The Sitzprobe – What is it and why with Brian Castles-Onion

The Sitzprobe – What is it and why with Brian Castles-Onion

Posted: July 07, 2017

Each year the Vocal Manoeuvres Academy is contracted to conduct a Sitzprobe with the Creative Generation State School’s Onstage students and every time we receive many enquiries from students and staff on “What a ‘Sitzprobe’ is and the purpose of one”.

Given the term is an operatic one, we thought we’d consult one of Australia’s leading proponent of Opera and ask Conductor from Opera Australia, Brian Castles-Onion, for his insight!

Brian Castles-Onion is Australia’s most exciting and best-known opera conductor. He has been described as ‘Exceptionally brilliant’, ‘Dynamic’ and ‘Fabulous’. 

His conducting experience throughout Australia, Asia and New Zealand includes: La Boheme, Faust, La Traviata, Cosi Fan Tutte, Norma, The Merry Widow, and The Mikado to name but a few.

In addition to conducting, Brian is a celebrated compere and his reputation as an international recording artist, orchestral arranger and broadcaster is legendary. He has appeared in cabaret in New York, Berlin, London and throughout Australia – where he also regularly appears on national television. 

Brian was a regular pianist/presenter on ABC’s Play School – which he adored. His first book Losing the Plot in Opera, was released internationally in 2008. He made his New York Recital Debut in May 2009 and taught at Julliard School of Music in New York.

Director of the Vocal Manoeuvres Academy, Alison Rogers, worked with Brian as his assistant whilst he was Head of Music at the then Lyric Opera of Queensland

Interview Questions 

Brian, can you explain the term “Sitzprobe” for the benefit of our Creative Generation State School’s Onstage students?

Sitzprobe literally translates as a "sitting rehearsal". It's usually the first rehearsal where the orchestra and singers get together and hear each other.

What is the purpose of holding a Sitzprobe?

The main purpose of holding a Sitzprobe is to focus attention on integrating the two groups. It also gives the Conductor a greater idea of what the combined forces require to bring the final concept to fruition.

What can our vocalists expect at a sitzprobe?

Obviously, if the singers have been rehearsing with a piano or keyboard .... there are a myriad of new sounds to distract them from their learned lines. An good opera 'repetiteur' (or rehearsal pianist) will have viewed the Full Orchestral Score and play what the Orchestra plays.  That is, they add the extra phrases, melodies, harmonies etc that are NOT in the printed piano accompaniment. It makes it easier for the singers to have sensed the extra orchestral colours before they meet the orchestral forces.

Have you attended any particularly memorable sitzprobes?

As a conductor, I love a Sitzprobe.  It's where we get the full aspect, grandeur of what the composer heard in their mind at the time of composition.  There's no 'production' on-stage with which to contend and singers, orchestral musicians and conductor can attempt the best performance of the score.  Sitz's are sometimes a luxury these days.  They are expensive. Each orchestra musician receives a fee every time they play - that includes rehearsals. Personally, I try NOT to stop too much in rehearsals. If someone sings or plays a wrong note or rhythm ... they know it before anyone else and it's fairly pointless to stop an waste valuable time to correct something which won't happen again!

A few months ago, with CARMEN on Sydney Harbour,  a rather severe rain storm made us rehearse the Sitz underneath the stage. The Orchestral Room was designed to only fit the Orchestra of about 80 ... so we did the Sitz with the Principals AND Chorus in the walkway the other side of the wall. They watched me (the Conductor) on a tiny monitor and heard the Orchestra through earpieces.  It went brilliantly because we'd rehearsed well and built trust between each other. That's how it should be.  

Making music is not just about learning then performing the notes and words on the page, it's about collaboration, trust and sensing what each other is doing. Often, tempi at a Sitz will be slightly different from what was rehearsed.  Sometimes it can be quite different! But the unique joining of the personalities in that room at that moment makes the Sitzprobe a fantastic place.  You're lucky to be there.