John Adams' 'Antony and Cleopatra' utilizes a crucial role: opera prompter One of the world's greatest living composers, John Adams, has a new opera, and the prompter keeps Anthony and Cleopatra from flying off the rails.

The hidden world of an opera prompter

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JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A new opera by the celebrated composer John Adams is launching the 100th anniversary season at San Francisco Opera. It's an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Antony And Cleopatra." And like a Roman military campaign, there are legions involved - about 250 cast and crew members, to be more precise. And among them is the crucial role of the prompter. NPR's Chloe Veltman reports on how this unflappable individual who is invisible to the audience keeps everything from flying off the rails.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: To reach the prompter's box at the War Memorial Opera House, the home of San Francisco Opera, you head under the stage and walk down a long, narrow passageway.

MATTHEW PIATT: So here we are. This is it.

VELTMAN: This is where you work.

PIATT: Yeah. Do you want to see me climb in there?

VELTMAN: Yeah.

PIATT: OK.

VELTMAN: Matthew Piatt is the prompter for "Antony and Cleopatra," which tells the story of the romance and downfall of the famed Roman general and Egyptian queen. Piatt shimmies up a narrow metal ladder...

PIATT: And I always have to be careful not to rip my pants (laughter).

VELTMAN: ...Hoists himself into a seat and pushes a button that propels him upwards a couple of feet, where he can view the entire stage through an opening that's about the size of the average suitcase. His post is located right on the edge of the stage, front and center. Inside, it's bare bones. There's a wooden stand to hold a musical score, monitors to view the conductor, a fan to deal with the heat and a phone to call stage management in case the audio or video feed from the orchestra pit goes out.

PIATT: We always joke about putting in a wet bar, but we haven't done that yet.

VELTMAN: Piatt will spend the entirety of every performance during the run concealed under a hood in this stuffy little enclosure. It can be tough for the performers to see the conductor under the glaring lights or even hear the orchestra properly, and they do not have earpieces. So the prompter is shouting and waving his arms in their direction with his cues. He's been studying Adams' rhythmically and tonally complex score for months in preparation...

PIATT: Basically, you have to have the score memorized.

VELTMAN: ...To help the performers hit all the right notes in all the right places.

PIATT: When I tell people what I do for a living, most people are not even aware that there's this box. And if they are aware, they think that it conceals light or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA")

GERALD FINLEY: (As Antony, singing) Oh, cleave, my sides. Crack thy frail case. No more a soldier.

VELTMAN: John Adams is world renowned for his operas. They employ massive forces, driving rhythms and vocal lines that mimic human speech patterns.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA")

FINLEY: (As Antony, singing) No more a soldier. No.

VELTMAN: The composer says his latest work is especially complex and disorienting for the performers. There are few melodic arias, and the scenes are packed with fast-paced back and forth between characters.

JOHN ADAMS: The idea of actually learning all these entrances and bringing them in exactly where they belong is really a treacherous thing.

VELTMAN: So even though productions of Adams' previous operas haven't always involved prompters, the composer sees the value of having their services for this one.

ADAMS: You know, all I care about is that the singers are secure and comfortable.

VELTMAN: Amina Edris plays the role of Cleopatra. This is the soprano's first John Adams opera, and the composer originally wrote the role for someone else. He's been changing notes on the fly during rehearsals to better suit Edris' timbre and range.

AMINA EDRIS: You know, I'm not going to lie. It's a little bit overwhelming to just be like, OK, just after I memorized this part, now I have to reprogram how I think of it again.

VELTMAN: So she's grateful for the safety net that is prompter Matthew Piatt.

EDRIS: Matt is the glue that holds this show together.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA")

PIATT: In Fulvia.

EDRIS: (As Cleopatra, singing) In Fulvia's death...

PIATT: How mine...

EDRIS: (As Cleopatra, singing) ...How mine...

VELTMAN: Here's Piatt cueing Edris in a scene captured from the prompter's box during a recent rehearsal.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA")

PIATT: Then bid.

EDRIS: (As Cleopatra, singing) Then bid adieu to me...

PIATT: And say.

EDRIS: (As Cleopatra, singing) ...And say the tears...

VELTMAN: Piatt sounds loud, but his voice is directed towards the stage, so the audience won't be able to hear the prompter feeding pitches, lines and rhythms to the queen of Egypt.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA")

FINLEY: (As Antony, singing) Batter my heart, three person'd God.

VELTMAN: Even seasoned performers of John Adams' operas are relieved there's a prompter. Baritone Gerald Finley starred in the world premiere production of Adams' "Dr. Atomic" in 2005, and now he's playing Antony, a Roman general with a tricky death scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA")

FINLEY: (As Antony, singing) By the torch and the word...

VELTMAN: The blocking has the performer singing while face down on a staircase upstage.

FINLEY: And I can't actually see the conductor, and I can't crane my neck to look at a monitor. It's very easy to get behind the pulse.

VELTMAN: Matthew Piatt to the rescue.

FINLEY: And I can hear him counting and giving me the - literally the beats. I don't know what I would do, in fact (laughter), if Matt wasn't there. Without Matt, I couldn't die.

(APPLAUSE)

VELTMAN: Every now and again, during curtain call, a conductor, director or cast member will lean down to the hood at the edge of the stage and shake the prompter's hand in gratitude for mishaps quietly solved or prevented. Piatt says he gets the greatest satisfaction from more private acknowledgments of his talents.

PIATT: The thing that I take the most pride in is when a singer says, I feel really safe when you're in the prompter box. It is my goal that they can give the best performance possible.

VELTMAN: After all, Piatt says, that's why people go to the opera.

Chloe Veltman, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA")

EDRIS: (As Cleopatra, singing) That I might know what others...

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