Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Perils of an Accompanist

Last night I performed a concert in Hartford, CT with an exceptional soprano, Kathleen Callahan. Kate has been studying with me since last June and has made enormous progress. She came to me with a gorgeous voice and a fine background in vocal study: The Eastman School and Juilliard. The problem was, as a student of mine from many years ago (who wound up at the Met, incidentally) used to say: 'The voice had her, rather than her having the voice.'

This is not unusual with large, voluptuous voices. Often singers with this kind of instrument get by on their wonderful sound alone. As Olga Averino used to say, having heard a gorgeous, big voice: 'Now, what else can you do?' In short, any singer, whatever her vocal endowments, must have a wide range of sounds- volume, color, vocal range, emotional involvement. The voice alone is never enough.

This is what Kate and I set out to determine beginning last summer. Last evening proved that we are on the right track. She opened the concert with 'Ain't it a Pretty Night' from Carlyle Floyd's Susanna, much of which depends on pianissimo high singing. I still have fond memories of Phyllis Curtin singing this in the first performances of this opera at the old City Center on 55th Street.

She also sang 'The Willow Song' from Verdi's Otello, which has some of the same requirements. While she can certainly provide the forte climaxes in both of these arias, she has now learned how to produce an effortless pianissimo, even on high 'A's' and 'B's'. This is what happened last night to the delight of the audience, as well as to that of her teacher. Her songs by Rodrigo, Strauss, Duparc, and Copland also benefited from this new ability that she is mastering.

Last night the problem was her teacher and accompanist- Moi! I was suffering from an acute allergy attack. Somehow when using both hands on the piano keyboard, it is almost impossible to take care of the symptoms of an allergic reaction. To put it bluntly, I was performing with a very runny nose! Remember the one-armed paper hanger with the itch?? I was somehow able to hold back a couple of sneezes until we got to the really loud parts of several pieces when, thanks to her enormous voice and the volume of the piano at the moment, I could release a muffled sneeze or two that I hope did not bother the audience. I think that this is the first time I have ever performed with some kind of cold or allergy when my adrenaline did not shut off this condition. Must be old age?

All in all, my condition did not adversely affect our performance; it just presented me with a challenge I had never had to face before. Now I know why Pavarotti always carried that big handkerchief! I may start doing likewise.