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Opera 101: Behind the scenes with assistant conductor Matthew Piatt

The extraordinary Matthew Piatt is in his sixth season at Lyric in the role of assistant conductor. For Porgy and Bess, he has been one of two pianists, which means he does everything from playing for rehearsals to fine-tuning diction. Read more about how he and Lyric's other backstage heroes work closely with the conductor and singers to get it right for every performance.

The extraordinary Matthew Piatt is in his sixth season at Lyric in the role of assistant conductor.  For Lyric's current production of Porgy and Bess he has been one of two pianists, which means he does everything from playing for rehearsals to fine-tuning diction to help with musical preparation for the show—including being able to do a little bit of singing himself! Read more about how he and Lyric's other backstage heroes work closely with the conductor and singers to get it right for every performance.

What exactly is an assistant conductor? 

All of the members of Lyric's music staff are called assistant conductors for logistical reasons, even though we each have our own area of musical specialization. Each mainstage conductor is assigned an understudy, who attends all rehearsals and is prepared to conduct if the principal conductor is occupied elsewhere. Depending on the particular opera, there is often a prompter present and finally there are two pianists per production. All of the above musicians fall under the title of assistant conductor.Personally, I work both as a prompter and a pianist at Lyric, but for Porgy specifically, I was one of the two pianists. (Read more about prompters at Lyric here.)

As a pianist, a majority of our time is spent playing for staging sessions in a rehearsal room. During those rehearsals, we both play the piano and also help communicate musical notes between the conductor and singers. Outside of stagings, we spend quite a bit of time coaching singers. This involves being in a room with a principal artist and working on their role, fine-tuning things like diction, musical style, technical challenges, etc. In these sessions, we try as much as possible to simulate a rehearsal by singing everyone else's parts, which is always a challenge. We all have to get past any self-consciousness about our singing voices, as most of the colleagues I know haven't studied to refine their own voices. Even though we may have a lot of advice to offer the incredible singers we encounter, it is still sometimes hard not to be vocally bashful in their presence! Finally, once we start rehearsing with the orchestra during the week before a show opens, we sit in the theater and serve as thoughtful listeners and problem solvers. We usually make long lists of details to relay to individual singers and to the conductor, in hopes that we have struck an appropriate balance with the orchestra and clarified any remaining details to make the production as musically excellent as possible.

Piatt peeks out of the prompter's box during rehearsals for Mozart's  La clemenza di Tito in the 2013-14 season.  

Can you describe your working process with a conductor—for example, Ward Stare in Porgy and Bess? 

We worked with Maestro Stare (pictured right) for Porgy and Bess in the same way we work with all conductors. The first days of the rehearsal process were spent focusing only on the music, without staging. We spent several hours going through the score with the principals and chorus. Porgy is a very complicated score to master, and as is usual in the opera business, some artists had performed it several times before, while others were doing it for the first time. So we were all working to get on the same page with respect to style, musical shape, individual characterizations, and unified diction. Whenever Ward offered an interpretative point of view, suggested certain musical nuances, or advocated for a certain tempo, it was our job to maintain those standards over the next few weeks. Once singers start to stage a piece, these sorts of details can get lost in the shuffle. The minute someone starts dealing with handfuls of props and has to stand on a piece of scenery 60 feet away from the conductor (often barely able to hear the piano or orchestra), it becomes so much harder to attend to every possible detail.

However, everyone wants to do his or her best, and we all work together to remind and assist each other in working towards the final product. Although I am privileged to work with excellent artists on a regular basis, I have to say that the principals and chorus in Porgy were notable for being so receptive and collaborative in working toward the final product. It is so satisfying to the music staff when you have that kind of "let's get it right" attitude in a rehearsal room, and I think that ended up shining through in their performances on stage.

From your perspective, is preparing for an opera like Porgy and Bess any different than other operas? Does the style of music or the fact that it's sung in English change anything for you?

I won't lie—I always appreciate the time I save when I don't have to translate something into English before I even start to practice the music! Of course I love the challenge and beauty of working in foreign languages and all musical styles. But there's something wonderful to me about the immediacy and directness of communication we can achieve when we are working in our vernacular. Stylistically, Porgy can be a challenge because Gershwin wasn't especially precise in notating what music should be swung (i.e. as a jazz musician would interpret it) versus straight (i.e. as a modern classical musician might interpret it, if he or she had no other stylistic information or limited experience with the jazz idiom). As a result, there was more stylistic discussion and refinement with this piece than we might encounter with other operatic repertoire. Finding the right balance between jazz and operatic idioms is definitely a challenge, but an enjoyable one because it's not something we encounter very often.

