The Nutcracker, again
by Amy Kuras
The lights dim, the oboe plays an A to tune the orchestra, and the conductor lifts her baton to signal the commencement of the overture to The Nutcracker ballet. Again. This year will be my eighteenth season of playing in the pit orchestra for The Nutcracker.
I have played cello for most of my life, pursuing it seriously through my second year of music conservatory. I burned out and left the program, but still play professionally; like most musicians, I travel all over for gigs. I've played for the Comic Opera Guild, done plenty of weddings, and performed for the occasional church service, and every December I travel to Plymouth to play the three performances of The Nutcracker.
It is a wonderful avocation, although like any job it has benefits and drawbacks. One benefit is that I get to play many great pieces of music, including The Nutcracker ballet. One drawback is that I will have played it fifty-four times when 2011 draws to a close.
I have never actually seen the ballet while playing. From the pit at Salem High School, a good ten feet below the front of the stage, nothing is visible but the walls, and the audience is a faceless mass of noise. Every once in a while, I glimpse an arm or a leg at the edge of the stage. It is always the same arm in a red jacket, the same leg in a white tutu. Not much to go on if I wanted to follow the plot line.
I did see the ballet once as a child, but I hardly remember the story. I know there are maice, there are fights, there are dances from many cultures, and of course there's the Sugar Plum Fairy. I don't remember who exactly the Sugar Plum Fairy is, but the audience is invited to have tea with her and the other dancers after every performance, and it seems to be a highlight of the experience.
can hear, and sometimes feel, the clomping of the wooden-toed shoes at the conclusion of a leap. During one scene, dry-ice mist slithers over the edge of the stage into the pit, invariably causing several musicians to break into coughing fits. In another scene, I nearly drop my bow when the sound of a small cannon apparently marks the climax of one of those fight scenes. I can't spend too much energy straining to see what is going on, as I might lose my place in the music. This happens rarely, however, as I have memorized nearly every note of the two-and-a-half-hour production, from overture to finale.
Back in the day, the pit orchestra was much larger, and we had rehearsals aplenty. It was a bit more festive then, as cookies and candy were passed through the pit to help celebrate the holiday. This is no longer the case, and no one thinks to bring snacks. There seems barely to be time to fit in a dress rehearsal, much less wipe chocolate off our fingerboards.
During the intermissions (there are two), our pit becomes a sort of zoo display. Parents with little girls clad in velvet dresses and shiny bows lean over the railing and gleefully point to our instruments; it's a rare opportunity to see a cello or clarinet up close. I try to hide behind a magazine or pretend to nap, but we often have no choice but to engage with the young audience. I know I should be more gracious toward our fans, but I dearly need the mental break before the intermission is over and we proceed to Act II.
For a couple of years, I deliberately planned my vacation to miss The Nutcracker. It was just too many performances, and I needed a break. In the conservatory, they never told me that someday I would be repeating the same melody enough times to rob the joy from even "Frosty the Snowman."
Despite many years of playing the same music, there are always moments where its beauty deeply moves me. Some movements of The Nutcracker make me smile, while others are just plain fun to play. And then there is the enchanting oboe solo of the Arabian dance, an exotic, longing melody that can send me into a trance (partly because I play only two notes, repeated hundreds of times).
Many productions use recorded music nowadays, so I am grateful that this ballet company still employs a live orchestra. It isn't cheap to hire musicians, and as a consequence, our orchestra has become smaller each year. The piano plays the harp parts, and a dance scored for three flutes is now played by one flute, a clarinet, and an oboe. The worst insult, however, is the instrumentation of the Pas de Deux, which features a heart-wrenching cello melody. With the cutbacks, this cello part is now doubled by the viola section. It is difficult to endure.
Despite my rant, I do-yes, really-look forward to those moments when the joyous music transcends the tedium of repetition, and I feel fortunate to play such a masterpiece. And maybe someday I will actually be in the audience at a performance of The Nutcracker ballet, so that I can understand the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and see who is behind the red sleeve and the white tutu.
[Originally published in December, 2011.]