How The Met Opera's Chorus Master Gets 150 To Sound Like One : Deceptive Cadence Donald Palumbo is the Metropolitan Opera's chorus master. He tells Fresh Air about "stagger breathing," the ways singers protect their voices and his own lack of formal training.

How The Met Opera's Chorus Master Gets 150 To Sound Like One

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you like to sing, even if it's only when you're confident absolutely no one can hear you, I think you'll be interested in what my guest has to say about the voice. Donald Palumbo is the chorus master of the Metropolitan Opera, which means he's responsible for rehearsing and conducting some of the best singers in the world. He knows a lot about how to get the most out of your voice without damaging it. And of course, he is renowned for his ability to blend the voices of the singers in the chorus. He became the Met's chorus master in the 2007-2008 season. Before that, he was the chorus master at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He was the first American to serve as chorus director of the Salzburg Festival. Let's start by listening to the Met's chorus, under Palumbo's direction, in a 2014 production of Wagner's "Die Meistersinger."



GROSS: Donald Palumbo, welcome to FRESH AIR.


GROSS: So what we just heard from "Die Meistersinger," with a hundred singers, what are some of the challenges of...

PALUMBO: Actually, 150.

GROSS: A-hundred-and-fifty?

PALUMBO: (Laughter) Yes, yes.

GROSS: Whoa.

PALUMBO: A-hundred-and-fifty choristers in "Meistersinger" at the Met.

GROSS: OK, so what are some of the challenges of preparing and performing such a massive chorus?

PALUMBO: Well, first of all, that little segment comes at the end of an opera that lasts about five and a half hours. So everybody has been waiting around for this big moment for the chorus, which summarizes basically everything that the opera is about, which is honoring the true, pure spirit of German culture and humanity and Wagner's expression of the folk, so to speak. So the job of preparing "Meistersinger" is to take that many singers - 150 singers - and get them to sound like one voice. The chorus that you just heard is basically in C major, which is your most simple, simple cord. And what he does with the voice leading and the combination of the soprano, tenor, alto, bass sounds is just amazing in a piece like that. Of course the big difficulty with "Meistersinger" is where do you put 150 people on stage? And a lot of my job is in trying to get the chorus to sing in a situation on a stage with spatial problems - in other words, huge distances to the conductor, distance between the chorus, the orchestra and the audience. And it's somehow finding a way to get a lot of people to act as one.

GROSS: So I figure you know so much about the human voice. I would like you to share a little bit of what you know. So let me start with this.


GROSS: What are some of the things you tell singers about how to protect their voices? Your goal is to rehearse them until things sound as good as you can get them to be, but I'm sure you also want to protect singers' voices and help them protect their voices.

PALUMBO: One thing that I always tell chorus singers - and it would apply to a soloist - is only the individual singer can protect his or her voice. We in the chorus end up singing sometimes 6, 7, even more, hours in a day. We often have two rehearsals. And we sing a performance at night. And each individual singer has to monitor how much voice they have during the course of the day, the goal of course being to be able to be at your freshest and your most-solid for the performance in the evening. Opera is all about performing and bringing these great masterpieces to the audiences. And it's important that there is absolutely no compromise on your vocal strength or sheen in the voice by the time you get to the performance in the evening. With "Meistersinger," everyone has to be at their peak vocal condition as late as midnight for each performance of "Meistersinger," which is how long they usually run.

GROSS: So do you basically give singers permission to, like, kind of, like, lay low during a rehearsal if they feel like they're, you know, wore out?

PALUMBO: Yes, and we call that marking. It's a term that means you indicate what you want to do with your voice, but you don't use the full volume. You don't use the full-body tension and energy that you need to exert when you are actually in performance mode. Well, the danger with marking is that when you pull back a little bit on the energy singing, what usually tends to happen is musically things can also get a little lazy or a little sloppy. So you have to be very careful that when you mark you don't destroy any of the musical exactness that you have been working on so hard in all of the rehearsals. But singers definitely have to mark.

GROSS: In opera a lot of attention is paid to the way vowels are pronounced. Now, some of that is just...


GROSS: ...You know, language.


GROSS: Just to make sure the language sounds right. But some of it is also about getting the fullest sound possible so that you're not kind of chewing the vowel off...

PALUMBO: Exactly.

GROSS: ...Strangling the vowel. So I'd like you to talk about a couple of the real problem vowels and mistakes singers make and what you do to try to open up those vowels so that you can get the fullest sound.

