Conversation Piece:


By Bruce Duffie

The name may not be widely known, but for a time Jane Klaviter was perhaps the very most important person to the biggest and smallest artists on the stage at Lyric Opera of Chicago.  When million-dollar throats or nervous young apprentices sang, there was Klaviter in the prompter's box giving them their words and generally being as helpful as possible to make sure they gave performances of the very highest caliber.

Completely hidden from the public, the prompter - even more than the conductor - can save the show, and by being there all the time, she can prevent disasters from even starting.  Klaviter is no stranger to the art of support.  In addition to prompting, she's a respected and sought-after coach and accompanist.  She studied piano at the University of Illinois with Malcolm Bilson, and accompanying with John Wustman.  She later worked in the studio for Ricci, himself a beloved coach who had worked with Verdi on his productions, as well as with Puccini, Respighi, Mascagni, and others.  Klaviter feels she is part of this thread, this link with the glorious past.

She says it's hard work, but admits to loving both aspects of her life - being coach and prompter.  Like the other artists on the stage, she concentrates on her work so much that often her exhaustion after a performance prevents her from falling asleep quickly.  Her travels have taken her from her native Chicago to New York to Dallas (where she was an assistant conductor), back to the Windy City, and to other operatic centers.  Prompting, as she told me, needs a certain knack, and most people don't have it.  Jane Klaviter certainly does.

A few seasons back, I was able to chat with this fine musician at her apartment.  Her tremendously cheery personality was contagious and we both had a wonderful time amongst her stuffed animals.  We begin with a question of pressing importance.....

Bruce Duffie:    Is it at all comfortable in the box?

Jane Klaviter:    This one isn't bad - it has a chair in it.  It's an old desk-type chair that fortunately doesn't squeak.  And it turns so I can move a bit.  But it's a tight fit, and I don't dare gain much weight.  I prompted the Falstaff in Los Angeles conducted by Giulini, and in the Chandler Pavilion there's really no box because they don't usually do stage works.  They built one and it was the hardest thing to get into.  I had a ladder and had to back in the thing, and there was no room for my feet.  I wore knee-pads on the back of my calves because I was getting bruised hitting my legs on the ladder.  But it was a great experience working with Giulini - he' s not only a fine musician, but warm and kind to everyone.

BD:    When you're prompting, do you give every line?

JK:    Yes, I do.  It's given just the fraction before it's sung.  If you do it too far in advance, they'll start singing in advance.  I don't give the whole line, but just a couple of words.  Sometimes it's even part of a word, but I must adjust for different singers.  One major singer told me to give the word just before, and I thought that was what I always did.  But when we started rehearsing, she'd come in so quickly that I had to give the word even later than usual.

BD:    Do you follow the score, or are some parts memorized?

JK:    Some things have to be memorized.  You can't watch the singer and the monitor and the score at the same time.  I also have a speaker to hear the orchestra, and at times I can't hear even with that speaker.  This house is unusual - there's a cement wall about three feet thick between me and the orchestra.  In most theaters, the prompt box is actually in the pit itself with no wall in between, so the sound is right there because you're in amongst the players.  The sound from the stage is completely different.  Having four singers and a chorus in front of me blocks out the orchestral sound from behind.  I've thought of having an ear-piece, but I want both ears open to all that's going on.  In some productions, there is a scrim in front of the singers, and they are on a platform which is high off the stage and puts their feet near my eyes.

BD:    Then do you try to sit a little higher?

JK:    I can't.  There's only so high I can go.  The singers had a hard time hearing me because my voice was absorbed by the scrim.  I found myself actually yelling at times.  And the lighting made it so I couldn't see their eyes a lot of times, and every prompter uses eye-contact to tell if the singers need us.

BD:    I was going to ask about that.  Do you omit lines if a singer is looking away or seems to be doing just fine?

JK:    I don't omit anything unless it's been pre-arranged that a singer doesn't want me at a certain point.

BD:    How do you prompt ensembles?

