By Heather K. Scott
The Prague Summer Nights (PSN) Festival is a monthlong opportunity for conservatory-level students to learn and perform opera music in some of the most music-rich cities in Europe. It’s also much like taking lessons within a living, breathing music-history museum. If you think it sounds both dreamy and intense, you’re 100 percent correct. “You walk around, from rehearsals to your hotel, and see the cafes and the canals. It is different than playing the same music anywhere else,” says cellist Amit Peled, who joined PSN in Salzburg, Austria, to perform the Dvorak Cello Concerto this summer.
Encompassing 18 performances over the course of just one month, and triangulating three grand European cities (Prague, Salzburg, and Tabor), PSN is a heavy mix of learning, culture, and performance all stirred together in one big bowl. Sprinkle in long rehearsals, tight schedules, ever-changing concert programs, and loads of travel, and you’ve got the recipe for a challenging—and uniquely stylized—learning experience.
To successfully devour this musical feast, students must tackle the gritty nuts and bolts of daily rehearsals and simultaneously develop some serious time-management skills. As violinist and past PSN attendee Kristen Morrill explains, “Time is everything. If we don’t use our time efficiently, then we lose precious details and stylistic embellishments that are crucial to the success and power of each piece.”
Another PSN participant, bassist Harrison Dilthey, concurs, declaring that the biggest lesson he’s learned from PSN is just how much work and time it takes to be a professional musician. “Not just in terms of playing ability, but in terms of the hours of rehearsal required to pull together a concert in less than a week,” he says. “It’s a mentally exhausting process, and physically draining as well. But it is a high-level professional organization, and the wonderful faculty at PSN give me the tools needed to be able to play two three-hour opera performances in one day.”
Preparation Is Key
Knowing that schedules are packed and study is intense, what is the best way for students interested in participating in PSN to prepare? Peled suggests doing more than just reviewing YouTube videos, recordings of other players auditioning, or performing the same pieces slated for PSN performances. Instead, he recommends finding ways to go above and beyond playing accurately. “[Sometimes,] people are efficient and play the right notes, but there’s something musically lacking [that’s needed] to give them context.” He reports that this is one of the challenges so many music educators face today. “As a teacher, helping students fill in that missing piece is important to me,” he says. “I want to encourage students to become curious, because that doesn’t happen much anymore.”
PSN gives participants an opportunity to be curious and immerse themselves in music, culture, and living history as well. “[Participants] can look back at this experience and smile because they will know what it looked and felt like when the music was created and first performed,” Peled says.
Another consideration while preparing for the festival is less esoteric and much more physical. The human body can handle only so much, and practicing for the rigors of a festival like this can be not just exhausting and challenging—but painful, too. “It was really important for me to prepare my body for playing six to eight hours each day without injuring myself,” says Morrill (who has struggled with tendinitis). The solution: Morrill focused on balancing practicing with self-care during the time leading up to the festival. She shaped her practice sessions by working through fundamentals. As she says, “It only takes one person to completely derail a rehearsal, resulting in loss of time and frustration for the other members of the orchestra.”
Undoubtedly, preparation is key. But the bigger question for students interested in PSN may be more about what they stand to get out of the experience. “What we teach at the festival can shape players and students in new ways,” Peled says. It makes students think more personally, rather than copying to learn.
The program, only in its third year, is already garnering accolades. The true sign of success? Students who want to come back again . . . and again. This is the case with Morrill and Dilthey, two of the program’s inaugural students who are happy to apply and participate again and again. As Morrill explains, “After having an amazing experience in 2015, I decided to return. There are even more opportunities for orchestra players—including our final concert on the stage of the Mozarteum University of Salzburg, so when I was asked to consider coming back to the festival, I decided to apply again.”
For Dilthey, who was inspired to apply for PSN after a fair amount of time spent in youth orchestras (and a deep-seated passion for opera), the decision to go back was simple: He looked forward to more opportunities to work with vocalists. After participating in PSN once, he was sold. “Seeing the opportunity to perform Don Giovanni on the same stage where it was premiered by Mozart so many years ago seemed to be exactly what I was looking for,” he says. “And it ended up being so much more. This is my third summer with PSN, and it has brought something new for me, year after year. I’m excited to go to Salzburg and have the opportunity to perform Mozart’s operas in the city where he is from.”
The program is rich in opportunity for faculty as well, particularly for newcomer Peled, who looks forward to connecting his love for opera with his passion for teaching and performing. “There’s something incredible about playing music in the place in which it was composed—particularly in Prague,” he says. There are also rare opportunities for string players to learn from being part of a vocal performance, Peled adds. He has his students take voice lessons so that they can learn how to accompany singers from both sides of the fence.
It’s All About Opera
During the days of Dvorak and Mozart, opera was the entertainment—the TV-social media-radio-newspaper of the day. And musicians and vocalists were the storytellers who drew in audiences, night after night. Instrumentalists were tasked with translating emotion without words. “When students perform The Marriage of Figaro, they’re part of creating not just the music, but the story and words, too,” Peled says. “Being a musician and having a chance to work with vocalists together to deliver that story offers a unique learning experience.”
Playing with an orchestra is one thing, but performing with vocalists who are also actors on a stage is quite another thing. “When working in any live performance, nothing will be exactly the same each time,” Morrill says. “Specifically, working with a live opera at this festival has helped me learn to collaborate with players and singers alike. An opera setting requires the orchestra to take on the role of accompaniment, meaning that we have to listen and react to the soloists.
“Working in such long and demanding operas also challenges the orchestra to adapt quickly to any changes or deviations.”
Additionally, PSN participants are stationed in the same opera houses in which the pieces were performed hundreds of years ago. The smaller spaces and less-comfortable seating can be eye opening. “The sticky summertime temperatures make the music making more authentic,” Peled explains. “This is part of what Mozart had in mind when he wrote this music and it is important for musicians to see these spaces and feel what it is like to play in them.”
Peled, like many students, is inspired and excited by all that PSN has to offer. “This inspires me, and I hope I have time to talk with the students about it. I want them to know that they are important and this music is important. I hope I am able to do that and give them a good experience,” he says. “Our grandfathers played this music, and I want participants to feel that, too. These instruments and music—we are the new caretakers.”
Favorite memories from Prague Summer Nights alums
“One of my favorite memories from my first year at PSN was performing Don Giovanni at the Estates Theatre. Mozart is easily my favorite composer, so having the chance to perform this opera where Mozart premiered it in 1787 was truly overwhelming. The sheer history that lies within the building seemed tangible. The most intense moment for me was during our fourth and final performance as we reached the recapitulation in the finale of Act II. Hearing the culmination of the opera and realizing our time in Prague was coming to an end sent tears streaming down my face. Music truly has the ability to move us to the core of our being, and I can only hope that this emotion reaches not just the musicians performing, but the audience.”
“In the first installment of PSN, we performed Suor Angelica by Giacomo Puccini. James Burton (now Tanglewood’s festival chorus director) had a way of pulling every musician into the intensity of Puccini’s story. At the end of the opera, when Suor drifts off to heaven, it was the most magical musical experience I had ever been a part of. There was not a dry eye in the building, and most of the audience didn’t even speak
the language of the opera. It was a moment of universal peace that I’ll never forget."