Hear the Surreal Instruments of the Met’s New Opera

“It makes a very eerie sound,” Mr. Chan said. “And grown-up fingers really have a hard time getting into those spaces. So your pitch is not spot on. You get as close as you can, but I think that’s part of the point.”

A Spooky Ondes Martenot


Cynthia Millar plays the ondes Martenot, an early electronic musical instrument. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times

The otherworldly ondes Martenot is a far-out electronic instrument invented in 1928. It’s still something of a rarity, despite being championed by Messiaen, the composers of film soundtracks and, more recently, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, and it’s practically a character in “The Exterminating Angel.”

The opera, like the film it’s based on, is about a group of wealthy guests who assemble for a chic dinner party — and then find themselves inexplicably unable to leave, prevented by some mysterious force. The ondes, with its spooky swoops and slides and eerie timbre, represents that strange force; Mr. Adès said that it could be considered the voice of the exterminating angel.

The part was written specifically for Cynthia Millar, a leading ondes player, who will perform it at the Met. She described the sound as “very beguiling and also very terrifying.”

It will be a rare outing for an ondes in the pit of the Met, where it was used in Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” which opened the new opera house at Lincoln Center half a century ago but has seldom (if ever) been heard there since. Ms. Millar said that Mr. Adès’s writing for the ondes differed from that of other composers.

“Although this is a generalization, on the whole the music that Messiaen has written for the instrument is in the character of a seraphic, superhuman soprano, wishing good to the world,” she said. “That’s not the case here.”

Rock, Paper and a Salad Bowl


A door — for slamming — built by the Met’s carpentry shop. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times

The score calls several times for a door to be slammed, so Gregory Zuber, the Met’s principal percussionist, coordinated with the Met’s carpentry shop, which built him a small door attached to an easel-like frame that stands along the back wall of the pit.

Mr. Adès said that he was drawn by both the symbolism and sound of the slamming door. “The actual door in the story is open,” he said. “They could walk through it at any time. This is a crucial thing to grasp. But the symbolic door slams at several points.”


A spring coil and cowbells, used in lieu of tuned saucepans. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times

An unusually large battery of percussion instruments lines the Met’s pit for “The Exterminating Angel,” including a pair of rocks to bang together, paper to be torn, a maraca filled with metal bottle caps, a wooden salad bowl substituting for a wooden instrument used in processions, and an array of cowbells.

“The cowbells are stand-ins for pitched saucepans, which are not readily available,” Mr. Zuber said.

Mr. Adès said that he was a percussionist when he was a student. “If I were not doing what I’m doing these days,” he said, sitting in the front row of the opera house and looking down at a pit full of odd instruments, “I’d be very, very happy down there where Greg and his colleagues are.”

Continue reading the main story

Leave a Response