Dallas — One of the least understood elements of Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, which will open this weekend at The Dallas Opera, is the recitative passages. Why are these seemingly long passages of chanted dialogue, which are in the rhythm of speech, accompanied by a harpsichord? Later operas in the Romantic period, and beyond, don’t use it. What exactly is going on?
The practice goes back to opera’s origins. A group of composers in the late 16th century were trying to recreate what they thought was the performance practice of Greek plays. The texts of these plays exist and we know that they were sung in some manner, but there is no record of what kind of music was used. Maybe they were just proclaimed in a quasi-sung manner or maybe they were actually sung with some kind of simple accompaniment.
These early composers, such as Jacopo Peri, wrote what would have to be called a proto-opera. They set all of the dialogue in this chanted manner and interspersed it with simple songs. The practice came forward to the 17th century in the operas of Claudio Monteverdi. Mozart used it extensively as did composers in the beginning of the Romantic era, including Gaetano Donizetti. But the practice eventually died out in favor of through-composed operas.
All of this tedious background serves as an introduction to David Hanlon, who will accompany all of the recitatives in the final production of TDO’s season, Don Giovanni. Hanlon is a highly respected composer, conductor and pianist who brings all of these varied backgrounds to the task.
We chatted with him about his orchestral role on the harpsichord in the opera.
TheaterJones: How do you approach accompanying all of this sung dialogue? It is not written out. You only have the vocal line and a bass line with some indications of the harmony to work from [called a figured bass].
David Hanlon: While I do plan out what I am going to do, most of what I play is improvised at the time. I never play it the same way twice, even though there are similarities.
You are playing on a harpsichord, which is an instrument that can’t play dynamics. How do you work around that limitation?
I am always looking for every trick I can come up with to match the meaning of the words rather than be monochromatic and not just a helpful harmony tool.
What is the biggest challenge?
The biggest thing is always coming up with a lot of variety and color in your playing. I am constantly challenging my imagination. In a way, it is like movie underscoring. You have to support the singers and be aware of what they are doing on the stage. Occasionally, the singers will do something different, changing an inflection or accent for example. I have to be flexible enough to change instantly to go with what they are doing. This is really the biggest challenge but the spontaneity required is also the greatest delight. I want to keep it fresh for the performers.
You are also the pianist for rehearsals. What instrument do you use?
For rehearsals, I bounce back and forth between piano playing a reduction of the orchestral score, and harpsichord for the recitatives. It is important that the singers get used to the sound, which is very different from the piano. It is wonderful that we have the a harpsichord for rehearsals.
Who owns the harpsichord that will be used for the performances?
The Dallas Symphony owns it and it is a beautiful instrument. It produces a lot of sound and we are experimenting with the best location to place it. We are trying to use it acoustically, without amplification.
Does the harpsichord require a special technique?
It does because it doesn’t have the sustaining pedal that you find on a piano. But, I consider myself to be a keyboardist and I play whatever is in front of me. You have to find different ways of doing things to get the ideal effect, but you can bring these learned techniques from each instrument and apply them to the next one.
The harpsichord is hard to tune and to keep in tune. How are you dealing with this for Don Giovanni?
The instrument is tuned completely before each performance and it gets a check up at intermission. But it is very tricky to keep it perfectly in tune. But you never know what might happen in a performance. But, God forbid, if anything goes wrong, like one of the strings coming loose, I can work around it since it is all improvised anyway.