Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Opera pianists are actors

Opera pianists are actors, and the role we play is that of an
orchestra. Whether in a musical coaching or staging rehearsal, one of our most important responsibilities is to reflect what the orchestra will sound like when they join the singers towards the last week of rehearsal. To that end, we spend an enormous amount of time doing score and listening work. We spend hours reconciling the orchestra score with the piano arrangement. We'll listen to as many different recordings as we can, comparing and internalizing the sounds of various orchestras.

All of that preparation is vital yet abstract. Ultimately we are
not imitating notes on a page, nor digital music from a speaker, but the
live sound of a great orchestra in a grand hall. Fortunately, as an HGO
Studio member I get to hear the HGO orchestra in many rehearsals and
performances in the Brown Theater. Everything I hear in those sessions
translates into my playing. As I listen in the hall, I ask myself all
sorts of questions."When I hear the string players play pizzicato, is
the plucked sound short or does the hall give it a slow decay? What is
the character of this melody when a single clarinet plays it, as opposed
to the full violin section? In a very busy passage, what instruments
come to the foreground?"

It's good for an actor to research a role through observation.
But even better is to do some musical Method-acting and become part of
what you are observing. I got this chance by playing the celesta in our
performances of Tosca. There's nothing like sitting in the middle of an
orchestra for a run of rehearsals and performances to soak up the
orchestra's many sonorities in the piece. Yet as important as
internalizing the "What" of an orchestra's playing is internalizing the
"How" of that playing. How does an orchestra respond to a conductor? How
do they rely on their section leaders? How does the way that an
orchestra make sound differ from that of a piano? How is music-making
different when you are playing a part as an orchestra player instead of
the whole as a rehearsal pianist? These questions have fascinated me for
the whole process. During the long stretches I have between celesta
passages, I often occupied myself by comparing the different speeds at
which the orchestra would respond to Maestro Summers's beat, depending
on the tempo, character, and instrumentation of the moment. When I
translate my orchestral experience back to the piano, I achieve a more
detailed and colorful sonic palette, and a sense of the warmth and
spaciousness that comes from 71 people making music together.

When I joined the Studio, I was gobsmacked by the quality of the
singers I would be working with in rehearsal. It never gets old
accompanying the likes of Christine Goerke, Patricia Racette, or Laura
Claycomb. But it's just as exceptional an opportunity to make music
within a group as accomplished as the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra.
When I study a new score and ask myself "What would it be like to hear a
world-class orchestra play this? What would it be like to be in a
world-class orchestra playing this?" I'll have had the benefit of
first-hand experience.