Category Stage Notes

"When the music is live, each performance is as unique as the dancers themselves."

John Nuemeier's The Little Mermaid features an original score by Lera Auerbach. Performed live by the Lyric Opera Orchestra, the breathtaking music features the addition of the theremin, an electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact by the performer. Haunting and powerful, the theremin plays an integral role in the production's music as we follow the tormented mermaid on a journey between the divergent worlds of land and sea—one utterly complex, the other magnificently serene. Scott Speck, the Music Director of the Joffrey Ballet, shares his thoughts on the music's distinctive qualities, and his experience conducting for ballet.  


How would you describe the experience of conducting music specifically for dance, and how is it different from other types of conducting? What are some of the unique characteristics of music composed for ballet?

Conducting for ballet is very similar to conducting for a vocal or instrumental soloist. There is a certain flow, phrasing, and trajectory of the music, which involves an important give and take with the soloist in the moment of performance. For example, when a violinist holds a particularly gorgeous high note for a split second longer than usual, I need to be sensitive to that, holding the orchestra just a touch until the moment of resolution. The same is true of the dance... and since the trajectory is visual (and physical) rather than aural, it's sometimes even easier to discern the needs and the musicality of the dancers. For example, you can sense when a violinist is about to "come down" from a high note. But the laws of gravity tend to determine when the dancer will come down, so that's a bit easier to predict!

There are many other ways in which conducting for ballet can help the dancers. Is today's casting of the Prince taller than yesterday's? We can set a slower tempo to accompany his leaps. Can the ballerina hold her pose a second longer tonight? We can stretch the music as she stretches her body. Is the principal couple on fire with energy today? We can speed up the tempo for their coda. My baton is completely in sync with each dancer's movements, and the orchestra is in sync with the stage. This is why live music is so essential to any serious ballet performance. When the music is live, each performance is as unique as the dancers themselves. And that's when the indescribable alchemy of movement and music can take place. That's when the magic happens.

How does the music for The Little Mermaid communicate the story? Tell us about the score's unique instrumentation and how the theremin is used as the little mermaid's voice.

The Little Mermaid, as Hans Christian Andersen wrote it, is a story full of wildly different emotions, and Lera Auerbach masterfully conveys them all. There is love, happiness, grief, and even violence. Lera has a distinctive voice, and I think our orchestra musicians will agree that we've never played a score quite like this.

I think the main thing that the audience will notice is the use of the theremin, which depicts the Mermaid's ethereal, mystical side. People may recognize the eerie sound of this instrument from sci-fi films of the 1950s. The theremin is unique; you never touch it to make a sound! (Is there any other instrument like that?) The instrument has a pitch antenna and a volume antenna. You move one hand closer and farther away from the pitch antenna to adjust the pitch, and you can shake that hand to create vibrato. The other hand adjusts volume based on proximity to the volume antenna.

Besides the theremin, additional instruments and techniques are used to depict the undersea atmosphere. A beautiful solo violin, played by Lyric Concertmaster Robert Hanford, represents the Mermaid's human side; the harp, which has been used to depict the sea by everyone from Debussy (in La Mer) to John Williams (in Jaws); and the celesta, used to express grace and delicacy ever since The Nutcracker's Sugar Plum Fairy.

The composer uses other techniques to depict the sea. For example, unsynchronized musical lines, where two instruments play the same melody, but they are rhythmically slightly askew, creating a blurry effect. And she makes use of glissandos, sliding between notes. This is the theremin's specialty, but nearly all the instruments are called upon to do this, adding to the blurry, ethereal effect.

The ballet also depicts life on land, which here is characterized by much more aggressive, rhythmic, and even brutal sounds. The brass and percussion play a significant role here. As a result, this score is incredibly wide-ranging and varied. 

Auerbach's score includes uncommon time signatures, which can be tricky for dancers. What is the conductor's role in helping them navigate through that kind of rhythmic complexity? How does this impact the choreography?

You put your finger on it! Uncommon time signatures are very tricky not only for the dancers but also for the ensemble of any orchestra. A large part of my role for this ballet is to show the time signatures clearly with my baton, so that our musicians can be in sync from one end of the orchestra pit to the other. 

The best thing we can do is provide a very clear musical landscape for the dancers to respond to. As for the dancers themselves, sometimes they are counting these very irregular phrases, but other times the rhythm is so tricky, the dancers have to wait for a certain melody, or even a certain sound, like the theremin, for example, to know when it's time for a particular step. It's brilliant how John Neumeier has allowed the dancers to navigate such a tricky score.


Learn more about Scott Speck here. 

The Little Mermaid runs from April 19-30, 2023, at the Lyric Opera House.