Welcome to our opening night countdown! Every day for the next week leading up to the opening night gala, we’ll talk with a different person about their role in getting the Met season started. First up in our countdown: the Met chorus!
The full regular chorus at the Met has 80 members: 38 women and 42 men. Each season the Met produces around 26 operas, most of which have music for chorus. We spoke with Met Chorus Master Donald Palumbo to find out how they prepare for a season with so many diverse musical styles.
Donald Palumbo (front row, left) with the chorus after The Tempest in 2012
The new season opens on September 23. When did you and the chorus start rehearsing?
This year we began around July 22. Normally we have 8 weeks of pre-season rehearsals, but this year we began even earlier because we needed to learn Prince Igor to do some preliminary staging rehearsals over the summer. Once we get into the season it’s so busy that it’s often difficult to devote extra time to staging such a complex opera. Plus the chorus for Prince Igor will be larger than usual with 110 members. The weeks leading up to the opening week are always very stressful for the chorus because we have to be ready right away with four operas that open in very quick succession (Onegin for opening night, Così, The Nose comes back early in the season and is very complicated, and then Norma).
There are several operas in the upcoming season that haven’t been on stage in many years. Do those require extra rehearsal time for you?
I Puritani and La Sonnambula both have extensive chorus music, so we have already done the basic learning process on those two already in July/August so we don’t have start from scratch. We also have 11 new choristers this year, which presents a unique challenge because they haven’t sung La Bohème or Tosca with us, which, because they are in the repertoire constantly, we don’t always allot them a significant amount of rehearsal time. But this year because we have so many new people we will be spending a bit more time on those operas.
The chorus plays a very specific role in Nico Muhly’s new opera Two Boys, which has never been seen at the Met. How do you rehearse to be the voice of the Internet?
It’s been a very interesting learning process. There are a lot of sections where the chorus is either mumbling or repeating a text over and over in flexible rhythms, which can make it very difficult to memorize. But it’s supposed to sound nebulous, it’s supposed to sound like chat. So somehow we have to create that effect while executing the music properly. On the other hand, there is a church scene where the choral writing is exactly the opposite. So it’s been fun. Any time you do something brand new, it’s challenging to begin with, but ultimately very rewarding. Just like [Philip Glass's] Satyagraha. When you approach it for the first time it looks so strange and unmanageable. And then once you get it, it’s so fulfilling and enjoyable to sing.
The chorus in Two Boys, photo from the English National Opera production
Is there an extra sense of excitement around opening night?
There always is. And we haven’t opened with an opera that uses the full chorus in quite a while. So it’s fun to do an opening night opera that involves the whole chorus. Plus it will be a huge evening for our new members. Many of them have sung in regional theaters prior to the Met, so this will be a big moment for them.