Gabrielle Painter on leading opera

Posted on: June 4, 2024 in: Opera Holland Park

Heroine, villain, safety net.

For our ’20 years – 20 questions’ series, CLS Assistant Leader Gabrielle Painter has shared with us the many roles she holds when leading an opera and why it’s hard to play a violin solo while the heroine is dying on stage.

I love opera! It is probably the favourite orchestral playing that I do. As a performer I am focussed on communicating the emotion and character of the music – storytelling through my violin. In opera we get to be it all – the heroine, the villain, tragic, comic. I love that we get to be part of the action, even fate itself at times!

One  part of my job as leader is to act as the link between conductor and orchestra. When the conductor asks for a certain mood or effect, it is my job to find a way to produce it, for instance, by positioning our bows in different spots on the strings or changing the speed of our bow. Sometimes, we play without any vibrato (the ‘trembling’ technique in the left hand used to create richness through rapid variations in pitch) for a colder sound, or even on the bridge for a scary, wiry sound with more depth. We have to be creative – we are the soundtrack to the drama.

I also have to lead physically – my movements show where I am going to play, and I have extra responsibility for interpreting the conductor’s beat. We play with a lot of different conductors with extremely different physical styles so this can sometimes be challenging, especially in opera where the orchestra must also follow the singers’ lead in expressive passages. Sometimes a conductor may try to make us play in the wrong place if caught off guard by an unexpected happening on stage – it is my job then to try to put the entry in the right place – the leader is the extra safety net! This is true in any leading but especially so in opera where we have the singers – there are also some performances where we have stand-in conductors and soloists, so I have to be extra attentive in order to be of the best help to everyone involved!

Like any leading, the work starts long before the first rehearsal by deciding how each player should move their bow for their part and learning the notes. When I am leading an orchestral concert there is usually little to change at the first rehearsal, unless the conductor asks for something specific. In opera it can all completely change depending on many variable factors! – how fast or slow the singer wants to go, unexpected changes in speed (requiring more bow!), action on stage, etc. This can also affect the way we play things too, for example, there is a big violin solo in Zaza (Leoncavallo) that resembles a cadenza (a showy, ornamental, and often improvised passage featuring one player), swooping up to a top note and then gliding down with a flourish. It is very virtuosic and I prepared it accordingly only to find out that, on stage, a corset was being loosened – so I played it completely differently to complement the action and was rewarded with audience giggles at each performance!

One of the most unusual violin solos I have had to play is in the last act of Iris by Mascagni where I had to put a porcelain cup upside down on the main body of my violin and play long sustained notes. The cup produces harmonic notes (sympathetic vibrations) with pitches that are much lower than the violin and creates the most eerie sound, which was most appropriate for that very disturbing moment of the opera. It was quite tricky to balance the cup while playing though and I was very relieved it didn’t fall off!

I am a notorious crier (and giggler when things go wrong!) and very often am required to play violin solos just as the heroine is dying – Traviata and Boheme for example! This is very hard to do when you have already been wanting to cry for at least two pages! I find the emotional involvement in playing opera is more intense than symphonic playing – being part of the larger-than-life drama unfolding on stage is completely absorbing.

Gabrielle Painter, 2024