What is your favorite moment in Porgy and Bess? 

There are so many great moments in this opera, I would have a hard time choosing one.But I definitely won't forget the first time I heard the chorus's prayer sequences during the hurricane scene in Part Two.Whenever we learn new operas, we spend large amounts of time in a practice room by ourselves, imagining what something will sound like when sung by professional singers. Of course recordings are very valuable to stimulate our imagination. But after spending weeks at my own piano, I will never forget the first time I heard the chorus sing this music, which evokes human desperation and the unpredictability of Mother Nature. When I finally saw it in context with costumes, lighting, and full orchestra, I have to say that the result rather overwhelmed me. I think Francesca Zambello, Maestro Stare, and Michael Black really achieved an amazing theatrical moment, including the stunning mourning chorus that follows the storm. To me, that is what great opera is all about! I loved looking around the theater during opening night and seeing so many people around me caught up in the moment, many of them wiping away tears. I think it's safe to say this type of experience is why most of my colleagues are passionate about what we do for a living.

  

The storm scene in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess

When do you get assigned your particular operas for the season? How much time do you need to prepare for an opera?

We usually get our assignments approximately six months in advance, both at Lyric and at San Francisco Opera, where I continue to work during Lyric's off-season. Depending on the piece, I often start preparation as much as six months in advance. Sight-reading is definitely a necessary skill to have, but at opera companies at this level, members of the music staff are expected to begin staging rehearsals with a rather exhaustive knowledge of the score. This usually entails hours of work translating the entire piece, being able to sing the vocal lines while playing the piano reduction, and knowing what the orchestration sounds like (i.e. what instruments are playing at any given moment in the score and whether any important musical lines have been omitted by the person who generated the piano reduction). Also, since operatic repertoire is so steeped in tradition, there is an expectation that we are familiar with reputable, historic recordings, which are an invaluable source of great interpretations of the past. The older I get, the more I try to allow myself increased time to learn new scores, since assimilating this much information often takes months of practice and study. Although it usually seems impossible to know everything about a piece, I find that the more I have studied a score, the more I can help singers and conductors during rehearsals.

What kind of musical training and background did you have before working at Lyric? What drew you to working for an opera company?

I have a bachelor's degree in piano performance from the University of Houston and a master's degree in collaborative piano from the University of Michigan. After completing my degree in Michigan, I moved to San Francisco, where I became the first coach/accompanist in the Adler Fellowship program. I spent two and a half years in that program, shortly after which I was offered a job at Lyric.

I'm from a very tiny town in western Kansas and had never encountered opera until I moved to Houston for college. I had always loved accompanying and working with singers. When I was 20 years old, I saw my first opera—Katya Kabanova at Houston Grand Opera. Although I knew nothing about the art form (nor that piece, in particular), I was immediately hooked. It was one of the most exciting things I had ever seen, and from that moment on, my educational and career path somehow led me through valuable professional experiences with remarkable mentors along the way. Even though working at this level can come with a tremendous amount of responsibility and stress, I sometimes still can't believe I get to do this type of work for a living.

Piatt has performed with Lyric's creative consultant Renée Fleming in support of arts education, including events at Symphony Center (top) and the Thompson Center (bottom left) with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and Perez Elementary School (bottom right) with dancer and arts advocate Damian Woetzel. 

What do you love most about working at Lyric?

The thing that makes me the happiest is seeing an artist, either in a public rehearsal or a private coaching, have some sort of breakthrough. The work that opera singers do continues to amaze and inspire me. They have to take an enormous amount of risks before they achieve exactly the right balance between technique and artistry, and they have to be vulnerable in front of very discriminating audiences their entire careers. In addition, they often aren't able to hear either themselves or the orchestra, and yet they are smart enough to integrate all the visual and aural cues to present what looks like an effortless performance. There are many unsung heroes backstage at Lyric, and each person clearly takes an enormous amount of pride in making what we put on stage as excellent as possible. I think I could speak for all of my backstage colleagues and say that when we see a great performance and can take a small sense of ownership in having achieved that product, we are deeply satisfied. In our field, there's something wonderful about the passing down of experiences and traditions—we are all at different points in our careers, but we get to encounter so many wise and generous people, and the combination of that energy in any rehearsal is a wonderful thing to observe and learn from.