PALUMBO: Soloists can get away with ah vowels and ee vowels that have different degrees of brightness and spread, so to speak, in the vowel. My job as a chorus master is to try to get every chorus singer to take an ah vowel and interpret it in the same way - in other words, so that the roundness and the height of the ah is uniform across the chorus. You can have an ah vowel that goes ah. Or you can have an ah vowel that goes ah that has more ah in it or an eh quality to it. Or you can take an ah into a darker place and have aw, aw, aw, which is an ah that has what I call cover and more dramatic depth to it. A soloist can pick and choose how he uses these vowels at any given moment in a performance. He can even find - for example, if he is having maybe a little trouble and needs to modify certain vowels at any given moment, he can do that because he is singing on his own. In the chorus, we have to make sure that everybody adheres at all times to the same shape of every vowel.

GROSS: Let's talk about breathing a little bit.

PALUMBO: Oh, (laughter) key.

GROSS: How do you make sure that when we're listening to the chorus we don't hear everybody gasping for breath at the end of a long line or a long note?

PALUMBO: (Laughter) The sustaining of a note, the release of a note, the intake of the breath and the attack of the next note should be one process that doesn't have any stop/start. It should feel like it's on a revolve. It should never feel like tone, stop, gasp, produce a tone. With a chorus, you have the advantage that you can do something called stagger breathing, which means if you have a very long phrase and you want to make sure that you get to the end of the phrase with the same full support that you had when you started the phrase, you can have people decide to interrupt, say, a syllable or to take a little - we call it a catch breath somewhere in the phrase that is not going to be done at the exact same spot by everyone else in the chorus. So the overall effect of that is that the chorus is not breathing where actually everybody has taken a breath. There is - for example, there's a section in the Beethoven "Ninth" where the sopranos have to sustain a high A natural for almost a page - the chorus sopranos. Now, the only way to do that is to stagger breathe. The sopranos will attack the A natural. And as it's being held for these bars that go on and on and on, on an individual basis people will just get out, take a breath, come back in, re-attack with the same quality of tone, and it sounds like you're able to sustain a high A natural for bar after bar after bar.

GROSS: Nice trick (laughter).

PALUMBO: It's a great help for choruses as far as breath control goes.

GROSS: So who are the chorus members? Do they tend to be people whose ambition was to sing in the chorus? Are they would-be soloists or former soloists who are now in the chorus?

PALUMBO: We have a mix, of course. But what's happened lately is many of the choristers are young soloists who have decided for whatever reason that they are ready to maybe give up the life of trying to make a living as a soloist with all of the difficulties, the travel, the lack of a guaranteed income on any given year, the fact that they can't spend time with their family as much as they'd like to. Some just saying, you know, I just don't have this in me to be a soloist and to really fight as hard as I need to to get as much work as possible. I would love to continue to be a musician but find some outlet for my talent where I can have a more stable life, I have a guaranteed income, I have benefits, which is what the choristers have. It's a very difficult profession to really have success. The number of people that become superstars is just such a minute fraction of the number of singers that are out there trying to make a living. So this is a great job for great singers to experience enormous musical pleasure. I always insist that everybody feel that they are being musical at all times when they sing in the chorus, so it doesn't become just the job of making a large sound to fill a big theater. No, we make sure that we have a musical identity of our own, and so everyone feels fulfilled as a musician individually.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Donald Palumbo. He has been the chorus master of the Metropolitan Opera since the 2007-2008 season. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Donald Palumbo, who's been the chorus master the Metropolitan Opera since the 2007-2008 season.

You brought with you, you know, a couple of examples of chorus scenes. And one of them is the witches scene from Verdi's "Macbeth." And I think it would be an interesting time to play that because I think it's a demonstration of both voices mixing really well but also sections where voices are standing out and, like...

PALUMBO: Exactly.

GROSS: ...You hear a very deep woman's voice standing out.

PALUMBO: Right, exactly. You know, the witches of "Macbeth" are just such an amazing creation for the chorus. The danger is that they come running onto the stage, and they're witches, but they can't just sound like cackling women. There has to be some nobility and beauty and blend in the sound. But at the same point, they are not spirits or angels or nuns, which we have in other operas, or handmaidens. They are witches. So the trick is to find the right balance between a biting, sharp sound and a round, blended quality, that when they're singing in harmony, chords are tuning and the diction is together. This is where Verdi was such an amazing composer and with ideas that, for the time, were just so extravagant and amazing.

GROSS: So my guest is Donald Palumbo, who is the chorus master of the Metropolitan Opera. And this is the scene we're talking about. This is the witches from Verdi's "Macbeth."



