Kari Docter has been a cellist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra since 2002. In our interview she mentioned Bruno: he’s her husband, Bruno Eicher, Assistant Concertmaster of the Met Orchestra. They have two children, who are seven and nine years old.
A few names that she mentioned: Jimmy is James Levine, former Music Director of the Met. He has had health issues and has had intermittent time away from the Met since 2006. Yannick is Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Music Director Designate of the Met (he steps into the role of Music Director in the 2020-2021 season).
One other note: she and I discussed continuo - - this is something that's used primarily in Mozart operas, they have a harpsichord and cello playing with the singers during the recitative sections (the chatty sections that are more like dialogue), rather than the whole orchestra. As Kari explains, sometimes they use cello for continuo, sometimes they just have the harpsichord.
STARTING AT THE MET
DM: I think you have an interesting story about how you got the job.
KD: Yeah, I auditioned three times. The third time I was in the Minnesota Orchestra and I kind of said, "OK, I'm gonna give it one more chance." And I was runner up. I bought a house and I moved into it. I got a call, I think it was three months after I moved into my house? From the personnel manager at the Met saying, "Do you want a job? Someone else retired." And because I was runner up, it was still kind of an open situation. The way we do it is the person wins and then the person who's runner up, there's a vote taken to decide if the first person doesn't take the job, can we offer it to the second person? Sometimes it's a yes and sometimes it's a no. But it must have been a yes for me, because it was two or three months after the audition, they asked me if I wanted the job. The other funny part of that story: that night I went to work and I got tenure. So I didn't say anything at that point. I just remember thinking, "Whoa!" It was crazy.
DM: How did you make your decision? Did you know right away that you wanted to work at the Met?
KD: Yeah, there was never any question, really. The timing could have been better! [laughs] But I knew that I would go. There's another part to that story, too. Luckily they gave me a year off from Minnesota, to try it out at the Met. And a few weeks after the offer from the Met I got a call from the St. Lawrence String Quartet, they were looking for a cellist. And for a few weeks there, they were trying to decide, and I was trying to hold the Met off, because I wasn't sure what was gonna happen. Thankfully the St. Lawrence picked someone else. Because I'm not sure what I would have done. I always wanted to play string quartets, and talk about a great quartet, they're a great quartet. So I was very happy that was not my decision to make.
DM: What was your first opera at the Met?
KD: My first opera was *Turandot.* I didn't play opening night the first season, but I went. And that was back when they did a gala, with three different things. The one I remember - - I can't even remember what opera it was, but there was an act of something and Mirella Freni sang.
DM: I think that was *Fedora.*
KD: Yes. I was in the audience for that. The things I played, in those first couple weeks, were *Andrea Chenier* with Domingo, and *Elektra.* Quite a way to start! The biggest thing with *Elektra* is the stamina required, to get through something like that, two hours non-stop. And most of my colleagues were like, "Oh this is great, it's a short opera. This is an easy night."
DM: Because you're used to 45-minute chunks, and then you have 20 to 30 minutes to hang around, and then you go back do more.
KD: Exactly. The piccolo player at the Met, she came from Minnesota and played my last concert there, which was Mahler 2. Which is a pretty long Mahler. And it was the only thing on the program. I went up to her after the performance, and said to her, "This must be what it's like at the Met," and she said, "Yeah, but that's only Act One!" Along those lines, pre season, it used to be a lot of rehearsing with Jimmy for all of the stuff we were going to do. Even if we were doing it in May, we would rehearse it in September. We were playing *The Rake's Progress* in May, so we would rehearse that. We played three or four concerts at Carnegie, and some of them weren't until May, but we rehearsed all of that. I'll never forget it - - in rehearsal one day, we played through Mahler 1. And with any other orchestra we would have stopped and had a break after playing through it. But we went straight back to the beginning and started it again! I couldn't believe it.
DM: How many performances do you do a week?
KD: That’s complicated. As a regular member of the orchestra, we’re required by contract to play four shows out of the seven. One thing I like about the Met schedule is that you’re kind of flexible. But the crazy thing is that every week is different. Bruno and I have requested ours are staggered so that we would only be there once together in a week. I’d say 70% of the time that works. Then other times, he’s locked in more than I am, so if we play two or three of the same shows, that gets tricky because then that’s both of us getting home late, and both of us having to be tired and get up in the morning with the kids. The craziest thing is that it’s so inconsistent, there’s no way to know. Until that schedule goes up on the board, you really don’t know what’s going on. And we play those four shows, but we play all the operas. So for instance, it’s not like I’m only playing two out of the three operas going on at a time. I’m playing all of the operas, just not every performance. So we have to go to all the rehearsals. Which as a wind player, or a brass player, you don’t usually do.
