Opera from the orchestra pit

When most people think of opera, they think of the singers on the stage. However, in an opera, the orchestra plays an equally important role. Grand Rapids Symphony musicians Barbara Corbató, Assistant Principal Viola, and Alexander Miller, Assistant Principal Oboe, understand this well.

“The orchestra and voices on stage are so dependent on each other. As artists, we all have a great love of and dedication to the art form,”Corbató said.

Barbara Corbató; Photo: Terry Johnston | Grand Rapids Symphony

Miller, who played his first opera at The Metropolitan Opera while attending The Julliard School in New York City, enjoys the extra element of musical storytelling and action on the stage that the opera offers. “I wouldn’t ever want to play in an orchestra that never got to do an opera.”

An opera production requires that the orchestra musicians approach each performance differently than they would a symphonic concert.

“Playing an opera is like running a marathon in terms of focus and physical endurance. When an act begins, we are completely focused until each act ends, sometimes up to ninety minutes later. And then after intermission, we come back to do it again,” Corbató said. “On opera days, I have to plan my day so that I don’t over practice or play too much so that I have good endurance for the rehearsal or performance.”

For Miller, the ability to use abstract thinking is important when playing in the pit. Because the musicians cannot directly see what’s happening on the stage, they rely on the conductor to guide them. “You’re not going to be able to sit down and know exactly what’s happening in every bar, just because there’s so much dealing with the action on the stage.”

Collectively, Miller and Corbató have over 50 years of experience performing with Opera Grand Rapids as part of the Grand Rapids Symphony. Through the years, they have racked up some entertaining stories. Perhaps the best story is how Miller began his career performing in opera.

Alexander Miller; Photo: Terry Johnston | Grand Rapids Symphony

“The very first time I got to play at The Met, it was a very last minute substitute, like eight minutes before curtain,” said Miller.

The slotted oboist was stuck in traffic on the Holland Tunnel. After being asked the question “How fast can you get in a tuxedo,” Miller found himself buttoning his shirt in the elevator and sprinting into the pit.

“The first thing was an oboe entrance in the overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. I played the entire first act before the second oboist arrived. What a crazy way to make an entrance!”

Corbató’s best memory wasn’t from the pit, but rather from the stage at Opera Grand Rapids’ 1996 production of Rigoletto.

“One of the fun times that I had, I think it was Rigoletto, I did the onstage string quartet. We had to play up to a certain point in the pit and then race up to the stage to get in place to play on stage, getting on stage in time and then getting back down to the pit to play. We were in quite in a hurry. It was really fun to play on stage with the set.”

About Barbara Corbató

Barbara Corbató is currently Assistant Principal Viola of the Grand Rapids Symphony, where she has performed since 1990 and is also a member of the GRS’ Calder String Quintet. In addition, she is an active chamber musician- a member of the Perugino String Quartet since 2007, and performing regularly at the Chamber Music Festival of Saugatuck. Ms. Corbató also is active as a viola teacher, serving on the viola faculties at Hope College while also maintaining a home studio. She also has taught viola at Aquinas and Calvin College.

Ms. Corbató grew up in Columbus, Ohio, then attended the University of Michigan, where she received Bachelor and Master of Music degrees in Viola Performance. Before moving to Grand Rapids, she performed in the New World Symphony of Miami, Florida, the Spoleto Festival of South Carolina and Italy, and the orchestras of Columbus, Flint, and Saginaw. She has also participated in music festivals in Santa Barbara and Aspen.

About Alexander Miller

Alexander Miller, who splits his time equally between composing and performing on oboe, has written many large orchestral works including “Fireworks,” performed in Carnegie Hall for the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 75th anniversary, “Let Freedom Ring,” which has been narrated by James Earl Jones, Danny Glover and former president Bill Clinton, “Encaustic,” a clarinet concerto depicting wax painting, “Madame Bovary,” a cello concerto inspired by Flaubert’s impossible dreamer, and his recent “Rocomoji,” a modern concerto grosso that takes a serious look at the emoji phenomenon.

His music has been hailed as “stunning” (American Harp Society), “otherworldly” (Tacoma News Tribune), “engaging and energetic” (Modesto News), and anything from “magnificent,” “haunting” and “imaginative” to “intricate” and “sly and whimsical” (Grand Rapids Press). About his orchestral tone puzzle “Scherzo Crypto,” a senior critic at the San Antonio Express-News wrote that his “vibrant, propulsive” music “recalled in some ways the best mid-20th century American symphonists.” When he was a resident composer at the 2016 Cabrillo Music Festival with Marin Alsop, artssf.com called him “clever, unique – a composer with something of Alan Turing within him.” Arts and Culture Texas Magazine delivered a rave review of the world premiere of “Rocomoji,” calling it “brilliant … you have to hear it to believe it. Miller’s writing is deliciously evocative, imaginative, and humorous.” Most of his commissions and premieres have originated in Grand Rapids, where the Grand Rapids Press has called him “Assistant Principal Oboist by title, Composer-in-Residence by default.”

Miller was born in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan in 1968 to an art-loving mother and an auto executive father, then spent his childhood living in Mexico, Australia and Venezuela before returning to Michigan for high school. He completed his musical training at The Juilliard School in New York and holds B.M. and M.M. degrees in oboe performance. Shortly after graduating in 1992, he won the national audition for Assistant Principal Oboe with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

In addition to his orchestral duties, Miller is an oboist, conductor and composer with Ensemble Montage, a chamber group dedicated to performing the myriad challenging works of the past century. He also plays with the Wünderwind Quintet and travels to elementary schools to teach children about the basic elements of building music.

In 2009, Miller received the diagnosis of a rare recurring brain tumor that forced him to undergo two brain surgeries followed by a long rehabilitation. Working his way back to a life of performing and composing is his proudest accomplishment, and he blogs about his experiences as a patient regularly, stressing the importance of humor and honesty as a path to healing. He is married to Grand Rapids Symphony violist Mary Jane Miller and they enjoy life together with their poodle, JoJo. His other interests include mushroom hunting, puzzles, modern art, aviation, and wine.