When you're not at Lyric, what do you like to do in Chicago?

My husband and I get really excited about all things food-related, so we can't help but spend a lot of time checking out all the bars and restaurants this city has to offer. And when time allows, nothing makes me happier than throwing a multi-course dinner party! I always joke that if I didn't work in opera, I would need to work for Martha Stewart in some capacity. We are also impressed by the variety and quality of cultural offerings here. Tonight, for example, we will be attending the Barrel of Monkeys show ("That's Weird, Grandma"), which might be my favorite theatrical activity to do in any city! It's quite the change of pace from rehearsing grand opera all day. Although I don't get to attend often enough, I also love my brother's variety show, The Paper Machete, which takes place every Saturday at the Green Mill.

Matthew Piatt performs with Porgy and Bess stars Adina Aaron and Eric Owens on WTTW's Chicago Tonight: 

 

Photo credits:

  • Matthew Piatt portrait and onstage photos courtesy Matthew Piatt
  • Ward Stare portrait credit Halski Studios
  • Porgy and Bess production photos credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago
  • Renée Fleming events credit Todd Rosenberg (top and bottom right) and Charles Osgood (bottom left)

Which PORGY AND BESS character are you?

Are you a stalwart hero like Porgy, a nurturing mother like Clara, or a fun-loving yet troubled soul like Bess? Find out who your Porgy and Bess character soul mate is with this new quiz!

Are you a stalwart hero like Porgy, a nurturing mother like Clara, or a fun-loving yet troubled soul like Bess? Find out with this quiz! Once you've found your match, be sure to see your Catfish Row counterpart at Lyric in Porgy and Bess, on stage until December 20. 

 

Don’t miss “the sheer theatrical pizzazz” of PORGY AND BESS

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is an American classic, and it's only at Lyric until December 20. This is the can't-miss production of this holiday season, an opera of both "glory and grit" (Chicago Tribune). Read more of what the critics are saying in this post. 

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is an American classic, and it's only at Lyric until December 20. This is the can't-miss production of this holiday season, an opera of both "glory and grit" (Chicago Tribune).

"Lyric's vibrant revival of Porgy and Bess should give cheer to all who adore this tuneful slice of American verismo, along with audience members who have yet to discover what a major opera company with all its high-powered resources can bring to the Gershwins' masterpieceNone of the chopped-up, stripped-down versions of 'Porgy' seen on Broadway in recent years can hold a candle to the real thing. And, make no mistake, Lyric's is the real thing." - Chicago Tribune

"The Lyric Opera’s revival of Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess' is a thing of beauty not to be missed. More than that, it’s a ringing affirmation of this iconic American stage work as a great opera." - Chicago on the Aisle

"Lyric Opera has plenty of something with a moving, vocally resplendent 'Porgy and Bess'" - Chicago Classical Review

 "Kudos to the Lyric Opera of Chicago for reviving this masterpiece. I can't think of a finer, more universally appealing work to introduce people to the majesty of opera." - Chicago Critic

"The Lyric production is the first I've seen that fully captures the power of the Gershwin classic beyond a reprise of the famous songs. The singing is glorious throughout but the impact of the story cements this production as a joy." - Chicagoland Theater Reviews 

"The music and story of Porgy & Bess stuck with me long after I'd left the opera house, and if you're lucky enough to catch this production, it will do the same for you." - Gapers Block

The perfect Porgy and Bess: Eric Owens and Adina Aaron

"The reason to see this show is, unsurprisingly, Porgy and Bess. Eric Owens, soon to tackle Wagner for the Lyric, has an amazing voice, but he's also an expressive actor of depth and subtlety....And Adina Aaron makes Bess a tragic victim of drugs and of the abusive men in her life." Crain's Chicago Business

Eric Owens as Porgy has "the towering strength of a mighty oak" with "unfailing musical and dramatic integrity" - Chicago Tribune

"With his vast voice and burly physique, Eric Owens was born to play the role of Porgy." - Chicago Classical Review