DM: Does it ever happen that the rehearsals get changed? A conductor decides, "I need more time for this." The rehearsal schedule gets changed, so we won't be rehearsing *Marriage of Figaro* next Thursday, we'll be doing this other thing.
KD: You know what? Jimmy was the only one who managed to get that to work. He could always get extra time.
DM: Because they were both things that he was conducting?
KD: No. Because he was Jimmy. He could get what he wanted. But nowadays he doesn't even get what he wants anymore. Gelb has said, "We can't keep doing that, it's too expensive." And I know that from our perspective, it's not that big of a deal, because most of the stuff we played, even if it's a new production, for us, the music is the same. But to the chorus and the singers, it's very scary. There's stuff that they're doing with very little rehearsal. You know, to some extent, you have to watch out that it's safe.
DM: That was the number one thing that people were talking about with the new Ring production. That someone's gonna get killed.
KD: It's tough on everybody. In the past few years, when something like that happens, when something on stage falls over, it's amazing that doesn't happen more often, because there's so much going on up there. The sets are huge. But the stage management is really great. All of those guys are so committed. Lots of them, they know the operas better than most of us. And they take care of their people up there, whether it's like an extra or it's Anna [Russian soprano Anna Netrebko]. So I really respect that.
DM: What are the operas that come to mind when you think about long haul operas that are demanding for you?
KD: Well of course any Ring stuff. *Parsifal* is tough because it's slow, but there are not many licks that are technically difficult. There's lots of that in the Ring. But also, especially *Walkuere,* it's rewarding, in a perverse, strange way! It lies really well, and I enjoy playing it.
DM: How do you prepare for a performance where you know it's gonna really knock you out?
KD: Don't do anything that day. Nowadays a lot of the time there's rehearsal. Which is crazy. So we're in rehearsal the day of a crazy performance. I think the biggest misperception on the part of Administration is the idea that Mozart is light. And those are some of the operas that are the hardest to get through. Now it's super rewarding, it's great, but they always seem to put in with other tough operas. This past fall was ridiculous - - we had *Tristan* and *William Tell* at the same time, and they threw in *Don Giovanni.* "Oh, that's an easy one, let's put that one in the mix." So every single night we were going in and thinking, "Seriously?" You don't have a day in between to recover. Which for me, I really need now. A lot of people seem to go and go and go, and anymore I just can't do it. I have to be very careful with the schedule. I have to look out for myself, because no one else is going to look out for me. Thankfully everybody is pretty understanding about that, people do what they can. We have some players who haven't been there as long, and they're still kind of fresh. Or they just have a little more stamina. After fifteen years, it's kind of taken a toll. And then there's raising kids and a family, and life in general.
But thinking about really tough operas, I think of course of Strauss. I didn't play this last run of *Rosenkavalier* so I can't really speak to that, but the one that I would always wake up and feel like I had been run over by a bus was *Frau* [*Die Frau Ohne Schatten*]. I love it, but it's impossible!
DM: I saw on the Met archive that you've done a few performances as continuo.
KD: That's a new thing and I love it. When I first started working at the Met, I didn't really know how things worked. I knew there was one guy, David, who played all of the continuo. And I said to him, "If you ever want to not do it, I'm happy to do it," and I also said that to the principal cellist. And then a few years ago right after opening night, the new production of *Marriage of Figaro,* Jimmy was conducting, and we had this great cast. The next morning, David went for a bike ride and broke his elbow. The personnel manager ended up running into [principal cellist] Jerry Grossman and asked him, "What are we gonna do?" And my feeling is that I walked by at that moment, and they were like...
DM : "Kari!"
KD: Exactly! That's my feeling. Funny enough, I had played the continuo part for that opera at Juilliard. And of course I'd played the opera quite a few times. I really enjoy playing continuo because it's such a different perspective, obviously. You can see the action more. You can sit there and listen to the arias, which is great. You've got a great seat.
DM: So you're not playing with the orchestra?
KD: No, we're over in the corner. That run, I was playing with an amazing harpsichordist who's played it many, many times, Robert Morrison. He's been around a long time and I was so happy to have him. I don't know how they do it. A couple of years ago there was a Figaro who would just skip entire sections of recit. And I was like...
DM: "What are we doing?"
KD: And so finally I realized that he had switched to like two pages after that. It's remarkable what they do, they're singing along, they know what's happening the whole way through. It's really fun.
DM: But you don't play continuo all the time.
KD: No. And there are very few operas that have continuo. And a lot of times there are operas that have continuo and a certain conductor doesn't want it. Sometimes, even for *Figaro,* there's no continuo. *Don Giovanni* - - sometimes, sometimes not.