GROSS: That's the witches scene from Verdi's "Macbeth." My guest, Donald Palumbo, has been the chorus master of the Metropolitan Opera since the 2007-2008 season.

Thank you for bringing that. That was really fun to hear.

PALUMBO: That's a fun scene.

GROSS: Yeah.

PALUMBO: The women come - it's literally- it's the beginning of the opera. It's their first appearance. And in this production, they come, like, from the back of the stage and they come running down stage with their handbags swirling and their hair is...

GROSS: Stop right there.

PALUMBO: ...All wild and...

GROSS: It's the second opera I've seen where there's, like, handbags. And it's like, why are there handbags?


GROSS: I saw handbags in another Verdi opera, in...

PALUMBO: Let's see, what...

GROSS: It was "Un Ballo in Maschera."

PALUMBO: Maybe it was "Ballo." I think "Ballo." Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly.

GROSS: Yeah.

PALUMBO: In "Ballo" we have handbags, too.

GROSS: The character of the fortuneteller has, like, a purse...

PALUMBO: Exactly, exactly.

GROSS: ...Like a handbag. It might have been a Gucci or something.

PALUMBO: You know, it's...

GROSS: Who knows? But, like...

PALUMBO: Yeah, it's a good...

GROSS: Why is that?

PALUMBO: It's a good prop for the women to have. They can swing them around. They can throw them over their shoulder.

GROSS: Yes, but it's so out of time. I mean, it's so anachronistic.

PALUMBO: Well, yeah, but, you know, they're - again, we're trying to show a bunch of women in "Macbeth" that are just outcasts in this production. And there is kind of like bag people - street people. And they have these handbags. And the other great thing about the handbags in "Macbeth" is when you open them they had lights in them. I don't know if you remember that. And so you can hold these light - hold these handbags up under their chins, and so you get this almost Halloween-like, funny visual on stage.

GROSS: Right.

PALUMBO: So - and we had staging rehearsals where we had to rehearse our handbag gestures and our opening and closing of the handbags.


PALUMBO: This is what makes opera fun.

GROSS: I hope you don't mind my asking this. Have there been any performances where something went, like, really horribly wrong? (Laughter) And it was just a...

PALUMBO: Well...

GROSS: Yeah.

PALUMBO: How - there was a performance of "Meistersinger" when we made the transition from the first scene of the third act into the second scene, which opens up on this - on the festivies (ph) where the whole town is going to gather and celebrate the singing of "The Prize Song." And there was a problem with a piece of scenery, and so the curtain could not go out on this scene change. And the chorus is on stage, and we start singing. Of course, it was Maestro Levine conducting, and of course he was in the pit and could see that we had a problem here. He just kept going. I think he could hear some of the chorus singing from behind the curtain.

GROSS: But so the curtain couldn't open at all? So the chorus was behind the curtain?

PALUMBO: It couldn't open at all. Yes, the chorus was behind the curtain, and the curtain could not open. And it lasted for - I don't know - I want to say close to a minute, I think, that we actually sang the opening of that big scene from behind the curtain. And then finally it went out. And the audience applauded, you know, when the curtain went out, of course. And what's interesting is we were exactly together with the orchestra while the curtain was in. As soon as the curtain went out, all of a sudden now we were hearing the orchestra from its natural position in the pit without the curtain there, so that the acoustical feeling on stage suddenly changed. We had a momentary ensemble problem just because of the change of what we were hearing. It got back immediately. But it was - it was so interesting to hear the chorus, you know, holding up their lines behind the curtain and then to have the curtain go out, have the audience applaud, have a momentary glitch and then, OK, here we are. Now we're back on sure-footing here. And then the rest of the scene continued. That was a scary moment, I have to say.

GROSS: In terms of, like, a nightmarish thing that could go wrong during a performance, you fell, I think during a broadcast of the Shostakovich opera "The Nose..."

PALUMBO: Yes (laughter).

GROSS: ...And broke your hip, which sounds so horrible.

PALUMBO: Yeah, I did.

GROSS: And then you finished conducting it, conducting the chorus.

PALUMBO: Well, because when I fell...

GROSS: Yeah.

PALUMBO: ...I thought it was no - I thought it was no big deal. And so I - it was a little sore. And I had other conducting duties offstage in the performance. And it wasn't till after the show - maybe my adrenaline was carrying me through the performance. It wasn't till about - I don't know - half an hour after leaving the theater after the performance that I realized something was really wrong.

GROSS: How did you fall?

