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PDX OPERAbeat | A Company Blog is the blog for all things Portland Opera, featuring a variety of guest contributors who will provide insider's tidbits on all we do to celebrate the beauty and breadth of opera.

Handel: The opposite of boring


Rinaldo rehearsals are mostly finished now. We had a very grueling last 7 days -- I personally worked an 80 hour week and I know the production staff did the same -- but now the show is fully on its feet, and might I say, it is SO MUCH FUN. There might have been a moment during last night's piano dress rehearsal -- the first time we get full costumes, makeup, wigs, and (for the most part) lighting -- when I actually leaped out of my chair in excitement. (I was up in the spot booth running supertext so it wasn't too disruptive). I won't tell you what caused me to do it because it would ruin a tremendously wonderful moment for you, but guys: this show is so cool.


As you can imagine, we are all pretty tired by this point, yours truly included, so I only want to talk a little bit today about what you can expect to hear during our performances of Rinaldo. Most of the arias you will hear in this opera are in ABA format. In the A section, you hear the 'main' melody, in which the singer sings the main idea, with 'idea' being both musical and textual in nature. Then you hear the B section, which frequently changes, say, to the minor key relative of the A section's major key. The text of the B section is frequently in contrast to the A section: a character's waffling back and forth between ideas. Then the A section returns.


It would be super boring if that was all there was to every aria. After all, in most Baroque arias, there's only a line or two of text that actually gets sung -- it just takes a long time to sing it. BUT! When the A section returns, the singer gets to ornament the melody. There are a bunch of different ways a singer (or instrumentalist) can ornament their arias. They can throw in extra notes; sometimes these are scales between two notes of the melody, sometimes these are turns or leaps above the melody. They can alter some of the notes, so that they're now singing part of the melody, say, up a third. This lets the singers throw in some exciting high notes!


The musicians employ three kinds of ornamentation that are particularly Handelian:

The trill: singing rapidly back and forth between two notes;

The appoggiatura: essentially, 'leap up, step down.' For an appoggiatura, the musician leaps up (or down) to a note a step higher than actually written. (Lower also counts, but you won't really hear that in Rinaldo.) This serves to produce a momentary dissonance before the musician actually lands on the 'right' note. A little thrill!

The messa di voce: this is what we sometimes refer to as a 'hairpin' -- a single sustained pitch that begins softly, gets louder, and then gets soft again. 'Messa di voce' is Italian for 'placing the voice.' By the way, this is harder to do with the voice than it might seem.


All these ornaments make the return to the A section very exciting. Adding to that, all of our singers are doing, at times, what Baroque singers would have done: making up these ornaments spontaneously. They're improvising! It has been so cool to witness the changes that have taken place in these arias as rehearsals have progressed. The singers have kept some of their ornaments and changed others as we've gone along. Some are different every night. Never the same opera twice!


Additionally, the singers and the instrumentalists can be very playful with one another. We are lucky to have Portland Baroque Orchestra joining us for this show, and of course these folks know how it's done. There are many moments where an instrumentalist will get to echo the singer, and it has been so neat to hear how they listen to how the singer is ornamenting (remember: different every night) and then either echo the ornament or embellish their own music to match. You'll hear this a number of times -- listen for the oboe and trumpet in particular. SO NEAT!!


I have to tell you that I wouldn't call myself a big fan of Handel, and yet I have found listening to this piece intensely exciting. On top of it all, our singers are singing the heck out of their music. They are killing it. Sometimes I get choked up in rehearsal because these are all our little ducklings! Former and current members of our Resident Artist program! And they are just kicking the pants off this music.


You should also know that we have honored the Baroque tradition of employing a lot of stage 'magic' for this show. I refuse to give ANYTHING away, but Rinaldo is full of surprises. I can't wait for everyone to see it!

NPR has a great article about ornamentation, with examples of almost everything listed above, if you want a taste of what you'll hear in our show.