DM: You mean there's no cello part in the continuo, there's just harpsichord.
KD: Yes, it depends on what the conductor wants.
DM: Are you conducted by the conductor?
KD: The harpsichord follows the singer, and I of course have the words.
DM: You have the score?
KD: Yeah. The parts are crazy, they have stuff written in from every single performance. You don't really know what's going to happen. And we do that in the orchestra, too, which I find so incredible about the Met Orchestra, that the whole band can just kinda go with it, with whatever a singer is doing. Sometimes I just sit there and go, "God, how is this possible?" We all learn to listen so well.
MET CHAMBER ENSEMBLE
DM: How did you come to do performances with the Met Chamber Ensemble?
KD: That was mostly because a lot of other cellists didn't want to do it. I think also when I left Minnesota I said that I really wanted to play for them, so they knew that I wanted it. I think the biggest thing with that is that I've now played pieces by Charles Wuorinen in every single hall at Carnegie.
DM: That's crazy!
KD: Because Levine would do a lot of it. It was either Wuorinen or Carter. Or Harbison. There was a lot of that. For a while there, no one else wanted to play those, because they're ridiculously hard. That was during my early years, before I was married, before I had kids.
DM: You're not doing that so much anymore?
KD: I haven't played any in a long time, and in fact, they don't exist anymore, the Met Chamber Ensemble. It's because Jimmy was out, it's been two or three years since there have been any concerts.
DM: Does Yannick have any interest in reviving that?
KD: I don't know. I would assume he does, but I don't know what the situation is.
DM: It seems like a really valuable thing for the players, to be able to do something where they have more agency.
KD: And I think that's what we're trying to recapture, in a way. Maybe not that exactly, but to do our own chamber music series. With those concerts, they were always programmed by Jimmy and so never would somebody say, "I always wanted to play this," or, "Could you get this group together to do this?" It was just basically Levine saying he wanted to play those pieces and finding the people to do it. So in that sense it wasn't as rewarding as it might have been. When you're doing something different, you kinda want more control.
DM: What do you like in a conductor?
KD: Someone who knows what they want. And can show it. And not talk too much. Who respects the players, respects the whole situation. It's amazing how quickly you know. Opera is tough, you really get a sense of a conductor, more than with a symphony - - with a symphony, they're there for a week and then they go. They do four rehearsals and they're done. With opera, you get a good couple of months with somebody, and you really get to see who they are. You're very exposed. It’s very obvious if you don't know what you're doing. I think also, it must be scary, because the orchestra obviously has done these pieces a lot. I always appreciate when someone comes in and they try to do things differently, or they try and rehearse *La Boheme.* And in the end, usually it doesn't work. In the end, the orchestra takes over and we do it the way we've always done it. Now, it can work if it's somebody who really wants it to happen. But we see a lot of conductors and have done a lot of music. There are a handful of them that we really...remember.
DM: In a situation where you have someone new, or hasn't done so much, is there ever a sense that the orchestra is leading the conductor?
KD: Yeah. What I appreciate about certain conductors is that they allow that to happen. They don't feel that they need to be in charge all the time. There have been a few people recently who you feel, "Why is this guy here?" And look who you have here. This orchestra, and who's on the stage. Again, I don't want to put anyone down, it's really a tough job being a conductor. But some people are able to do it more gracefully than others. One thing I really like about Yannick is that he knows that he still has a lot to learn, and he's accepting of...maybe not advice, I don't know that...but other people's musical ideas. I feel when we do something with him, every performance gets better. I have the sense that he's still kind of learning, he's really internalizing things. Which more often than not, the first performance is usually the best and then...
DM: But to get better with each performance, that's really exciting. That must be really rewarding for him, too.
KD: I hope so. It's so hard - - how do you really say what makes a good conductor? Have you seen that video about the great conductors? It's one of a series, great conductors, great violinists, great cellists. The great greats, Furtwangler, Karajan, all these guys. They interview one orchestra member, I can't remember who or what orchestra. And they say that back then, the conductor was the best musician in the room. Or you had to believe that, even if it wasn't true. As a conductor these days, to realize that that's not the way things are anymore...
DM: Did you do *L'amour de loin* this past season?
DM: Was it the first time you'd worked with a female conductor at the Met [Susanna Mälkki]?
KD: No, I'd worked with Jane Glover, on *Magic Flute.* Both Bruno and I were very impressed with Mälkki. And we look forward to having her back.
DM: Is she coming back?
KD: I don't know. Who knows.
DM: Was there a change in the orchestra? Could you feel that there was any different feeling with a woman leading them?
