Magazine article Opera Canada

Close Collaborators: Five Distinguished Musicians Reflect on the Art of the Accompanist

Magazine article Opera Canada

Close Collaborators: Five Distinguished Musicians Reflect on the Art of the Accompanist

Article excerpt

IF THERE IS AN UNSUNG HERO ON THE VOCAL SCENE, IT IS almost certainly the accompanist. Whether the singer be world-famous or a complete unknown, the insights, musical skill and technical coaching supplied by the person at the piano--let alone the degree of empathy a good accompanist can provide--can make or break a concert or an audition. Recently, we spoke with five of Canada's foremost accompanists about their views on their profession. We found, not surprisingly, that there is far more to the art of the accompanist than meets the eye.

Bliss Johnston

"The most important thing in accompanying is that you have to listen, listen and listen. The singer needs the support of the color of the orchestra. An accompanist must have the capacity for rhythm and color, yet must also be fluid and elastic. When I'm in West Vancouver, I watch the water come and go. Accompanying should be like that. Like a gymnast, there's a moment of suspension. It's like joining someone for a lovely trip.

"I never would presume to call myself a coach... I've worked with some of the greatest singers of our day, and I was taught by these people and by every singer I've ever worked with. I feel I owe them everything. It's so difficult to stand on a stage and sing. You have to support a singer's confidence, enter into their mind and communicate--while saving as little as possible--but stop them when necessary. I feel that it's my life's study. You have to understand the other man's language first. If you are an accompanist without the understanding of the word, then you can't coach.

"The ability to establish a rapport with a singer is just part of compassion and respect for the individual. If you listen and provide support where they need it, they will unfold what they can do... When their voice becomes free, it happens. It's like being out on the ocean dancing on a little boat, and no matter how much motion there is, there is a stillness down deep--you have a profound centre. It's the same way with the human voice. There's a balance--it's the clarity of their mind.

"Callas said she had to find the character of Lucia in real life so that she could instantly recall it when she walked on stage... It's a split instant when the mind goes, and it's clear. Singers are used to working in this boundless place; then they come in and have to work with someone. They have to be vulnerable, and we have to provide the support system."

Bliss JOhnston works in opera houses around the world in the capacity of assistant conductor, accompanist and repertoire coach. She is currently artistic director of Vancouver's Western Concept Opera.

Dixie Ross Neill

There is a common misconception that accompanists are second-rate pianists who couldn't make it as soloists. As an accompanist, you must have good pianistic technique--at least as good as any concert pianist. You can't be thinking about scales and arpeggios when you're playing for someone. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this. Beyond the purely technical aspects of playing, there is a synergy that happens in performance that defies description... You become a single musical entity with the singer.

"One tends to specialize in either vocal or instrumental accompaniment. The repertoire is so vast that it is not feasible, or necessarily desirable, to do both. There is another reason that I work only with singers--beyond the issue of the size of the repertoire--singers have so much to contend with that instrumentalists don't even have to think about. They must deliver the spoken word, to communicate the literature and the music, from memory. Obviously, the very nature of the instrument presents its own set of challenges. If you are not feeling well, or are having a bad day, then it affects your ability to perform much more than any other instrument. Singers also have to deal much more directly with audiences. There is no music stand or instrument between them. …

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