Sometimes, when an opera is particularly difficult musically, perhaps with many singers singing different lines at the same time, or if a principal artist requests it, a prompter is employed. I like to refer to Maestra Susan Hult as a security blanket. It feels so good, knowing that she is there if and when we need her, for example, in the recent 3 Queens performances, when we had very little rehearsal time. Susan is a master at her craft. She knows everyone’s part, and she must be a few steps ahead, in order to assist anyone on the stage, at any given time, with words, entrances, rhythms and cutoffs. She is also a wonderful, sweet, and supportive colleague. She shares with us some insight into her training, and some interesting things that have happened in her career in this cozy, sometimes scary little box at the front of the stage….
Q: What is your educational background?
Hult: I received my Bachelors degree from Southern Methodist University, majoring in Piano Performance with minors in Music Education and French. Then I went on to receive my Masters Degree from the Eastman School of Music in piano performance.
Q: How did you get into prompting?
Hult: I was taking classes with Joan Dornemann, a wonderful prompter at the Metropolitan Opera, when she introduced me to the art of prompting. I then was accepted into San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program where they generously gave me a grant to study at the Met with the very renowned Susan Webb, who had studied the art of Italian-style prompting with Vasco Naldini of La Scala, Milano, who has been called “the Toscanini of prompters.” I was then an apprentice prompter for a season at the San Francisco Opera and shadowed two other great prompters, Philip Eisenberg and Jonathan Khuner. There are no schools for this profession and I have been honored by the generosity and kindness of these great artists who took me under their wing and passed on their profound knowledge, wisdom and experience.
Q: How long have you been working at Lyric and in what other capacities?
Hult: I’ve been a prompter at Lyric since 1993.
Q: What skills are required of a prompter and what makes prompting a unique and challenging task?
Hult: Linguistic and musical skills are fundamental, as are attention to detail and being able to stay calm in storms, the latter always a work in progress for me. Countless hours of study and practice are necessary to know the music and text thoroughly and be able to sing all the parts. It’s also essential to be able to be totally focussed in the moment and to sense when something may go off track before it happens and help prevent or minimize it. Diplomacy is important too, and being able to support the artists in ways that help them be able to bring their best to the performances.
Q: Please share any special memories that you have prompting at Lyric. Train wrecks? Close calls?
Hult: There have been so many transcendent performances at Lyric, starting with my debut with the Ring conducted by Zubin Mehta and an all star cast, and several magnificent Rings with Sir Andrew Davis, that it’s hard to narrow down the great memories. My colleagues and I seem to always talk fondly about the incredibly beautiful La Boheme with Mirella Freni singing Mimi.
There have also been some hazardous performances for me, as the prompt box can be a dangerous place, with falling objects including knives, glass shards, dry ice fog, and loud gunshots. I even had to use a shield cover to protect against a potential fire. A few specific memories – a singer once “died” so close that his foot came in the prompt box knocking down my music, vastly increasing the challenge of prompting the next excruciatingly difficult scene by covering up the music stand with his foot! Another time, during a shaving scene, the blood bag spurted a large amount of blood all the way onto my music!
Thankfully, the singers also have my back and help me in times like these. Once, in a difficult ensemble, I was cuing so enthusiastically that I knocked my glasses onto the stage out of my reach. I was lucky enough that one of the artists, a former soccer player, noticed what happened and on his way offstage crossed down and kicked them back to me!
Opera can be filled with many unexpected surprises, and I’ve had my fair share. One of the most challenging evenings for me happened on the day of a performance of Die Walküre. I was called to extensive rehearsals for the understudy of Sieglinde, who had taken ill, and for her understudy from the Chorus, who would go on as one of the Valkyries. Then, when I came back that night for the performance, I found out that Wotan was also ill. It was very exciting and highly nerve-wracking at the same time—a very long 5 hours to say the least!
Despite all the challenges that come with this profession, the rewards of living and breathing the most beautiful music along with working with superb artists at this level are greater than I could have possibly imagined. All my extraordinary colleagues at Lyric put their whole hearts, skills and knowledge into bringing to life works of the very highest standards, and for this, I will forever be grateful.