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Keeping It Together On Stage
by Tom Reed, Chorus

The greatest challenge to an opera chorus performing on stage is faithfully following the conductor’s tempo at all times. Here are some tips to help the professional opera chorister do just that.

Unlike the chorus, the orchestra always has an unobstructed view of the conductor. But unless annoyed, the members of the orchestra never actually look at the conductor. They look at their music. With their peripheral vision, however, they are able to detect the movement of the conductor’s hands when he raises them above his head. Conductors know this, and tend to exaggerate their movements accordingly. This explains why so many great conductors appear to be dancing rather than conducting. This also explains why the orchestra always interprets the conductor’s upbeats as downbeats. They simply don’t see the downbeats, so they regard the upbeats as the beginning of each beat. Subconsciously conductors realize this, and make the mental adjustment so that they too come to think of their own upbeats as downbeats.

The chorus, however, always fails to make this adjustment and erroneously interprets downbeats as downbeats. This is why whenever the conductor detects a tempo disparity between orchestra and chorus, the chorus is always at fault. Misinterpreting downbeats as downbeats causes the chorus to sing half a beat ahead of the orchestra. Fortunately for the chorus, sound takes time to travel from the stage to the orchestra pit, so depending on the tempo of the music and the relative humidity of the air in the theater, the delayed sound of the chorus may reach the pit at the same time as the orchestra plays the corresponding chord, and thus the chorus error frequently escapes criticism.