Several times a year, we attend the opera -- that is, we wander over to the Metropolitan Opera widescreen HD broadcasts at our local movie theater. Last week, it was Dvorak's Rusalka --overproduced, over-costumed, a mighty silly story, but nevertheless glorious. Sung in Czech. Of course, I didn't understand a word, but then I never do expect to do so, even when the opera is sung in a language with which I'm supposed to be on speaking terms. But it's not the libretto which we savor, it's the music.
Nevertheless at each performance there's a solemn moment when language moves front and center. It comes after all the preliminary fol-de-rol and acknowledgements and interviews and trailers-for-next-month's performance are finally dispensed with. Now, at long last, the camera locates the head-setted director, who sits at huge intimidating console of buttons and knobs and switches and lights. And now here they come, the words of magic and enchantment: "maestro to the pit."
In that pithy, incantatory sentence is encapsulated all the ritual power of language. It's a hieratic moment. After such a magnificent statement, everything else is anticlimax (linguistically speaking).
Freed by these words, the shamanic conductor heretofore invisible, steps up, turns his back to the audience and faces the orchestra, brandishes his baton, and initiates the business of the day.
"Maestro to the pit." I love the idea that the generic term for conductor is "maestro." I love the quasi-oxymoronic juxtaposition of "maestro" and "pit." In fact, I love the word "pit" in this context. Not a hole in the ground, nor the pit of hell, nor a place in which to chuck pieces of dismembered bodies. No, an orchestra pit, which is a horse of an entirely different color. Good thing it's not the custom to say "conductor to the podium." How flat, how banal, how unsacral. No dignity, no grandeur, no poetry.
No, it's "maestro to the pit." And let it always be so.
And by the way, I make a pretty good barbecue sauce, and I'm proud to say that my spare ribs are semi-famous. Let the word go forth, that now and forever, whenever I'm called to the grill, it's going to be "maestro to the pit."