How an opera gets made

This is Anthony Roth Costanzo, countertenor
extraordinaire, rehearsing one of the most challenging pieces in opera today. For six straight minutes, he and his fellow
castmates have to sing the word “ah.” That seems easy enough, right? Until you watch it. [Sings “ah”] It’s an extraordinary feat that happens
roughly one hour into Akhnaten, an opera by Philip Glass about this influential Egyptian
pharaoh. Anthony plays the lead. Pulling off this opera takes the coordination
of hundreds of people. There’s dozens of musicians. Over 60 performers, including twelve professional jugglers. There’s stage designers, make-up artists a costume with baby heads attached to them, and a giant sun roughly the size of twelve
Anthonys. Oh, and the music is in four different languages. This all happens inside this Iconic building,
the Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan. Anthony has performed Akhnaten with the English
National Opera and the Los Angeles Opera But this one… it’s special. I’m mean come on, look at this view. It’s pretty awesome. And what’s even cooler is we get a peek
behind the curtain to see how it all happens. So I play Akhnaten, the ancient Egyptian pharaoh,
who’s a totally fascinating, weird, complex guy. He has this idea, which changes the course
of history. Which is that instead of hundreds of gods
that have existed in Egypt forever, there would be one God, and that would be the sun. He was thus the first monotheist – the first
person to worship one God. This opera is like a fever dream of ancient
Egypt, and it all starts with the music, which wouldn’t exist without world class
vocal chords. [Singing] These are Anthony’s. Someone put a scope down my throat, and then when you breath, they open up. Should I walk you through some exercises? [Singing] How many of your neighbors know you’re an
opera singer? I was actually going to ask the same thing. Do you get a lot of complaints? I don’t get that many complaints. I can’t hear my own voice the way other ears
can because it’s buzzing in my head. That’s where Joan comes in. It’s so much to do with the way we use our
breath. She’s been his vocal coach since he was
17. But then we have to do it without a lip trill
and just starting on a vowel. That’s the challenge. [Singing: Oooo, ohhh, ahhhh, aaaaa, eeeee] See the hardest thing in the world is the
first tone. That first tone is vitally important during
every moment of Aknahten, but especially the scenes where all they sing is “Ah.” [Sings “ah”] So that onset that he did, with no consonant,
is real accomplishment. Because if he did, hah ah, ha ah, he’d kill
himself. To understand how an opera could sound like
this, you have to know Philip Glass – perhaps the most famous living composer. Philip Glass is a minimalist. So he uses repetition with changing rhythms
and syncopation to create a kind of meditative state. There’s a whole lot of arpeggios, meaning
a broken chord. So you’ll hear da da da da da da da da da
da da da da da da da da And a lot of lyrical repetition. In opera, there’s a beat and the time is king. And you can go 90 percent into your character,
but if you go all the way, you might get totally lost and you can’t afford that. The first step in not getting lost is the
sitzprobe. So the Sitz probe is a German term, which
sitz means sit and probe means try. [Singing] Let me have the drums and chorus please. This is the first time the orchestra and singers
hear what they sound like together after weeks of rehearsing on their own. So it’s a kind of sacred moment where you
hear the orchestra for the first time, you sing with the orchestra for the first time. And in this particular case, it’s the Met
orchestra. They’re the best. There are two people in this room who keep
everyone in check. Karen and Caren. In western music we have a tendency to steal
time at the end of a phrase. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four,
one, two, three Here it’s more about thinking linearly and
being really honest about the length of each rhythmic pattern or individual note. Okay, so, we did pretty well, orchestra. After about three rounds we start to slow
down. So guys playing the offbeats, don’t listen
to anyone because we tend to get slower. I really feel like my job inside the rehearsals
is to get inside the conductor’s mind to know exactly what her tempo is. [Singing] It’s hard sometimes for the performers to
remember in the moment exactly how many repeats they’ve done, so there’s a lot of counting
down measures. A lot of this, which means don’t sing let
me do the work for you. I give a lot of positive feedback to them
to ensure that they’re very comfortable on stage. Shall I start? Yeah I think you should start. Yeah so this is an opera with a lot of juggling
in it. This is Phelim McDermott and Sean Gandini. He’s the director of the opera and he’s
the Juggling Master. One thing is the performers are moving really slowly. It’s true, everyone moves in extreme slow
motion the entire performance. Like this scene here, before Aknahten is killed. Zoom into the right side and you see Akhnaten
with Nefrititi and their daughters. It’s another one of those “Ah” scene. Move to the left and you the rest of the cast
moving again in slow motion. The only thing moving fast are the balls. Sean and Karen spent a long time looking at
the score talking about the mathematics of how the juggling relates to the music. I spent a lot of time saying make sure there’s
a development. You sent me that script “balls, balls balls” Yeah, exactly. In the middle of the whole show there’s
the hymn to the sun, and you basically get the the sun god, which secretly me and Sean both know
that actually that’s the god of the jugglers, it’s the biggest juggling ball. Big mama ball. [Intercom: Standby, we’re about to start] We’re about to start, I’ve got to go Alright, well see you later. This is the moment I realized, The Met stops
for no one. Hundreds of things are always happening at
once, especially at dress rehearsals. Where it’s all about getting every last
detail right. The goal is just to get out of people’s
way because everything is a timed trial. Over 60 cast members need their make-up done
and there are just a few make-up artists who have just 2 hours to do it. And here’s something I haven’t mentioned. Anthony enters the opera in slow motion and
he’s completely naked. Imagine taking three full minutes to descend
twelve steps, looking straight at 4000 people and you’re totally naked. So it’s not just his face that gets makeup,
his whole body does. There’s also some incredible costumes and
wigs. Each individual hair is knotted into a net
to make the wig. You don’t have to wear a wig? I luckily don’t luckily have to wear a wig. But he does have to wear this blue headdress. Called a khepresh that many Egyptian pharaohs
wore to symbolise their royalty. There’s always a Cobra on the front. It’s amazing and also crap. It’s like a combo, you know. This is literally styrofoam. from the stage in the lights, it looks expensive. The real show stealer is this. The baby head dress. If you look at ancient Egypt and the rituals
of ancient Egypt, the Book of the Dead, for example, is so fascinating. The things they would do, preserve people’s
organs, mummify them, weigh someone’s heart against a feather in order for them to ascend
into the next life. We’re representing some of those rituals
in our own way, and the shrunken baby doll heads somehow evoke that. Oh I love that there’s a pen. Oh my God that’s where it is! The images from the Book of the Dead also
served as a visual reference for the multi-level main set too. The Met, the Metropolitan Opera is kind of
the stage. Did you try singing in the house? Absolutely not. You do it. [Sings “Ahhhhhhhhh”] It has a nice acoustic! If I told you, you’re going to come see a
minimalist three and a half hour opera about ancient Egypt where there’s no real story
and it’s sung in ancient Egyptian, you’d think, man, there’s no way I’m going to that. And yet I bet you’re going to love it.