PALUMBO: It's very dark backstage. The theater is a very dangerous place, especially an opera house where you have so many people backstage. If you go to a Broadway play and you look at the number of people in a cast, say, of a Broadway play and then you go to the Metropolitan Opera and you see chorus supers, so many stagehands, dancers, children - all backstage. The area offstage has to be dark so that the stage lighting does not get disturbed by lights that are in the wings. And at the Met there are different levels and platforms backstage. And I was just trying to get from point A to point B, didn't realize I was on an elevated area. And in the dark, I took a step - what I thought was level - and it was not level. There was a bit of a drop. And I stumbled, and I fell.

GROSS: So how long were you out after that?

PALUMBO: I really didn't miss any work. After that, I didn't have to have surgery. It was just one of those things where I had to be on crutches for a long time and then a cane for a long time. But I was lucky. You have to be very careful backstage. I have learned to walk very slowly and very carefully in the wings.

GROSS: My guest is Donald Palumbo, the Metropolitan Opera's chorus master. After a break, we'll talk about what it was like to conduct the Philip Glass opera "Satyagraha." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Donald Palumbo, the Metropolitan Opera's chorus master.

One of the things that the chorus members have to do is, you know, memorize their parts. Sometimes, the chorus isn't called on to do a lot in an opera. Sometimes, they're called on to do a lot. And I always feel like there's so much stuff you know that, you know, those of us that have nothing to do with opera could probably learn from. What kind of advice can you give people in your chorus to help them learn and remember difficult parts? And it's not just the words you have to remember. I mean, we're talking about, like, unexpected twists and turns musically.

PALUMBO: This is, of course, what we do in our rehearsal situation. When we learn an opera, I always like to take the approach to go very slowly at the beginning, learn the words very exactly, learn the rhythms very exact, learn the pitches exact. I find if you take the time at the beginning to prepare a piece carefully, even if it seems like we're not making a lot of progress, where it's just taking so long to get through this opera - if you take the time at the beginning and learn something correctly, it usually sits in the memory much easier.

There's something that singers have called physical memory because of the repetition that is going to kick in eventually. We - because we sing so many operas in any given season and we do operas that are in our repertoire, meaning things like "Boheme," "Traviata," "Magic Flute" - pieces that we do year in and year out - we don't have the luxury of spending a lot of time preparing those operas musically every season. But of course, every season, we have some new chorus members. Sometimes, we have a lot of new chorus members in any given year, and sometimes, we just have one or two. But for the people that are coming in new, it's a huge task for them to memorize all of these operas that unfortunately, we can't give a lot of time to rehearsal.

I like to tell new members, prioritize. In other words, if you're in an opera where you're one of maybe six sopranos in a Mozart opera with smaller chorus, that music, you have to be very careful that you know exactly since you only have five other colleagues singing your part, whereas if you're singing "Aida" and you have minimal rehearsal time and you're overwhelmed with "Aida" because there's so much music and you've had so little music rehearsal to get it into your body and into your voice, pick and choose the important sections.

GROSS: You said it's easier to memorize things if you learn them properly. What...

PALUMBO: Oh, yes.

GROSS: What is a good way of learning?

PALUMBO: The more you can characterize each phrase, be it dynamically or from a sense of, these notes are short, these notes are long, these notes are connected - the more variety you can give to a phrase, the easier it is to memorize it because you have something to grab onto. The hardest things to memorize are, for example, if you're singing just ahs or la, la, la - nothing that has a text that you can connect to. Passages like that are very hard to memorize just because they're so nebulous.

GROSS: OK, I'm thinking Philip Glass. I know you (laughter)...

PALUMBO: I was going to go there - "Satyagraha."

GROSS: I know you conducted "Satyagraha." I did not see the performance of that, but...

PALUMBO: Oh, you - that you have to see. That's one of the great choral experiences I've had at the Metropolitan Opera. Of course, the...

GROSS: So he does a lot of very, like, unusual rhythms, very fast repetitions, but also repetitions that very, very subtly change over time...

PALUMBO: Exactly, exactly.

GROSS: And its patterns slowly shift over other shifting patterns, and...

PALUMBO: And in - yes.

GROSS: Yeah.

PALUMBO: And in "Satyagraha," the - it's Sanskrit.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PALUMBO: So you've got - you're basically singing in nonsense syllables, OK? As you say, the problem with "Satyagraha" is that so much of it is based on units that keep repeating. And you'll have a bar that will repeat five times, six times. In the seventh repeat, there'll be a subtle change in the harmonization maybe for one bar. And then it will shift back to the original, which you will then repeat a certain number of times, and then there'll be another subtle shift.