JK:    You make sure they all come in at their designated times.  If they're all different words, then I don't prompt any words unless I know a singer has problems.  At the end of Falstaff, I just gave attacks.  Fortunately, everyone knew it. [Both laugh.] Once you bring them in, you make sure the others keep coming in.  If someone gets off, I just try to bring them in when I can; but nothing like that happened in Los Angeles.  I watch, and if someone's staring at me, I know something's wrong.

BD:    Can you see if a singer's about to come in early?

JK:    Yes.  That's why it's important to have the contact, and it's hard when I have to watch the monitor.  If the orchestra is silent for two beats, I have to be with the down-beat.

BD:    Did you ever work with a mirror instead of the TV monitor?

JK:    Yes, once.  I prefer the monitor.  In that production, Flying Dutchman, there was some heavy dancing by the chorus, and the mirror started inching away!  And they say the audience sees the mirror, too.

BD:    I remember years ago seeing the lamp, but not the mirror.  Has a director ever used the prompt box for a singer's foot, or other stage device?

JK:    Last year in Ariadne, Ruth Welting as Zerbinetta came and sat on the box for her aria.  She coaches with me and has done the role zillions of times, and so didn't need prompting for that.  I did ask her, though, if she wanted anything from me.

BD:    Are there singers who ask you not to prompt them?

JK:    It's been rare, but some have asked that I not prompt a certain aria or scene.  Most singers want it, especially the Europeans.  I think they're just used to it.  I used to wonder why they couldn't memorize.  Pianists memorize pages and pages!  In straight plays, the prompter is there only if needed, but there's nothing else happening besides the words.  In opera, there's so many facets going on.  You have the whole orchestra with one man conducting who is twenty-five or thirty feet from the singers.  At times there are tremendous crowd scenes with the chorus.  And on top of all the music, they have to act and sing.  It's not just saying the words, it's singing and they have to go on singing no matter what.  The prompter can help things go smoothly, and can calm them at times.  I'm very happy to be of some help to them.

BD:    Do you have any say in how the performance will run?

JK:    No, none at all.  I'm there to help hold it together.  Everyone has his own ideas and certainly I don't agree with what they do all the time, but the conductor is in charge of the performance.

BD:    Have you ever saved a performance when the conductor has gotten lost?

JK:    It has happened.

BD:    Do performers then come to you later and congratulate your abilities?

JK:    Sometimes the singers do come up to me after and say they'll be watching me.  Some conductors have funny beats and, let's face it, some are hard to follow.  Each has a technique.  I often give the beat, but that's the Italian style.  The Germans, I've been told, only give words.  I give entrances and cut-offs, or hold people off.  There's a lot of sign-language.  With my right hand I will often beat, especially if the conductor is hard to follow.  Then I give something very straightforward and clear, so people can tell where they are.

BD:    Are you in any danger at the end of Samson, for instance, when the whole set collapses?

JK:    No.  A chorister got hit once, but the whole thing is very light so it probably didn't hurt much.  It looked spectacular, so I'm told.

BD:    How much of the production can you actually see - and enjoy?

JK:    From the stage floor, you don't see any overall kind of picture.  I remember during the rehearsals for the student performances of Butterfly (the Hal Prince production seen on PBS), I decided to go out into the house during the interlude between acts 2 and 3, which had been put together without an intermission.  Everyone had said it was beautiful and I was finally able to see it turning on the platform, and it was wonderful!  That was the first time I'd gotten to do that.

BD:    Are student performances different for you?

JK:    No.  It's a different cast, but I'm there to do the opera.

BD:    Are there times when you applaud the performances?

JK:    Oh yes, definitely.  I say "bravo" after arias.

BD:    Do the broadcast microphones bother you?

JK:    Only when they call me later and say they have heard me.  They started to remind me before each broadcast and that bothered me.  It's not my fault if I'm heard.  Microphones two or three feet from me are going to pick me up.  It's their problem because I'm part of the performance.  I'm there to do my job and the radio technicians shouldn't make me feel inhibited.

BD:    Is it an advantage to be a woman so your voice doesn't carry quite as far into the house?