100 thoughts on “How an opera gets made

  1. Thanks so much for watching this video! At the beginning of the piece I show a few seconds of that six minute “Ah” scene which occurs during the second act of the opera. For video lab members, I’ve linked the entire sitzprobe rehearsal of that scene so you’ll get a better sense of how insanely challenging singing it is. Enjoy!

  2. Walking out naked on stage in front of 4,000 people: 1000% level of stress

  3. Brings back memories. When I was growing up my Dad was production manager for a number of different opera companies. There was one year that I wasn't in school (long story) and my Dad was raising me on his own so he brought me to work. There was a few productions I saw from start to finish; from the planning stages in the office, to the long night after the last show when the crew would pack up the set. It was certainly a far more educational experience than anything I would have learned in school that year. Even met the mayor of the city I lived in during one night back stage. But growing up around opera gave me an appreciation for it even when I was only 10. Carmen is probably my favorite.

    I remember there was this one security guard at the concert hall that use to play hide and seek with me in the massive dark lobby during the dress rehearsals and stuff. Good memories, anyway enough of me rambling to random people in YouTube comments.

  4. Many people should watch this to understand why a Opera ticket is actually cheap

  5. I was like this probably isn't going to be too interesting, then I just watched the whole thing and didn't know it was done

  6. 2:10 Not the first monotheist – Judaism, a monotheistic religion, had already existed for 500 years or so when Akhenaten was born

  7. 4:39 No, it doesn't.

    Probe doesn't mean try but means rehearsal.
    To try would be versuchen/(probieren).

  8. I saw Akhnaten in a live broadcast from the Met, and it was well executed. However, there were some musical decisions that I strongly disagreed with.

  9. My choir got to go to the met last year. I just wanted to let the world know that it cost me 14 dollars to get an 8 oz cup of pepsi and a cookie during intermission.

