Donald Palumbo is dissatisfied with the sound of a Russian vowel. “It needs to be on the closed side,” he says. “Definitely not a diphthong.”
The Met’s studious yet spirited chorus master is perched on the edge of his tall swivel chair in List Hall, with the score for Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades on his music stand, opened to the opera’s first scene. The full chorus, more than 80-strong, fills the seats in front of him.
It’s July 31, just the third day of rehearsal for the 2019–20 season, but already the group has worked on four different operas in three different languages. The Russian for The Queen of Spades is the most challenging of the bunch.
“It is what it is,” Palumbo says to the singers in commiseration, “a lot of text, in a language we don’t know.”
But they are professionals, and they have a system. As they attack each new section, Palumbo first leads the chorus in speaking the text in rhythm, carefully calibrating the pronunciations with the help of detailed phonetic transliterations in the singers’ sheet music. Only when the language is crisp, clear, and natural do they return to the top and begin to sing, turning their attention to the music.
The day before, in his subterranean office one level below the stage, Palumbo had explained the choral challenges ahead—some common to every Met season, and others unique to the coming year.
One particular hurdle this season is the vast range of repertory and the multitude of languages. The schedule includes several works in each of the four most common operatic languages—Italian, French, German, and English—spanning a broad range of styles, from the Baroque filigree of Handel’s Agrippina to the sweeping gestures of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer and the heart of the Italian repertory.
On top of all that, there are the linguistic trials of The Queen of Spades and, waiting at the tail end of the season, Janáček’s Kát'a Kabanová, with its even more unfamiliar Czech text.
It’s not just the variety, but also the magnitude of the chorus’s involvement in some of the season’s repertory that makes this a particularly noteworthy year. “We have a number of operas that are regarded almost as primarily choral in a way,” Palumbo said, noting Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust as examples. “And of course we have Turandot, the epitome of Puccini choral music.”
In Palumbo’s opinion, it is the group’s musical versatility, dramatic commitment, and consistent quality that set the Met Chorus apart. “We don’t just learn the notes and the rhythms,” he said. “I feel that we really perform the opera, more than any other chorus, and that we are able to get into the sound palette of every different type of opera that we stage.”
One production this season presents perhaps the tallest mountain to climb in order to meet these lofty standards: the Met premiere of Akhnaten, Philip Glass’s meditative exploration of the life and works of an enigmatic Egyptian pharaoh. By the time they start to wrangle with the libretto’s archaic mix of ancient Egyptian, Akkadian, and Biblical Hebrew, the choristers may think longingly of Russian and Czech.
Akhnaten’s musical challenges, too, are significant, with the composer’s mesmerizing repetition and subtly shifting patterns of rhythm and harmony requiring absolute concentration and prodigious feats of memorization. The first several rehearsals, before this completely different style begins to click, are a struggle, Palumbo admitted. But the payoff, for performers and audience alike, is worth the effort. “It’s almost like a drug when you listen to this music,” he said. “If you can be really calm, really silent, and just let it wash over you, you find yourself transported.”
The chorus has continued to work their way, choral scene by choral scene, through The Queen of Spades, Palumbo shaping the sound along the way. As he listens and adjusts the singers’ diction, tone, timbre, and dynamics, he is in constant motion—conducting, springing from his chair, pacing side to side, then rushing back to his seat to reference the score.
So far, the opening choral promenade has been made more joyful (“Sunny! Sunny!”), the rushing rhythms of the Act I storm sequence have been sharpened (“I hear too much behind the beat, so there’s gray matter between the intervals”), and the caricature- factor of the neoclassical Act II shepherds’ chorus has been punched up (“It’s not music-boxy enough”).
Now, fortified after a short lunch break, they’ve made it to the entrance of Catherine the Great later in the second act. It’s the opera’s grandest moment, as the full chorus, bedecked in over-the-top 18th-century formalwear, awaits the Tsarina. Amid the scattered hubbub of anticipation, there is a brief moment of unison on a bright E-major harmony—but it falls slightly flat. “It’s just one fleeting half-second of that chord,” Palumbo says, “but we need it to gleam.” They try again, and it does.
At this point in Elijah Moshinsky’s staging, as the music swells, the assembled aristocrats turn their gaze upstage, where giant gilded doors slowly open to reveal Catherine. Resplendent in a golden dress with skirts wider than she is tall, and dripping in diamonds, the Tsarina is greeted by a soaring chorus of adoration.
As they sing these lines in rehearsal, the overwhelming resonance of the Met Chorus in full cry vibrates the room, and no sets or costumes are necessary to convey the scene’s grandeur. When the passage comes to an end, Palumbo smiles. This time, he has only one thing to say. “Folks, that is so good.”