What is is like to sing a big work with a big orchestra? Can you still get excited about performing a piece you may have sung many times before? A few weeks ago, I asked Sharon Smith, writer, historian, and PSC alto if she would be willing to write a post for psc.org sharing her experience singing Carmina Burana. Below is her contribution. Enjoy!
“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”
Like many of the PSC community, I’ve sung the Carmina Burana many times. Eric and I sang it first with the Eugene Concert Choir and the Eugene Symphony in the early 1990s. We sang it again a few years later with the same group. The fun stuff began the third time, when ECC got together with the Eugene Ballet and the Symphony and we did a staged version.
It was a challenge. The choir, dressed all in black, was perched on steep risers and sang from the wings, working valiantly to see the conductor. The Ballet’s centerpiece was a huge wheel with ‘stained glass’ inserts that filled the back wall of the stage. There, action bracketed the beginning and end: as the Fortuna’s dissonances sounded, a male dancer hung spread-eagle as the wheel slowly turned.
Eric and I were one of 24 choir members who got to sing in costume, on stage. We did our best to dance the Ecce Gratum; Eric sang “miser mogo niger, et ustus fortiter!” from the wings during the swan solo—while a dancer hung on a harness from a metal rack and writhed in agony—then donned his cassock and raised his beer stein with the others in the In Taberna. We joined a dozen other couples wearing brocade and silk robes and played our romantic married selves on front stage left as Richard Geller and the mezzo sang the Cour D’Amour to each other. We were in the work.
At the finale, which we sang in two rows at the edge of the stage, the music literally rose from my feet to the top of my head. I felt a visceral connection to every single singer and orchestra member in the hall. I wouldn’t have been surprised if sparks hadn’t shot from my fingertips.
Twenty years later, that height of Carmina experience met its match in Carlos and the Oregon Symphony. At first I thought I was too familiar with the music to enjoy rehearsing it… but as Steven took us meticulously through the rhythms, the words, and the nuances, it became obvious that he was raising us all to a much higher musical level than Eric and I had reached in Eugene.
“Take pains. Be perfect…”
…Then Carlos walked into rehearsal. He’s always been brilliant at conveying the music and what he wants from us, but this time he outdid himself. He led us unerringly into the Carmina’s passionate fatalism, its mischief and drunkenness, its innocence and sweetness, its lust and its love. I’ve never had so much fun with it before—and with 20 more years of life experience to draw from, I’ve never understood it so well. Under his direction, we were able to take all those weeks of hard work and join together to create that visceral, magical moment again—in a raucous, deeply satisfying celebration of the human experience.
After that first rehearsal with Carlos at First United Methodist Church, both Eric and I metaphorically dropped our scores and pulled on our Carmina costumes again. I’m not sure I’ve taken mine off yet: today, I’m still singing—running one section, then another, in my sleep and all during the day. In a week or so it will begin to fade—just in time for our new Shakespeare music to take its place.
“We are such things as dreams are made on…”
Alto 1 Sharon Smith has been singing with PSC since 2003—and for many years prior to that in college, in Eugene, and in Indianapolis. A writer, editor, and researcher with a background in US History and many years of experience writing about wildlife, she has been married to baritone Eric Smith since 1977. Find her at 503.701.9948 and www.facebook.com/WildroseCommunication