Q&A with Michelle Rofrano, Conductor of "The Turn of the Screw" (Part Three)

Acclaimed Sicilian-American opera conductor Michelle Rofrano, founder and artistic director of PROTESTRA, an orchestral ensemble of activist-minded musicians that bridges the divide between social justice advocacy and classical music, makes her Curtis debut this month, leading a stellar cast of talented young opera singers and musicians in Curtis Opera Theatre‘s The Turn of the Screw, directed by Chas Rader-Shieber.

In part three of this Q&A series, the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship Mentee and music and artistic director of City Lyric Opera discusses the responsibilities of a conductor in preparing an opera orchestra and singers for performances while collaborating with new directors.

 


 

One of the fascinating aspects of your profession must be the challenge of creating a unified sound as you coordinate the efforts of so many musicians in one room. How do you work with the orchestra—from rehearsals to live performances—to bring out the spirit of a piece?

The big thing I try to establish with an opera orchestra from the beginning, especially young players, is that we all have to be on the edge of our seats to do what the singers need. It’s not only about the story, the tone, the color, and the tempo. We must think in long lines to get the singer through their high notes. When I hear that they’re feeling good and want to stretch out their high note for drama, great, but I tell the singers that we are driving this car together. If you’re super behind my beat and this accidentally drags, it will not work out for the orchestra or the singers. I’m not trying to dictate with a stick. I disagree with conductors like that, particularly in opera, because it’s a collaborative effort. 

With The Turn of the Screw, I’m like, this is the ghosty part of the story—a buzzword I’ve used in rehearsals. We are definitely going for maximum spookiness here. That’s the goal of this operaWe spent a lot of time in the initial rehearsals practicing the different sections and then trying to balance them so that it all lines up perfectly. It has to be very exact but not metronomic. We have to be on the same page rhythmically, thinking horizontally, not vertically, in big beats to build the tension.

Our system of musical notations could be more helpful. I don’t have a better solution, but bar lines make us think vertically. Music is sound happening across time. It’s not a vertical thing. A sustained note, like a percussion note, decays, but you can still think of it as a long line. It’s not note, note, note. It’s sound, sound, sound. Encouraging everyone to think that way helps you stay rhythmically together. It also enables you to create an emotional and musical arch of tension—smaller phrases that lead to bigger phrases that lead to a bigger picture. This ensemble is so cool because they’re all just soloists. It’s thirteen instruments, but they all have big solo moments. It’s like a concerto for each instrument at a certain point. I encourage them to be their musical selves and play their solos while keeping the phrasing and the line, so they are playing an actual duet with the singers.

Not to discount what I do, but I’m waving a stick in the air. People didn’t come to see me. That’s not to say that my job isn’t important. I am facilitating the big picture, and it’s a huge responsibility how I drive the story’s energy forward. If the opera is piecemeal, boring, and the tempos are off, that’s me. That’s the conductor. But in terms of each musical moment being compelling and believable, it’s got to come from the performers. They have to feel empowered. 

With each new production, you often work with a new stage director, each of whom has a distinctly unique vision. Since the music, the stage action, and the character development are all entwined, how do you typically collaborate with directors? 

I have a big personality, but I love collaborating. I’m not the type of person who is “my way or the highway.” But, of course, I think I’m right. Sometimes I come in, and I’m not sure what I think about this, but if I have an opinion, I agree with my opinion. At the same time, different people have different interpretations. I can get on board with a different interpretation if it’s compelling. Sometimes we have a different interpretation that I don’t love, but you must cooperate. There’s give and take, and I love the staging process and enjoy working with directors.

I always joke that I’m the unofficial assistant director wherever I go, occasionally chiming in. I love directors who are down for that collaboration because I love that. Hopefully, the directors don’t mind. I’m not trying to step on any toes, but I like when directors ask me about things musically. While it’s fun to be detectives about this score and figure out how we bring it to life, we should always have a good reason for our choices. It’s not just about playing what’s there; it’s how you play it.

Chas, our director, is great. The concept for the production is cool, without giving anything away. It’s very spooky. He and I met and had coffee, talked through the transitions and fermatas, and got on the same page. He is so funny and creative, and I loved hearing his ideas about stuff that I hadn’t thought of before. This process has been a lot of fun so far.

A good opera composer is also a director looking at the text and thinking, how do I do word painting with this music, and how do I create these transitions? If a musical change or a theme comes back when there isn’t any singing, it is not for their health. There is a reason. Of all the notes in the world, they chose these notes and this tempo. I want music to be something other than a sausage link of different ideas. I want everything to have a reason.

Visit Michelle Rofrano‘s official website HERE.

 

CURTIS OPERA THEATRE: THE TURN OF THE SCREW

Britten’s Gothic Tale of Terror

November 18, 2022 | Friday at 7:30 p.m.

November 20, 2022 | Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Philadelphia Film Center

Click HERE for more information.

 

Read part one of this interview series HERE and part two HERE

Photos courtesy of ADA Artists.

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