News Column

Musicians search for sound of a guillotine

June 15, 2014

By Sarah Bryan Miller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch



June 15--With most operas, the orchestral parts aren't that hard to figure out. They're all in the score: strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion.

And then there's the sound of the guillotine in Francis Poulenc's "The Dialogues of the Carmelites."

In the final scene, one of the most devastating 8 1/2 minutes in all of opera, 16 nuns go to the scaffold. They sing the "Salve Regina" in a chorus that loses one voice with each descent of the (offstage) blade. The problem is making it sound believable; the moment loses some of its force with the wrong effect.

Conductor Ward Stare says he began considering the question months ago for Opera Theatre of St. Louis' production. Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he was principal trombone, used an amplified sound. "I remember being unsatisfied by that." When he researched it, he learned that many companies use a sampled track over their public address systems, or amplify the sound of a paper cutter backstage.

"There's no way of getting any acoustical carry to it," he says. "I started thinking, wouldn't it be powerful if we could make that sound?" When Stare arrived in St. Louis, he talked it over with OTSL general director Timothy O'Leary, stage director Robin Guarino and principal percussion Will James.

James had studied the score and realized that it would be a challenge to make a sound like the thud of a guillotine. "Ward said it was really important to him that it was an acoustic sound, with nothing amplified. The issue there was, how do we create a sound that can be heard over an entire orchestra and chorus? The odds are that it's going to be backstage; the sound has to get through a bunch of curtains, stage walls, and all that."

For weeks, they went back and forth trying different things, none of which quite worked out. "They were good," says Stare, "but not quite what I was looking for. 'I don't think that will carry; I don't think that will have an impact on the audience.' Getting this right is crucial, in my mind."

As they worked through the options, Stare says, "It became clear to me that a sound that was made with a tam-tam or other musical instrument would be too musical, too even, too resonant."

They concluded that the sound has two components: the steel-on-steel scraping of the falling blade, and the thud as it hits, bouncing a little from the impact. James came up with the solution to the thud with the "Mahler box," used in Mahler's Symphony No. 6. It's a big wooden box that's struck with a large mallet, for a big, ominous sound.

The steel-on-steel took a little more effort. James asked the stagehands where they could get some scrap metal and was directed to Shapiro Metals, near Bellefontaine Cemetery. Stare called ahead and explained what was needed. "They said, 'Wow! We've never gotten a request like that before. Come on over!' After rehearsal he did and "went crawling around three acres of steel in my rehearsal clothes."

James joined him. "Ward and I walked around, scraping metal. It was a lesson in physics. We ended up finding two pieces of steel that worked well, one cut sort of crudely, with rough edges, a lot of friction for a loud sound. We took it to my house, got a grinder and scraped it more so that it would vibrate across the teeth" of the other piece.

It's a compact instrument; the bigger one is the length of a carry-on suitcase, while the piece used to strike it "is maybe the size of an umbrella. It's a little bit thinner, easier to slide across." Cost: $75. "I'm doing the Mahler box," says James. Percussionist Alan Stewart "is the blade."

They built a box and went through a process of trial and error to achieve a satisfactory effect. Then they took the instruments to OTSL and worked on their "guillotine technique" and placement backstage. When they demonstrated it for the cast, Stare says, "Everybody was absolutely silent."

It's been a fun challenge, they agree. "It's an integral part of the story," says Stare, "a climactic part of story. With a score this beautiful, this well-crafted, and with such a phenomenal cast, to have a canned effect at the end of the opera just didn't seem right."

Sarah Bryan Miller is the Post-Dispatch's classical music critic. Follow Bryan on the Culture Club blog, and on Twitter at @SBMillerMusic.

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Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


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