Prompt action required

It was 20 minutes into a performance of Puccini’s La Bohème and the tenor was due to launch into Rodolfo’s famous aria, “Che gelida manina” (“Your tiny hand is frozen”). The orchestra gave him the opening note but a long silence followed. “Che gelida manina,” hissed the prompter hidden in his box at the front of the stage. Still not a sound. “Che gelida manina,” he called again, more urgently. “I know the words,” whispered the tenor plaintively, “but I’ve forgotten the tune!”

Did that ever happen? Probably not. But such anecdotes remind us how central the prompter can be in an opera performance, although most of the audience are unaware of the prompter’s presence and have little idea of what the job traditionally involves.

As a student at the London Opera Centre in the 1970s, I learnt prompting as part of my training as a répétiteur. As well as giving the words, it involved signalling the cue one beat ahead of the singer’s entry or sometimes conducting from the prompt box, and working behind the set to make sure off-stage singers and instrumentalists came in on time. Our tutor was Robert Keys, then assistant head of the music staff at the Royal Opera House. Keys had worked with Maria Callas on Tosca, her last staged production. He was on duty in the wings to give the legendary soprano her cue before Tosca’s first entrance. “Would you like me to conduct?” he asked her. “No, thank you, Robert,” she replied. “Let’s leave it to nature, shall we?” And, he said, not once did she miss her entry.

On September 24, both the Royal Opera in London and the Metropolitan Opera in New York will open their 2012/2013 seasons – the Royal Opera with Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, the Met with Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore– and this seems a good time to look at how working practices have changed since Callas’s day. In this age of high technology, are prompters still in the thick of every performance?

In fact, the Royal Opera rarely uses a prompt box any more. There will not be one when the curtain goes up on Das Rheingold next week. “When I joined the company, I spent hours and hours in the prompt box,” says David Syrus, head of music. “It taught me how to breathe with the singers and understand what help they need. Yet I have accelerated the removal of the prompt box from this theatre. Singers are better educated now and it seemed an anachronism when other companies in Europe were phasing it out.”

At the Metropolitan Opera, the situation is different. The Met often has six opera performances a week, many of them live broadcasts or HD relays to cinemas worldwide, and this schedule puts more pressure on the singers.

“I am their safety net,” says Donna Racik, assistant conductor. “With that extra support, the singers are free to give their best, even if they only need the prompter once or twice in a performance. The prompt box has a monitor [not a mirror, as in the old days] on which I follow the conductor. If the production involves the singers being high up or far away, where they can’t hear the orchestra or see the conductor, then I can conduct from the prompt box. The only people who can see you there are the ones who need to.”

It follows that the audience generally cannot hear the prompter either. If a singer gets lost, Racik says the quickest way to get them back on track is to sing their line from the prompt box. In Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, when one of the cast missed a crucial cue for the chorus, she quickly sang the line herself. “Nice solo tonight, Donna!” quipped a colleague in the canteen later.

If the art of the prompter is on the wane in Europe, it is not only because of technology. Strategically placed monitors allow visual contact with the conductor from the stage but there were television screens as early as 1970, and Syrus says those were better than their modern digital counterparts, which operate with a second’s delay – fatal in opera. Nor does the much talked-about electronic earpiece used by tenor Peter Seiffert to relay cues from his personal prompter in Tristan und Isolde at the Met in 2008 seem to have made much headway.

“There are plenty of reasons for not having a prompter,” says Syrus. “No designer wants to work a prompt box into his designs and you lose a lot of space if you put one in. Also, not every conductor likes it. I don’t like it much myself if I am conducting.”

But a chief reason for the lessening need for prompters, most agree, is the increased professionalism of singers, who these days usually know their parts thoroughly and arrive well prepared. It’s a far cry from the days when some singers expected a prompt on every line.

So perhaps one of the traditional arts of the opera-house is fated to disappear, even in Italy and the US, where its use is still most firmly entrenched. For anyone who has done it, this seems a shame. The prompt box gives a close-up of all the audience sees, and quite a lot they don’t. In a recent L’elisir d’amore, Racik says she watched aghast as the tenor’s trousers slowly split down the seam during the middle of his aria. Before tenor Matthew Polenzani goes on stage in the same role on Monday, a word of advice from the prompt box: check your stitching before you sing.

‘Das Rheingold’ opens at the Royal Opera House, London, and ‘L’elisir d’amore’ at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, on September 24

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