KD: No. Not that I could really sense. It was hard because it was a new piece for everybody, and she was basically just keeping everything together. But I felt that as the performances went on, we were actually making more music. She noticed it too, she said, "It's getting better."
“NOT ANOTHER *OTELLO*…”
DM: Do you ever have a feeling of, "Oh God, I am really not up for doing another *Otello* tonight..."
DM: How do you get through that?
KD: There are a few different ways of looking at it. I'll think that there's someone out there who's never seen it before. If I know someone in the audience, that's helpful. Or maybe we'll have a new singer, so I'll focus on that. Or "I'm just gonna get myself through the next 30 minutes and then I'm gonna take a nap." And then the same thing again. There are some nights when you just want to get through it. Bruno often says this, especially with Mozart. "Another *Don Giovanni*." But then the music is so incredible, somehow it lifts you out of that. If I didn't like the music, and I didn't like opera, I would be miserable. I might get into the story. I might check out the libretto and see if there's something going on that I hadn't realized. I can see a lot too, which can also kind of pass the time.
DM: You watch the audience?
KD: I can't really see the audience, but I can see the stage. Not completely, it depends on where I'm sitting. Another new thing they've been doing is lowering the pit. Because it "interferes."
DM: Does that effect the sound?
KD: Yes. And it's harder for us to hear the stage and for the stage to hear us.
DM: The interference is from the light from the stands?
DM: Oh, come on.
KD: They have a scrim that sometimes shows up, so the wind players are basically in this little hole. It's not a very good situation. The weird thing is that you'd think that those things would be worked out before the orchestra comes in. The way the schedule works out there's a tech rehearsal and then with the piano and the chorus, and by the time we come in, it's two weeks before opening night. And that hasn't even been thought of? I guess you don't notice until the orchestra's there, that the orchestra can't hear the singers.
DM: Where do you see your future?
KD: That's a good question. At this point I am a little worried. [pause] There's been everything said from, "The Met's gonna be bankrupt in ten years" to, "Oh come on, don't be ridiculous." So it’s hard to see. I've been mentioning the stuff we've been doing as an orchestra, and that's empowering and helpful to realize. I do like what I'm doing and would like to keep doing it, but how do we make that happen? Ten years ago the orchestra would never have needed to think about that. But maybe this is a good thing? We're all becoming more connected to our public. But I think with a family, it's just a little frightening.
DM: Are you forty-ish?
KD: I'm forty-four.
DM: Is that about the average age, would you say, of people in the orchestra?
KD: I'm one of the older ones in terms of how long I've been there. We're nearing the place where I'm in the middle in terms of how many people have been there before me and how many new people. The way things are at the Met, there's such a big turnover. People retire often earlier than normal because it's just so tiring. Or people going to different orchestras. But it's a very different orchestra than when I started, just personnel-wise. And it's been tricky because we don't have much artistic leadership from an orchestra standpoint, to kind of understand the Met sound. Nobody tells you, "We do it like this." It's amazing how it just happens.
DM: What are you looking forward to this season?
KD: Someone else asked me that and I honestly don't remember what we're playing. [finds season brochure] Let's take a look. *Cosi* should be interesting.
DM: With Kelli O'Hara!
KD: I'm a little bit... I think she's great, and what she's done to come over to the Met is pretty remarkable. But I feel like that gives a slightly bad message. That people can think, "I sing Broadway, so now I can sing opera."
DM: But she's been very vocal about the fact that classical music is where she comes from.
KD: Exactly. So like I said, I think she's great and I'm looking forward to hearing her.
DM: I was hoping when they did *Doctor Atomic,* that Audra MacDonald would be playing Kitty, because she had done the premiere of the aria with the NY Philharmonic.
KD: I didn't know that.
DM: And it's not that big of a role in terms of actual singing, and the aria is the meat of the role, so they could easily have cast her and she would have been extraordinary.
KD: That would have been great. I thought Gerald Finley was great.
DM: Oh God. He blew me away in *William Tell,* too, such incredibly beautiful singing.
KD: He is a real star. I find him to be such a consummate musician. Anything he does, he comes at it from such a well-rounded place. When we did *Pelleas,* he was was great in that.
DM: I'm looking forward to *The Exterminating Angel.*
KD: I'm a big fan of the countertenor, Iestyn Davies. He's in that. [back to brochure] The Verdi Requiem will be fun.
DM: That'll be an easy night, I imagine, just because it's short.
KD: I always enjoy *Hansel and Gretel,* and Runnicles is coming, I like him a lot. And *Parsifal.* With Peter Mattei.
DM: He is so dreamy.
KD: I think this is a great role for him. The voice is just like, "Sing to me." It's one of those voices, you just want to hear him. There's always something to look forward to. In the middle of February!