logical decision was then made to have two prompters, one at either side of the stage.
The particular prompter box implementation that audiences saw for the Ring operas then followed from a resolution of artistic differences:

  • An early idea of designer Achim Freyer was to have the two prompters on station unadorned by any theatrical trappings whatsoever. This postmodern tactic was considered inappropriate for our audiences.
  • Then, giving free vent to imagination, it was proposed to fly the Ravens (complete with prompter, score, and electronics) in from above. A spontaneous objection, “Over my dead body!” while lacking the reiterative poetic flair of the trisyllabic-prone avian in the Edgar Allan Poe ode to his lost Lenore, nevertheless carried the day.
  • A less ambitious --- but still complex --- concept would have had the Maven/Raven amalgam carried in by dancers. This also was discarded.
  • The design used was largely task-oriented: Each box contains a prompter, score, light, and monitor/speaker. The side facing the audience is a two dimensional Raven, having a one degree-of-freedom flappable wing controlled via a trick line by an off-stage prop person.
Each Raven had available a pair of frontispieces, one for pointing stage right (SR) and another for stage left (SL). These frontispieces were selected to be in harmony with Wotan’s wandering:

  • Act 1 with Siegfried and Wotan presaging the search for Fafner, both Raven frontispieces pointed to SL.
  • Act 2 with Alberich, Wotan, Mime, and Siegfried all in the vicinity of Fafner’s lair, both Raven frontispieces pointed to stage center.
  • Act 3 with Wotan soon to embark on his inevitable, sad return to Valhalla, both Raven frontispieces pointed to SR. Also in the third act, just as Wotan sang of his Ravens pursuing the Forest Bird, the wing of each Raven gave a single flap of its wing.


Prompter Yulia Levin: on-station with monitor, score, and auxiliary light.
Yulia’s Raven was at SR; the Raven’s frontispiece faces SL

A conversation with Maven #2 Yulia Levin delineated the thoroughness of preparation and performance stress that this pair of prompters underwent. Ms. Levin, a native of Moscow, happened to LAO, first by way of Canada, where she emigrated with her mother, and then to the Manhattan School of Music in NYC, earning a Masters Degree in Vocal Accompaniment.

While still in New York, she auditioned for Maestro Domingo for admission to the (then) Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program, was accepted, and subsequently became a pianist/coach in the program for the inaugural season of 2006/07, a position renewed for 2007/08. These two years and her experience as a rehearsal pianist for Gianni Schicchi, Madama Butterfly, and Die Zauberflöte provided a solid base for her to warrant a position as prompter for The Ring operas.

Wagner’s operas are long, but the preparation that being a prompter for one of them entails is much longer. The prompters worked throughout the entire series of rehearsals:

  • Staging (in the Gam Art Center, a remote locale)
  • Stage Piano (in Music Center rehearsal room)
  • Piano Dress Rehearsal
  • Sitzprobe (sit-down rehearsal integrating orchestra & singers --- in Grand Hall)
  • Orchestra Technical Rehearsal
  • Final Dress Rehearsal
Incorporated in the above list is the gradual transition from Associate Conductor Andreas Heinzmann to Maestro Conlon, as well as the singers’ gaining familiarity with stage direction. So, by having the singers and prompters track these changes in tempo, rehearsal hall sound quality, and orchestral involvement, the goal of achieving the best possible synchronization between orchestra and singers was attained.

Working as a prompter for a performance of LAO’s Ring was akin to directing traffic at 1st Street and Grand Avenue at 5pm on a stormy weekday: it was noisy; the lights sometimes failed; there was a steep hill to contend with; and distractions abounded!

  • When rotating, the massive disc LAO used for The Ring emitted a harsh grating sound, sometimes interfering with the prompter-to-singer aural communication link.
  • Two of the production’s one hundred and eighty automated lighting fixtures - oriented to illuminate the prompters’ boxes from above - sometimes became misaligned, diminishing the illumination of the score.
  • The production’s fog machines efficiently produced the desired product volume, but, once generated, this dense mist had an indeterminate destination. Because gravity always wins, the fog oftentimes migrated to --- and nestled into --- the prompters’ boxes, obscuring visual links to singers and score.
In Götterdämmerung, we know that Siegfried, just prior to being struck by Hagen’s spear, is distracted by Wotan’s Ravens. However, LAO’s "Mavens in the Ravens" allowed no distraction to deter them from their appointed tasks, inspiring a paraphrase of Edgar Allan Poe’s musings:

And those Ravens, never flitting, still will be sitting, still sitting
On the pallid joists just above the orchestra's door
And the prompters’ eyes will have the gleaming that is never dreaming
And the light o'er the scene streaming throws its shadow on the score
And the cues from out the pages that lie noted on the score
Shall be lifted --- evermore!

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Acknowledgements:

  1. Technical Director Jeff Kleeman and Design Manager Maiko Nezu made possible the photo opportunity with Ms. Levin. Photo of Ms. Levin by Bob Bernard.
  2. We extend an enormous number of apologies to both the memory and heirs of Edgar Allan Poe.
  3. Raven photo images were extracted from a photo by Monika Rittershaus for LA Opera.
  4. Video of the 2019 Met HD telecast of Manon was provided by Opera League founding member Jay Galbraith.

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