My dear friend and phenomenally talented colleague, Jeff Caldwell, visited us recently. Our conversations always veer towards “shop talk” as my husband calls it, which put me in the mood to discuss the importance of a singer’s most valuable partner, the pianist. Besides his other wonderful abilities, Jeff is the perfect collaborative pianist. (I will never use the term ‘accompanist’ again. As my friend, and another brilliant pianist, Sara says, “I do not play an ‘accomp’!) Singing, with him at the piano, is sublime; you make music almost without effort. He seems to read your mind: he somehow knows what you are going to do before you do it. He is so incredibly musical and artistically sensitive, and to top it off, he is so much darn fun to work with both off and on the stage.
The importance of a great collaborator, a musical scene partner, if you will, cannot be overstated. As a singer, your pianist can make or break a performance, or can at least make your job easier or harder. I have had the great blessing of working with fabulous collaborative pianists since the beginning of my career. Not only did they make me a better singer, actor, and musician, they made me a better person. I learned to listen, to include, to collaborate. Your pianist is your partner, your support, your help, even your rescuer at times. To make art together is such a beautiful, joyful thing. To have someone in your corner under what is often a stressful situation, invaluable and strengthening.
However, a bad pianist can be your worst performing nightmare, especially at an audition. My most nightmarish encounter with a pianist was in NYC at an audition for an opera company that I thought was legit. (My audition experience should have alerted me to the truth.) We were to sing two arias: an Italian and a 20th century English. So I started with ‘Prendi per me sei libero’ from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. Now, I am a somewhat miserable pianist, so if I can play something on the piano, I figure anyone who calls themselves a pianist has to be able to play it better than me. And this particular piece is really not that hard- mostly in thirds and chords and moderately slow. So I give her my tempo and alerted her to the two cadenzas. She did not know the piece but I wasn’t overly concerned since it is standard Bel Canto fare, two pages long, and again, I can play it. So we start and all is well…until there is a two measure piano interlude. Suddenly she starts going twice as fast! Inside I am freaking out, but outwardly remain calm. Fortunately, it’s all in the same key and tonality, so I come in again at the correct tempo. She continues going twice as fast which means she comes to the cadenza (where she doesn’t play) long before I do. So I finish the section acapella. I sing the first cadenza and hope against hope that when I start the next section, she will have figured it out. She did. Phew. So we are now together and all is going well. Until we get to the last system. The last two measures before the final vocal cadenza are just piano. She stops. She doesn’t play them. I glance in her direction- maybe she fainted? Maybe the music fell off the piano? Maybe she was abducted by aliens? Nope. She is just sitting there. Waiting for… what I am not sure. I guess me. So, I take a breath to sing the final cadenza (which is in fact unaccompanied), and SHE STARTS TO PLAY THE CHORDS SHE WAS SUPPOSED TO PLAY BEFORE! At this point I have lost my patience and realize this is one of the crazier audition experiences of my life. I let the breath out on a laugh and actually look at the panel of auditioners, which you are never supposed to do, but I couldn’t help myself. I have to know what they think of this farce. To my satisfaction, they are all looking sheepish and embarrassed. So I take another breath, sing the cadenza and the pianist manages to play the final chord when I finish. The second aria from The Ballad of Baby Doe I did sing basically acapella since she couldn’t even figure out how to just play the melody line along with me for moral/tonal support. I got the job, by the way, but found out one week before rehearsals started that it was a “pay to sing.” This information, by the way, was nowhere in the audition materials of I would never have auditioned. I will sing for free, but I will NOT pay to sing. I politely declined the role. But I did get a funny story out of it. And even though I really wanted to throttle this girl, all my wonderful pianists and coaches definitely taught me to be kind and respectful no matter what.
Thankfully that experience was an anomaly and most of my memories are overwhelmingly positive, transcendent even. It can be a special bond and I have so many wonderful memories with my many fabulous piano partners: in college Rosemary Hyler-Ritter and I made Mozart’s Als Luise die Briefe ihres ungetreuen (When Louise burned the letters of her unfaithful lover) leap from the page, in graduate school, Robert Huw Morgan and I delved into the intricacies of Rachmaninov’s Op. 38, songs without meter or key, but oh, the beauty! oh the richness! I remember an afternoon with Gary Norden in NYC working on Cole Porter songs that had me levitating with happiness on the subway ride home. When Bettina Matthias and I performed Schumann’s Frauenliebe und leben (The love and life of a woman) in Vermont, she allowed me to be totally in the moment and take one of the pieces luxuriously slow. Sara Greenleaf and I happily labored over the gloriously difficult Sondheim in Oregon. And one of my favorite musical memories, to return to THE Jeff Caldwell, is working on my solo songs for the cabaret we did together at Don’t Tell Mama’s, in particular Kurt Weill’s ‘That’s Him’ and Jerome Kern’s ‘Bill” from Showboat. His seemingly psychic musical and artistic abilities were on full display- the rubato, the nuance, the sensitivity. These songs will forever be perfect in my mind because of our collaboration.