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PDX OPERAbeat | A Company Blog is the blog for all things Portland Opera, featuring a variety of guest contributors who will provide insider's tidbits on all we do to celebrate the beauty and breadth of opera.

Turning the Pages

During the opera season, our Portland Opera Studio Artists each give a solo recital. Rob Ainsley, our associate music director/principal coach/pianist, always asks me to turn pages for him. And by "asks" I mean he knows exactly how to use flattery to his advantage. "I mean, who else could I possibly get?" he will say. "There is no one better."

Insert eye roll.

Page turning is a funny business. In one special way, it's just like being a music librarian: if you're very good at it, no one will notice you at all. It's also incredibly terrifying. I've met very few people who've ever turned pages who aren't petrified at the task, and I've only met one person who likes doing it. Why is it so awful? Observe:

1. You're likely sight-reading.
1a. You're likely sight-reading very difficult music, and/or music whose vocal line is in another language.
1b. On rare unlucky occasions these two things collide to produce something like Mussorgsky. It's next to impossible to follow the piano part at sight and when you take a panicked look at the voice line you realize it's in Cyrillic. Then you speak in page-turner code: you look directly down at the piano player with a veiled but stricken look on your face. This look says "IF YOU DON'T NOD VIGOROUSLY AT THE PAGE TURN WE ARE BOTH GONERS."

2. You have to constantly get up and down and you hope that nobody notices you.
2b. You have to do this without touching the piano or getting in the way of the pianist.
2c. You have to time your getting-up so that you're not poised over the music for an excruciating length of time, hovering over the pianist for the next five minutes.

3. You have to turn the pages.
3a. Just one page at a time (if you're lucky).
3b. At the right time.
3c. Quietly.
3d. In the right direction. (Sometimes you have to turn back, instead of forwards).
3e. Without the music then folding back to another page.

Anatomy of a page turn
You glance at the tempo marking. Hopefully it's in a language you read. And by that I mean hopefully it just says "Allegro non troppo" or "Lentement" and not something ridiculously long-winded and absurdly poetic. The French are terrible about this. The tempo marking is a sentence. By the time I've read the whole thing, I've probably missed the turn. And I speak French.

The pianist begins playing, and you corroborate what you thought the tempo would be with what it actually is. Hopefully you have some semblance of an idea where the beat is. Sometimes you're totally rhythmically unmoored. If you're lost, you wait for the singer, hope s/he comes in at the appropriate time, and figure it out from there. If that fails (or there's no voice on the first page) you stand up and prepare your turn and then just hope for a clear head nod.

Important: you look to see if the music goes past one page. Sometimes you don't even need to turn! Those pages are great, but few and far between.

The moment arrives. If you're me, unless the music is very slow, you stand up a staff above the last staff of the page, so that you can make sure you get the music in your hand and have time to turn. This also reassures the pianist that you're ready, you know where you are in the music, and you are GONNA turn that page.

You turn the page. But wait! I have a little secret. Rob taught it to me years ago, as the differentiating factor between passable page turners and truly great page turners: the fold-over. At the beginning of the last staff, you carefully fold over the top corner of the page you're about to turn, so that the pianist can peek ahead and remind himself what's there. I try to do this without casting a shadow on the music, which is hard.

Now: you turn the page. Just one page (usually). You sit down, hopefully with a modicum of grace. Then you sit very, very still. You clasp your hands in your lap, both to keep yourself from fidgeting and also because you're terribly nervous and they're probably shaking. You continue to follow the music, and as you do you begin to wonder, is my head cocked at a funny angle? You're no longer convinced you understand the mechanisms of your body. Do I usually sit like this? Is my neck jutting out? Is everyone looking at me and saying, why is her face turned unnaturally to the right like that? You have absolutely no idea what's normal anymore.

You get up and turn another page. Maybe this time you turn a little earlier than you think you should have and then once you've sat down, you quietly berate yourself for not getting it exactly right, although you're not actually sure it was too early, and after all Rob probably has it all memorized anyway, even if he thinks he doesn't. And you have a terrible itch on your nose but you can't touch it until the end of the piece, or at least until the next turn, because then everyone will notice you and they may even think you're picking your nose onstage.

If it's a piece you know, one of two things can happen: you can get lucky, as I did just recently when our soprano, Jennifer Forni, performed Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. It's a fiendishly difficult piano piece, and challenging for the turner too, because the tempo varies wildly and the figures are complicated and hard to follow. But Knoxville also happens to be my favorite piece of music, so for once I went into a recital with some sort of preparation! In the quick middle section, I found myself relieved to know the music so well -- I could anticipate as well as Rob could the best place for the turn, because I knew what was ahead.

The other way it can go, though, is that you know a piece and then get so wrapped up in listening that you forget to turn the page. I used to turn for one of my college professors, and he told me he hated to have pianists help him with page turns because inevitably they would get wrapped up in the piece and themselves forget that they had a job to do! Fortunately this has not happened to me -- yet. Keep your fingers crossed.

When the piece is over, the pianist and singer bow and you feel dreadfully awkward and try your best to be unobtrusive. Of course you don't stand to bow as well, but sometimes you need to leave the stage if both the singer and pianist are doing so, because otherwise there you'd be, swinging your legs in your seat on the stage by yourself, waiting for your musician friends to come back. So when they bow you have to sort of hover in your chair -- but without anyone noticing you -- and then if they start to walk towards the door you have to dart up and follow, somehow looking calm.

When the recital has ended, I'm usually too exhausted to go to the reception.

Some more thoughts on the terrors of page turning:

Liz Parker on Page Turning.

A funny post on the Piano World forums about a REAL professional page turner -- who apparently teaches a mandatory 2-credit course in the art!

Some tales of page turning from the Wall Street Journal.

The synopsis of a French film about a vengeful page turner.

A cute comic about ways page turners can mess with pianists.