As the lutenist in San Francisco Opera’s 2011 production of Xerxes, I play not only an unusual role in the orchestra, but also a number of unusual instruments not well known to many opera goers. While the traditional opera repertory is not often thought of as utilizing improvisation, baroque music has a rich history of it. Nowhere is this truer than in this production of Xerxes where the harpsichord and I make up what could essentially be called the rhythm section of the orchestra. We play from a bass line, much like what a cellist uses, but we have figured bass (numbers under the bass notes which tell us which harmonies to play) added to our parts. Similar to how a jazz pianist might accompany a song, both the harpsichord the lute family instruments play the harmony, which is improvised in keeping with musical content of the composer.
Maestro Patrick Summers has asked me to play three different plucked instruments, each providing a specific range, color and impulse to the music. The most visually striking instrument sticking out of the pit is the theorbo. A theorbo, which is about 6 feet in length, is basically a big bass lute with a long neck extension. These instruments usually have 14 strings, 6 to 8 strings are on a fret board much like a guitar, which are fretted (or stopped) by the player’s left hand while the long bass strings are only plucked with the right thumb. The tuning of the strings on the fret board is in intervals of fourths, somewhat comparable to the modern guitar and the long bass strings are tuned to a scale (for example, they could be tuned to the white notes on the piano). Since 17th
century string technology was quite different than what we have today, the unusually long string length of the theorbo created a peculiar tuning system. The highest sounding string is actually the 3rd
string and the upper strings are actually down an octave from what one might expect. This gives the theorbo a very thick middle and bass register and the lack of high notes can actually be a blessing since the theorbo almost never gets in the way of the vocal line. [Above: Michael Leopold in rehearsal playing the theorbo. Photo by Cory Weaver.]
The other instrument in the pit with me is called an archlute, but looks like a small theorbo. It is similar to the theorbo in that it also has a set of shorter strings on one fret board and a set of long bass strings, the difference between the two is that the archlute is basically a renaissance lute with bass strings. This instrument has a much wider range than the theorbo and goes almost an octave and a half higher. While the archlute can function like a theorbo by playing rich harmonies, it also can shine by playing melodic material in its accompaniment. The third and last instrument I’m playing in Xerxes is called a baroque guitar; it was also called a Spanish guitar throughout the 17th
and early 18th
century. This instrument is much smaller than the modern guitar although it is tuned in a somewhat similar fashion. It doesn’t have a 6th
string and in general doesn’t have a strong bass range. The main use of this instrument in Xerxes is to provide rhythmic vitality to certain arias; therefore I do a lot of strumming which adds a particular percussive texture to the orchestra.
[Above: Michael Leopold in rehearsal playing the baroque guitar. Photo by Cory Weaver.]
Some of the most interesting decisions to make in playing an opera such as Xerxes are which instrument would be the most appropriate for each aria, but even more interesting is what to play. What I mean by this is, how many notes to play for each bass note and if I should play them all together or spread them (also called to arpeggiate). Also, how fast or slow to spread a chord and whether to add passing notes or melodic material. As you can see the possibilities are infinite and while the composer’s intentions should always dictate how one accompanies, there is a lot left to the discretion of the performer.