Can you tell me about your first experiences with opera, and how you got your start playing as a repetiteur?
My start in this field was not planned. I was studying at the Sydney Conservatorium (in those days the courses were Diploma of Music Education and Diploma of the Sydney Conservatorium), and during my studies I always did a lot of accompaniment for singers. I played for singing lessons and did many concerts with singers. At that time there was a wonderful Opera School at the Conservatorium and the person that was their regular répétiteur got a job at The Australian Opera. It was suggested to me that I might be like to play some rehearsals for them. Interestingly, just before I started at the Opera School the singers who were training there included Lyndon Terracini, Yvonne Kenny, Richard Curtin, and later Glenn Winslade and Amanda Thane. The person who I replaced in the Opera School was Linnhe Robertson who continues to have a very important influence on so many of our young singers in the UK. At the conclusion of my studies it was suggested that I should audition for The Australian Opera. I was taken on as a Trainee and began an association that lasted 28 years!
Being a successful repetiteur means more than just being a great pianist. What are some of the other skills you need to cultivate to be a great coach?
I think one of the most important skills to develop is learning to listen. So many solo pianists only think about themselves and their sound but seem to forget that they are accompanying someone.
I have also found that many "solo" pianists find it difficult to transition to recreating an "orchestral" sound. I don't mean play louder; rather, develop a much wider and more interesting palette of colours at the keyboard. It requires imagination!
It takes many years of working as a répétiteur before one can transition to being a good coach.
One must learn the repertoire, know the orchestral score, study languages, know the traditions, and be passionate about opera and great singing.
Sight reading is an enormous part of your job, whether as a rehearsal pianist in a production with an opera company or in one-on-one coaching sessions for singers. Do you have any tips for young pianists on how they can improve their sight-reading skills and brush up their accompanying skills?
This is sadly a skill that many pianists don't seem to develop. I was lucky enough to be a good reader and it saves a lot of time! Try and do some sight reading every day. Another fun way is to find a duet partner and together you can read through the vast number of pieces written for 4 hands or reductions of symphonies etc...
You travel all over the world to work with singers and coach everyone from opera legends to students at the start of their career. What does a normal day look like for you (if there is such a thing as a “normal” day!), and how do you juggle your commitments?
No two days are the same for me as it is always different people, different places and different projects.
I try and start my day with either a Pilates class or a weights session at the gym. I am in the fortunate position of being able to decide when and with whom I work.
Last week I was in Auckland to work with some outstanding young New Zealand singers who are part of the Kiri te Kanawa Foundation Mentor Programme and then travelled to Melbourne to work with our 2017 Melba Scholars and accompany the Melba singers for a performance at Government House for our Patrons and Benfactors.
This week I am in Christchurch where I will do on average 6 hours of coaching each day with members of Opera Club. I have two evening rehearsals with our singers for a concert we will give on Saturday evening at the Art Gallery, I will auditions many boys to select the children's chorus for New Zealand Opera performances of Carmen later this year, and will have the initial two chorus music calls for Carmen with the New Zealand Opera Christchurch Chorus.
Life is never dull!
As part of your role with Melba Opera Trust, you do a considerable amount of programming for the singers involved. Do you have a method for picking repertoire for the singers you work with, and do you have any thoughts on picking the correct repertoire for young vocalists?
The priority for me is to select repertoire that will show the singers at their best. No point in selecting an aria you like if you are not ready to meet the challenges it presents.
I find many young singers are given or select repertoire that they are not yet ready for. That does not mean don't work on it but keep it in the practice room until it's ready for the pressure of performance.
In planning a Programme I also have to keep the audience in mind - what sort of event, is the audience knowledgeable, is there a good balance of repertoire etc..
A question for the singers: while they have the time at university, what skills do you recommend they begin to develop outside of their technique and performance work?
Languages, languages, languages.....
Finally, what do you wish you’d known about the world of opera coaching when you started?
When I joined The Australian Opera I can honestly say I knew nothing about opera nor was I particularly interested in it. I had to learn very quickly but was fortunate enough to have some amazing mentors along the way...
Maybe if I had known what a wonderful life it would give me and how many amazing people I have met and worked with on the journey I would have been more interested at an earlier stage.