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.


jane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jane said...

This was extremely interesting to read. The thoughts here are so detailed and I find his way of thinking absolutely fantastic. Getting so deeply into the the body and mind of the orchestra is so musical and magical....like stepping into another place while he is doing this.
Thank you for such fine thinking!
"Opera pianists are actors"

Jane Guitar
Abilene Opera

Anonymous said...

Thank you for articulating so accurately our role as opera pianists. My education in the Houston Opera Studio was invaluable. My performance degrees laid the foundation for my technique, but the training I received at HGO opened my ears and my imagination to create orchestral colors and effects on the piano. Learning to play like an orchestra weaned me away from licentious rubati. Rhythmic clarity is necessary for ensemble. "You're playing like a pianist" was a harsh criticism from my mentors. The whole process was humbling and overwhelming and exhilarating...and I approach it 20 years later with the same healthy respect. I am now playing my first ANDREA CHENIER, after hours of score work and listening and experimenting. There are times when I feel I have one of the most ridiculous occupations - how can 10 fingers do the job of 60 skilled orchestral players?!? But, most of the time, I feel supremely honored to be able to realize the vision of the world's greatest composers all by myself on the piano bench. - Amy Tate Williams