Acaila wrote:Ah, I've seen a missed bullet bag once now I think about it! But yes, like you say, that's not a serious problem even in the storytelling if it goes wrong.
"Misérables: Life Down in Les Pits"
Toronto Star, Dec 2, 1989
WHEN DEREK Bate was hired as conductor and musical director for the Toronto production of Les Misérables, nobody told him he'd have to watch out for flying furniture and assorted other bits of airbound stage paraphernalia.
Since the show opened in March at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Bate has been assailed by hats, beer tankards, spoons, you name it.
The conductor, unlike the 25 members of his orchestra who are protected by a wire mesh, is exposed to the rousing onstage shenanigans that necessarily attend this musical tale of 19th- century France in revolt.
"The most exciting thing that ever happened to me was the night I got hit over the head with a flying piece of chair," Bate says. "There's a point in the story where Jean Valjean (played by Michael Burgess) slams a chair into the stage. It's designed to come apart in pieces and one night a piece of leg just flew up and clipped me across the forehead.
"It didn't hurt me but it certainly surprised me. I don't think I missed too many beats. It just sort of stunned me for a moment."
Such are the unexpected delights of overseeing a production-heavy megamusical on the scale of Les Miz. Delights because, if nothing else, they help break up the potential monotony of conducting the same music night after night, day after day.
All of this is fairly new to the classically-trained, 35-year-old musician.
Prior to his immersion in Les Misérables, a musical adaptation by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg of Victor Hugo's popular 19th century novel, Bate's career was developing along purely operatic lines. The Toronto native started playing piano at the age of 5, later attending the Royal Conservatory of Music, the University of Edinburgh, the Prague Academy of Arts and the music faculty at University of Toronto. He conducted for the U of T and the Gilbert and Sullivan Society before launching a decade-long association with the Canadian Opera Company in 1979 with Le Nozze di Figaro, coincidentally at the Royal Alex.
Bate was given a crack at Les Miz on the recommendation of Royal Alex musical director Peter Schenkman. Between his first interview and finally getting the job, he went to see the Broadway production.
"It impressed me with its power and drama," he says. "It was a very emotional experience to see it for the first time - especially knowing that I might be working on it."
Less than a year after opening, Bate has conducted the show nearly 250 times. He generally handles seven of the eight weekly performances and often is found sitting in the theatre listening for problems during his one show off.
The challenges of conducting a popular musical are entirely different from those presented by an opera, a single production of which rarely runs more than 10 performances. Complacency - his own and his musicians' - is something Bate works hard to guard against.
"Boredom and lethargy are more of a problem for the musicians than for the performers onstage, simply because they're less involved in the show. They feel more detatched, out of sight. It isn't the same challenge that it is for the actors."
To help combat the onset of ennui, the musicians, many of whom also work for the COC and other orchestras in the city, are allowed periodic breaks from the show - provided that suitable substitutes can be found.
Also, Bate keeps a keen eye out for daydreamers. This task is made especially difficult by the cramped and irregular quarters inside the pit, which measures roughly 18 x 40 feet, but is divided in the middle by a trap door used by the actors. Several of the musicians follow the conductor's directions on five small and strategically-placed TV monitors.
"It's not an ideal situation because, first of all, a two- dimensional TV image is harder to follow than a three-dimensional conductor.
"And also, if they're doing something I don't like it's awfully hard to fix them in the eye and attract their attention. You look in the monitor, but how does anybody know who you're looking at?"
Musically, Bate concedes Les Misérables doesn't rank with the most challenging compositions in the operatic repertoire. But he has learned not to underestimate the demands of the 3 1/4-hour show.
"I don't think (the music) necessarily stands up well if you haven't seen the show, but I would also say that for a lot of operas.
"Its aim is to communicate on a direct, emotional level with a general audience and it does that very well. It isn't trying to be a sophisticated, intellectual show.
"I guess I didn't expect that it would still be difficult at this point - that certain passages can still go wrong. And I didn't expect that it would be this physically tiring.
"It seems that after you've done it so many times it should be easier. But it takes a lot out of me still. And it takes every bit of my concentration to keep it together and keep it really good. And it doesn't always work.
"If I don't bring the necessary energy and dynamic leadership to it, the orchestra will start sitting back and they won't give the kind of dramatic performance I need. Everything in this show starts from the music and if the orchestra is sluggish it weighs down the evening and affects the actors, because they don't get the energy from the music that they're used to."
And if there's one thing audience members can expect from Bate it's an energetic performance - although on at least one occasion his apparent flamboyance was entirely accidental.
"One night after taking my bows, I turned back to resume conducting and I caught my baton on something - either the underneath of the stage or one of my lights. It went out of my hand and flipped end over end high in the air above the audience. Somebody about four rows back caught it.
"I think they thought that this was part of the event - that I staged this every night."
Given the amount of debris soaring through the air during the show, it's an understandable assumption.
deHavilland wrote:A dangerous gig, conducting Les Mis.
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