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What does it take to perform a six-hour opera? We asked a double bass player

Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg Opera Australia 2018
Photograph: Clive Barda

If watching six hours of opera sounds a little daunting, spare a thought for those who have to spend that stretch underneath the stage in the orchestra pit, providing the musical support for the singers onstage. While you might be able to zone out in the less action-packed sequences, musicians have to be alert and active for the entire show.

So what exactly does it take? Is it as exhausting as it sounds? What is "bass bum"? And what happens if you need a toilet break? We asked Stuart Riley, the principal bass for Orchestra Victoria, who is about to embark on an operatic marathon in Opera Australia's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

What sort of preparation is required to perform a score of this length? 

Lots – including mental, physical, technical and musical. Most symphony concerts are two hours long, including an interval. Opera and ballet shows can be up to three hours, with one or two intervals. Meistersinger is advertised at six hours with two long intervals. Gotterdamerung, the last leg of the Ring Cycle, is closer to seven hours.

Some operas require a lot of individual practice to be able to play the notes. For Meistersinger, my practice has been focused on efficiency of sound production, ensuring that my right arm is working as it should so the bow does most of the work, not my arm. So I do a lot of long bow practice and other right hand exercises 

 

Stuart Riley
Photograph: Supplied

 

I listen to most music I am working on. We are currently performing La Boheme at the same time as Meistersinger, and my preparation couldn't be much different. I have played the Puccini masterpiece many times, whereas this is my first Meistersinger. So I listen to the Wagner all the time for a month or more before the rehearsals begin. Technology and the internet help with this – Spotify and iTunes allow me to listen at the gym, doing emails, writing Q&A responses for Opera Australia (yes, I am listening right now), in the car, on the bike, and even ironing my black shirts. I have it on in the background at first, and some of the music starts to "stick". Closer to the rehearsal period, I listen with headphones on while reading my score.

One part of a bass player's body that needs preparation is the bottom. We sit on a bass stool for four and a half hours of music without the ability to get up and have a stretch. Some of the stool padding has known better days. "Bass bum" is a well known complaint!

What are the challenges of playing Wagner?

On top of the endurance and physical issues, the main challenges are tuning into the sound world and understanding the overall scope of the work. It's a marathon, not a sprint. There are so many leitmotivs [a recurring musical phrase that relates to a character, place or concept] and I find it useful to know what they represent on stage. It helps me navigate the long score and decide what style to play each one, based on the character we are portraying via the music.

The physical challenges are obvious, but the mental challenge is just as great. It's easy to tire in the last act, and that is 120 mins long in Meistersinger. The risk of zoning out is greater than shorter shows. We bass players work together, counting the rests and marking the rehearsal numbers with our bows, confirming we are in the right place. And a soft double bass case makes a very good sleeping bag, which is handy for a power nap in the two long intervals in the green room!

How physically taxing is it to play for this length of time?

Very taxing! Some of this comes from the difficulty of the score and the overall duration. The double bass part is actually not that technically challenging – its rare to see a Meistersinger excerpt on an audition list, for example. But our violinists have a real work out. 

One of the keys to playing and enjoying Wagner is pacing yourself and developing stamina before the rehearsal period. Lots of sleep and clean living... Well, a little cleaner perhaps.

Do you stretch beforehand?

Very much so. All musicians are prone to injuries such as RSI, and a good physio can tell what instrument you play from the source of pain.

Common problems for bass players include lower back and right arm (flexor and extensor digitorum muscles), which can lead to golfers and tennis elbow. Lower back spasms are common among bass players, so I work on my glutes in the gym and stretch before concerts. My stool has a back-rest which is great for hyper-extending in the rests. I do core exercises, plus swing arm weights to build muscle in my forearms to try to avoid pain from over-worked tendons. And I stretch both digitorum before going into the pit, and in the rests while playing

Is any instrument more difficult than the others to sustain for six hours? Who has the most difficult job in the pit?

I may be a little biased, but I think the double bass is one of the most taxing instruments to play. It's big and physical. We do crazy things to our bodies to get to a professional standard on an all instruments. Wind players have abnormally large lung capacity, horn players apparently make great kissers, and bass players have very strong left hand fingers and hard skin on our pizzicato fingers on the right hand. So the answer to the question is that we all suffer in a six-hour opera, but bass players possibly a little more than most 

How much of the score is committed to memory and how much do you rely upon the notation?

Very little is committed to memory. Singers must perform without a score, but we have the luxury of having the notes in front of us at all times. I could probably play most of La Boheme from memory, but I would be lost without my Wagner score and my all important pencil markings to point out key things to take special note of in performance, such as changes in tempo, or speed of the music. We are certainly not sight-reading in the performances; there should be no "surprises" in what we are reading, but we rely utterly on the music on the stand.

Do you have a water bottle with you in the pit?

Absolutely not. And for very good reason – we cannot leave the pit for a 'comfort' break mid-act. I, like many musicians, are marginally dehydrated for most of our performing time. Some of my colleagues proactively dehydrate before long stretches. The last act of Meistersinger is two hours long, and it's difficult to "cross your legs" when you play the bass!

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is at Arts Centre Melbourne from November 13-22.

Are you a fan of endurance theatre? Malthouse is staging a beloved Australian epic next year.

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