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Not All The Drama Is On Stage In San Diego Opera’s ‘Rigoletto’

There’s also passion in the orchestra pit with conductor Steven White

Photo credit: Karli Cadel

Baritone Stephen Powell is Rigoletto and bass-baritone Scott Sikon is Count Monterone in San Diego Opera's "Rigoletto."

A womanizing duke, a hunchbacked court jester, an innocent girl and a rampage of revenge … "'Rigoletto' is a story of heightened drama and a curse, too. So all the good stuff," said Alisa Jordheim who sings the role of Gilda in San Diego Opera's production that opens on Saturday.

Gilda is the redemptive figure in the otherwise dark opera by Giuseppe Verdi. But with all that's happening on stage, audiences may never notice the intense drama going on just below in the orchestra pit as conductor Steven White constantly juggles two contradictory tasks at one time.

"I both lead and I follow," White said. "I’m listening at all times as we are going. If I hear a singer who is slightly behind or slightly dropping off in tone, I have to make a split second decision. Is that singer unaware that he or she is doing that and is (the singer) trying to get me to slow down because I am too fast? At all times, at every second of the performance I am having to make those decisions and try to communicate them without talking."

White is given a baton with which to conduct and communicate.

"The word conductor, which means the idea that music goes through, like a copper wire conducts something. That’s what a conductor is and in opera most specifically. The conductor is that element that is between the stage and the pit," White said. "A lot of people think oh the conductor is down there with the orchestra and the singers are doing their own thing and nothing could be further from the truth."

Soprano Jordheim appreciates how a conductor like White can help her through a role she has never sung before.

"For me, maestro Steven White is so wonderful at supporting us singers and breathing with us and making sure that we are comfortable and have ample time to rest and breath, and also keeps the orchestra a supporting role underneath us so we don’t feel we are being drowned out by the orchestra," Jordheim said.

During rehearsal, White can talk to both the musicians and the singers in order to get everyone on the same page.

"Not just together in playing at the same time and singing at the same time, but together in terms of our interpretation that we are trying to, the same ideas of how we are expressing a story," White explained.

"The conductor has the task of keeping all the forces together," said Stephen Powell, the American baritone singing the role of Rigoletto.

"Tempi [the pace or tempo of the opera] is so crucial, more than people realize. Slow tempi for a singer is a killer. It can make you tired, can make your voice tired, can make it so you can’t finish the role or sing it properly the way you’d like. So that’s why it’s so important to have a conductor who is a singer’s conductor, someone who is attentive to us onstage, who understands what we need, when we need to breath, when we need to move, when we can take time and when we can’t," Powell said.

Onstage, the character of Rigoletto struggles with his anger, bitterness and burning desire for revenge. But below the stage, conductor White can be found like a general leading a pit full of musicians and a company of singers. The next time you go to an opera, steal a moment away from the spectacle on stage to appreciate what that guy passionately waving a baton around is actually doing.

San Diego Opera is staging a production of Verdi’s "Rigoletto." But while you might be familiar with the classic tale of love and revenge taking place on stage, you may not know what is going on in the orchestra pit below.

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