Out of the box at Lyric
By Megan Hickey
Susan Miller Hult’s score of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg has seen some serious love. The several hundred pages of Richard Wagner’s expertly crafted leitmotifs and word paintings have been circled, underlined, arrowed and otherwise scrawled upon while working on this true example of Gesamtkuntswerk (“The Total Art Work”).
In her 20th season with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Miller Hult is prompting this month’s performances of the epic Wagner comedy Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The opera follows the story of an ancient guild of mastersingers and a contest for the hand of a beautiful woman.
So, what’s a prompter? In case you thought that black box on the edge of the stage was a monitor, or even a decoration, Miller Hult is here to enlighten us all.
Beyond staying steady and alert in a small box perched above the orchestra, Miller Hult is in charge of coordinating the singers with their musical cues, acting as a last lifeline for singers who need a little help hearing their entrances. She mouths the words the entire time, verbalizing some cues when asked.
“But prompting doesn’t work if they don’t know the music,” she explained. “It’s so hard to keep that kind of focus, I’m just there to help if something interrupts the flow of the music.”
Languages she speaks: French, Italian, German, and some Czech.
Years she’s spent in the prompter’s box: 26 years, in addition to her studies as a pianist, organist and vocal coach.
Hours spent preparing for a single production: For Die Meistersinger, several hours a day since last March. “I more or less have it memorized,” Miller Hult explained, “The score is more of a road map for me.”
The hardest part: “Having to sing everyone’s part!” Miller Hult is responsible singing every single performer’s line if they should need prompting, male parts included.
Most perilous prompting: While the fire spitting stilt walker was removed from this performance after an accident on Monday, Miller Hult has had to battle the flames before. The crew fashioned her a Plexiglas shield for some of the smokiest scenes, but after a close run in with some knives in production of Carmen and blood splatters from The Barber of Seville, Miller Hult now chooses to duck out of the box for some of the more dangerous stage stunts.
As for prompting Die Meistersinger? “It’s without a doubt one of the most difficult shows to prompt.” The genius of Wagner’s intertwining lines, tricky down beats, and trademark polyphony mean that Miller Hult has her hands full from start to finish of this five and a half hour opera.
What do you say to audiences that are squeamish of the opera’s length? “It’s worth it for the music,” Miller Hult said. “It’s transcendent. I get goose bumps in so many places. Musically, it’s pure genius.”
Wagner harkens to the devices of Bach, the opera blueprints of Mozart and even recycles some 16th century mastersinger melodies. “I think the point of the opera is the traditions, but making room for genius too.”
Miller Hult also recommends studying up before the performance, because knowing the story takes a lot of the stress out of foreign language pieces.
Differences between today’s production and 1998? “We’ve updated it this time to the 19th century so it’s a lot more relatable. A lot more of the action is downstage, too, so it has a more intimate feeling. You really care about them.”
Opera companies only tackle productions like this once every decade or so – Chicagoans should check out tickets while they last.
DIE MEISTERSINGER SCHEDULE: Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, 5:30pm Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, 5:30pm Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, 5:30pm Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, 5:30pm Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 5:30pm Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, 1pm Friday, March 1, 2013, 1pm For tickets and more information, go to www.lyricopera.org