‘The opening of San Francisco’s opera season was an hour away when disaster struck. The lead tenor, about to sing the demanding role in Verdi’s Othello, lost his voice. A worldwide search began to see if one of a half dozen tenors knowing the role could come and save opening night.
Curtain time was delayed three hours. Rumors were rampant that none other than Placido Domingo was being flown in from New York by private jet. They proved true, and Domingo sang, without rehearsal, an opera he hadn’t sung for a year.
When asked how he did it, he said, “I couldn’t have done it without the help of the prompter.” [source]
I’d never heard of opera prompters before reading this entertaining article on the ROH website. These unsung heroes reside in a cramped little box at the front of the stage with only their heads poking up to the surface. One San Francisco Opera prompter describes it:
‘The prompter’s box is 34 inches from front to back and 45 inches from side to side. I enter from the floor below the stage. The first ladder I climb is 51/2 feet, and from that level, on which the hydraulic lift sits, it’s another 6 feet up to the stage.
I sit in my chair. I put my music on my adjustable music stand. I’ve got two video monitors of the conductor and an audio monitor that’s piped sound from the (orchestra) pit. I have a fan, because it gets hot in here. There’s a lot of dust that comes in. If you’re lucky, there are no props that come in. When people throw swords, I get nervous.’
Here he is at his workplace:
What do prompters do, you ask? Well, they conduct, especially when the singers have a less than perfect view of the conductor himself, and more importantly they cue the text or whatever musical prompt the signers might need. In the olden days they used what were essentially rear-view mirrors so they could see and follow the conductor, but now they a tiny television screen to aid them. Timing is crucial, as their prompts have to precede the conductor, and moreover the orchestra, by a second or so. The prompters will speak lines in a kind of shouted whisper, audible to the singers but not the audience, if all goes to plan. They’ll gesture and give other cues to the singers, with whom they’ve usually built up quite a rapport and know how to communicate with effectively.
The prompter has to be acutely aware and in total control of their every movement so as not to throw singer’s off. One prompter relates such advice:
‘Flaviano Labo once screamed at me,” Miss Dornemann [the opera prompter interviewed] said. ” ‘Sit still! Look happy! Don’t scratch your head, I’ll think it’s a cue. Don’t wiggle!’ I got the idea. Never look disapproving. Singers need all the encouragement they can get.’
The prompter’s job has fallen out of use in the UK apparently. Plus some director’s don’t want a prompters box ruining their set. But it’s still commonly using at the Met, for example. Met prompter Jane Klaviter has amusingly said that being a prompter is like being an air-traffic controller.
Naturally, there are some wonderful stories. In a performance of The Merry Widow the singers forget their lines and the prompter, Frau Knuzel, was so captivated by the performance that she had forgotten her duties. She was instead just sitting there, her arms folded over the score, transfixed by the spectacle. The singers began to improvise text. Eventually, they moved themselves down to the prompter’s box and, continuing to improvise, one of them sang, ‘by the way, have you heard anything lately from Frau Knuzel?’ To which the other responded, ‘No. I wonder how she is.’ Well, this prompted a loud screech from the box and Knuzel frantically recomposed herself and got back to the task at hand.
For all the undoubted stress and poor working conditions the prompter has to endure, I still can’t help but envy them. They have the best seat in the house.