  10. As a classical musician, it all made since when I heard that name: Philip Glass…

  11. “Sing the word ‘Ah’ for 6 minutes straight” aka me watching after watching the news.

  12. now i have to fork out the money to go over to the met opera and see this

  13. The music score on the last 60 -seconds of the feature somehow reminds me of Eagles' 'Hotel California'. 🙂

  14. I really want to go see this, but I fear I will not know how to understand it's beauty. Like, I'll just be too basic to understand why the singing and music is so extraordinary that I'll get bored and feel like I just wasted hundreds of dollars on tickets.

    I went to requiem and got bored and I listened to Jacob Collier, how I thought I would like, but his music was just too weird for me.

  15. How do you tell a story of Africans with little to no black people and the main person is white.
    Other than that critique which is a very big part of it I love opera and plays. They seem to have an incredible body of work.
    White people telling a black story is pretty disappointing

  16. I had to pause this video for two hours to listen to an recording of Akhnaten after hearing the Ah ah part

  17. I have a hard enough time walking out of my room naked in front of my girlfriend. How can he walk in slow motion in front of 4000 people? For the record I'd love to go see this opera. I wish i could take my children and girlfriend. That would be incredible

  18. "We're representing some of those rituals in our own way, and the the shrunken baby doll heads SOMEHOW represent that."

    Umm, how exactly?

  19. So, not only was this an interesting look at something I would probably never otherwise see, it was just straight up nice to see this dude very clearly living his best life. That's rad.

  20. Eyy, I love Philip Glass!
    Eyy, I love Philip Glass!
    Eyy, I love Philip Glass!
    Eyy, I love Philip Glass!
    Eyy, I love Philip Glass!
    Eyy, I love Philip Glass!
    Eyy, I love Philip Glass!
    Eyy, I love Philip Glass!
    Eyy, I love Philip Glass!
    Eyy, I love Philip Glass!
    Eyy, I love Philip Glass!
    Eyy, I love Philip Glass!

  21. Vox is slowly graduating from Explainer to straight up National Geographic.

  22. I like how when he talked about arpeggios, the background music followed along to his singing.

  23. Vox’s videos are always cinematically and aesthetically pleasing and appealing but this one is on another level

  24. Good to see how Vox handle its subject videos seriously. The editing is always on point, concise , interesting to view, with clever subject choices, and there is never a poster pointing out an editing flaw. There are so many contemporaries that botch the approached subject, whether through lack of in depth research, or by pressing a hidden agenda.

  25. This was so cool! So we’ll-done and made the subject both beautiful and interesting. Thank you!

  26. I saw it twice at ENO, and it was one of the best experiences of my life, musically. (It got better when fricking Philip Glass came on stage)

  27. Hm. The tickets are like 10% of my monthly salary so if I would like to go with the girlfriend it would be one-fifth of my salary : D Thank god I live in another country in Europe so the costs of flight tickets are beyond my reach so I don't have to spend anything.

  28. Opera: wants more people to go and appreciate it.
    Also opera: is expensive, inaccessible to most, and perpetuates classism.

  29. cool video, but why isn't there more about the scenography? I mean surely you got there by the time it was almost done, but it would be nice to see the process! just that giant sun alone, wow!

  30. Zoroaster was the first by some 700 years. Akhnaten exonerated himself as the one god (alla Louis XIV) it was an expression of narcissism. And his successors reversed everything he did. He represents a decline in a time of decadence ollowing the prosperity of his predecessor that amassed great wealth for Egypt.

  31. If opera isn’t an argument for the redistribution of wealth then I dunno what is.

  32. He’s wrong with that whole first monotheist thing the Hebrews were around before him

  33. So does the lead have hair or not? I'm genuinely confused since I swear I saw him in different scenes with and without it. I'm sure I've missed something; someone please help me understand.

  34. The opera guy is wrong about most everything that involves history in this,, don’t believe him

  35. 2:12 Minor error, but he wasn't the first to worship one god, there were already worshipers of a single Sun god. What he did is he made it the state religion rather than the traditional pantheon. However all of Egypt hated being forced to worship one god to the point where he tried to build his own City with the roots of the religion but he died before he could realise his dream of a monotheistic egypt.

  36. 2:28 reminds me of that one episode of Hannibal!!! I wish I could get the chance to watch operas ppls r awesome

  37. Probe is acctually rehersal and try is Versuchen…….

    VOX used google translate lol

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