And it seems arbitrary when you start, but once you surrender to it - and there's no other way to explain it - it's Zen-like. It just happens. And if you surrender to it, all of a sudden, it's just so freeing, and you get this sense of, oh - letting out the breath. It's physically demanding for the chorus 'cause some of the lines are very high for the sopranos, but the overall effect is one of absolute elation, in a way.

We got to the point that we loved singing "Satyagraha," and the audiences just loved it. By the time the first run - we got to the last few performances, it was a very hot ticket, and the last couple were completely sold out. And the audiences really responded to the piece.

GROSS: Oh, I'm thinking, I hope Philip Glass has heard you say that before (laughter), you know?

PALUMBO: (Laughter). Oh, we've...

GROSS: Especially the Zen-like part - I'm sure he'd love hearing that.

PALUMBO: No. We told him how much we appreciated the choral writing.

GROSS: Yeah.

PALUMBO: It's amazing.

GROSS: My guest is Donald Palumbo, the chorus master of the Metropolitan Opera. Here's a recording of the Met's 2011 production of the Philip Glass opera we've been talking about, "Satyagraha."



GROSS: That's an excerpt of the Metropolitan Opera's 2011 production of Philip Glass's opera, "Satyagraha." My guest is Donald Palumbo, the Met's chorus master.

I'm wondering how you even fell in love with opera. I mean, I was - until just about two-and-a-half years ago, I was very dismissive of opera. I'd never seen one (laughter), but I'd heard opera singers in passing, you know, and on "The Ed Sullivan Show," for what that's worth, and things like that.

PALUMBO: Yeah, so did - yeah. Yeah, that's - I did too.

GROSS: Yeah, and I just always basically ignored it. And then I actually went to see one of the Met in HD performances, you know, which is, like, the theater cast of a live Metropolitan Opera performance, and I've just gone to as many as I've - as I can ever since. But like, how did - you obviously fell in love with it when you were pretty young.

PALUMBO: I - it's interesting. I - my aunt in Philadelphia, actually, loved "La Traviata" and "La Boheme" and "Madame Butterfly." She just loved the traditional opera. And she had records, and she played them for me when I was young. And I loved it. The rest of my family was not musical. There's no one else in my family that's musical.

And when I was in high school, we - my aunt from Philadelphia met me in New York City, and we went to the old Met two days before the last performance at the old Met. This was in 1966, and we saw "Aida" at the old Met. And she was my first introduction to opera, and of course, all through high school, similar to what the HDs are doing now, everybody that loved opera listened to the Saturday broadcasts - Saturday afternoon broadcasts - the Texaco broadcasts - back then...

GROSS: On the radio.

PALUMBO: ...On the radio. I can remember being in high school, and every Saturday, I had to get home in time to hear the live broadcast. And there's - so many people in this country did that back in those days, and that's what got me interested in opera. And somehow, I was lucky enough to be able to pursue the career that I have now without actually going to music school or conservatory. I've - my...

GROSS: Really, you never did that.

PALUMBO: No. I readily admit that I've never had really much formal training other than piano lessons that I never practiced for. I was a very poor piano student.

GROSS: (Laughter). You're a bad example for people who want to...

PALUMBO: Well, not really. What...

GROSS: practice and study and - yeah.

PALUMBO: Well, I'm sorry about that aspect of it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PALUMBO: But what I did though, is I went to as many performances as I could, and I listened carefully. And I would take scores out of the library, and I would take records out of the library. And I'd sit and listen and follow scores and try to soak up as much as I could. I sang in choruses all my life. I lived in Europe for three years. I actually sang in courses with Herbert von Karajan and Karl Bohm and people like that, and I used those experiences as my classroom. I really treated those experiences as a chorister as almost lessons.

And so when I then came back after being in Europe and started playing in voice studios, that was another way of learning without being in a conservatory. And then every time I had the opportunity to do something, say, play rehearsals for a small opera company or prepare a small chorus for a regional opera company, I just said, yes, I'll be glad to do that. And very slowly, I started working my way through more important companies like Dallas, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Canadian Opera Company. Lotfi Mansouri gave me my first big job as a chorus master. And I think I was able to use experience versus conservatory training as a way to become a better musician.

GROSS: Well, Donald Palumbo, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

PALUMBO: Thank you - my pleasure.

GROSS: Donald Palumbo is the chorus master of the Metropolitan Opera. This Saturday, the Metropolitan Opera's performances of "Cavalleria Rusticana" and "Pagliacci" will be broadcast live in movie theaters around the world as part of the Met's "Live In HD" series.


GROSS: Coming up, an interview with Will Forte, who created and stars in the Fox comedy series "The Last Man On Earth." This is FRESH AIR.

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