JK:    The singers tell me my voice is just great for this, though I've never thought so myself.  In some spots, I consciously try to speak higher - not louder, just higher - if I'm speaking in the same range as the singer.

BD:    Is it different to prompt in English?

JK:    It's a different language, but it's no different.  Sometimes I would make a more conscious effort to enunciate.

BD:    Do you indicate if someone is getting sloppy with his diction?

JK:    I've never had to.  I correct diction in whatever language is being sung, but that comes in rehearsals.

BD:    Can an opera be over-rehearsed?

JK:    No, but some singers may think so.  Ensemble operas like Falstaff only get better with long rehearsal periods.  However, if singers have done many different productions of the same role, they may get bored.

BD:    Is it more difficult when a singer is doing a role for the first time?

JK:    Yes, you deal with nerves a lot then.  I try to be encouraging.  There's always something good you can find no matter what performer is there.  That helps to bring the best out of everyone.  Occasionally I'll have to go "pssst" to get their attention, or even say "Attention" to wake them up, but that's very rare.  I do that also when a spot is coming that we know will be troublesome.  Another singer asked me to say "pssst" just ahead of a line he was always missing. But I know singers are concentrating on things, and occasionally they will freeze and miss pages of music.  There are some who don't need a prompter, and everyone who uses one must know how to use us.  Some do excellently - when they know they need a little help, they'll look.  That's great for me because you know when they look they need you.  Others simply can't pick up when they get off, and don't know how to look for help.  If someone comes in a beat early, I'll say, "Hold the note" to make up for the time.  Some can't do that.  If it's two beats, that's all they can sing it.

BD:    Is there any difference working with big-and-famous artists, or younger up-and-coming singers?

JK:    Every personality is different and each has an individuality all to himself.  To young singers, especially Americans, a prompter is something they may not have used before.  I've gone to the youngsters and shown them what I'll be doing in a show.  Often the smaller parts are just as hard as the bigger ones in their own sense.  One line can be very nerve-wracking.  I do know that everyone needs positive reinforcement or correction.  Critiques should be on the positive side.  Opera is so hard for the singers and I feel we should always try to help them.

BD:    Do you continue to learn from performance to performance?

JK:    Oh yes, and it helps in my coaching to find out what happens in live theater.  It's one continuous learning process.  It's great to be a part of an opera - there's so much going on.

*     *     *     *     *

Announcer/Producer Bruce Duffie is completing his twelfth year with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.  The next issue will include his conversation with the Earl of Harewood on his 65th birthday, and after that, the unique Boris Goldovsky on his 80th.

 = = = = = = = =
- - - - -
= = = = = = = =

Jane Bakken Klaviter

Founder, Artistic and Executive Director of the Bel Canto Institute, Jane Bakken Klaviter is Prompter and Assistant Conductor with the Metropolitan Opera. She previously held this position with such prestigious opera companies as the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Dallas Opera where she was head of music staff for eight seasons. She was the prompter for the historic 1982 production of Falstaff with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Giulini conducting, recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, and has also served as assistant to James Levine on numerous recordings for Decca, Sony and Deutsche Grammophon. She has served as a faculty member of the Juilliard and Manhattan Schools of Music.

Ms. Klaviter holds Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in Piano Performance from the University of Illinois, having graduated with Honors. She also attended the University of Salamanca, Spain and the University of Leningrad (former USSR), both for language study. Many awards she has received include winner of the Mu Phi Epsilon Sterling Staff International Competition (accompanist category), Mu Phi Epsilon Grant for Independent Study and National Opera Institute Grants for study with Luigi Ricci.

In addition to her duties with the Metropolitan Opera, Ms. Klaviter coaches privately and is an active recital accompanist. She is considered a leading coach of Italian opera repertoire, due in part to her long association with the late Maestro Luigi Ricci.


© 1982 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on December 10, 1982.  This transcription was made in 1987, and published in The Opera Journal in December of that year.  Later it was slightly re-edited and posted on this website.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.