"As Porgy, bass-baritone Eric Owens fills the house as he breaks hearts." - New City

"Listening to Owens’ rich, expressive bass-baritone is pleasure enough" - Chicago Sun-Times

"...Adina Aaron combined vocal and physical allure with vulnerability." - Chicago Tribune

"Adina Aaron's Bess is a concoction mixed of beauty and confusion....Her lovely figure and beautiful face make it easy to believe that her Bess could be perpetually objectified." - New City

"Adina Aaron’s Bess offered a sexy, alluring soprano, desperately torn between her life as a junkie and that of Porgy’s woman." - Le Bon Travel and Culture

"The chemistry between Owens and Aaron is authentic and convincing, a critical component to the revival's success." - Chicagoland Theater Reviews

"...one feels very much in the presence of true lovers as Aaron delivers a heart-felt 'I Loves You, Porgy' and Owens’ proud protector of this beauty-in-need declares ardently: 'Bess, You Is My Woman Now.'" - Chicago on the Aisle 

"As interpreted by bass-baritone Eric Owens, Porgy has a voice and a presence that are undeniable, and soprano Adina Aaron's portrayal of Bess is as heartbreaking as it is believable." - Gapers Block

The colorful citizens of Catfish Row

"The Catfish Row community is a major component of Porgy and Bess and has some of the best music, and the singers rose to the challenge with terrific ensemble vocalism, not least in the hurricane and funeral scenes." -Chicago Classical Review

"Porgy and Bess is a story of social issues in a community as much as a love story, and the strength of this society was vividly delivered by the chorus, whether picnicking or taking refuge from a hurricane." - Chicagoist

"Jermaine Smith's Sportin' Life is manically self-serving; Smith creates the character anew, moving beautifully, his deviations from the score excusable in light of his achievement." - New City

"Eric Greene's Crown is wonderfully wild and narcissistic, with a voice and body to match." - New City

"Ryan Opera Center member Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi made her company debut as Clara, opening the evening with a lovely, heartfelt rendering of 'Summertime,' that eased us into the Catfish Row milieu. Norman Garrett was a hearty presence as her husband Jake, delivering an energetic 'A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.'" - Chicago Classical Review

"As the wily, wise Maria, contralto Gwendolyn Brown bossed the children and bore stoic witness to the adult pain around her." - Chicago Sun-Times

"...soprano Karen Slack, as Serena, lit up the house with her gospel-infused prayer over the languishing Bess, 'Oh, Doctor Jesus.' - Chicago on the Aisle

The Chorus "delivered the vocal goods splendidly while putting a dramatically credible face on each denizen of Catfish Row." -  Chicago Tribune

The Chorus was "bursting with buoyant energy" - Chicago Sun-Times 

The Gershwins' amazing music

 

"Gershwin's colorful score sparkled and surged under conductor Ward Stare" - Chicago Sun-Times

"Those same qualities of natural pacing and emotional empathy also apply to the musical arc constructed by conductor Ward Stare, whose apt tempos and artful points of dramatic emphasis contribute to an unfaltering sense of continuity." - Chicago on the Aisle

"Stare clearly knows his way around the Gershwin idiom and he drew a performance from the Lyric orchestra that did equal justice to the score's melodic richness and rhythmic punch." - Chicago Tribune

The Lyric Opera Orchestra "imbues Gershwin’s bluesy score with the hearty, homey flavors of soul food." - Chicago on the Aisle

"Dynamic young conductor Ward Stare (a former principal trombonist with the Lyric Opera Orchestra) has a deep affinity for this music and for the players, his former colleagues. He is able to draw a phenomenal performance of Gershwin’s work from the Lyric Orchestra. It embodies a subtlety and style that many in the audience have never encountered in this music before. Who knew there was so much soul in that orchestra pit?" - Chicago Stage Review

Photo credits:

  • Porgy and Bess production photos by Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago
 

Lyric Libations: IL TROVATORE

Nothing says fall like Verdi's epic drama Il Trovatore (on stage until November 29). This opera truly has everything you could possibly ask for: a larger-than-life plot and blockbuster music to match. Get into the spirit with one of these delightful concoctions. You'll be singing along to The Anvil Chorus while tipsy in no time.

Nothing says fall like Verdi's epic drama Il Trovatore (on stage until November 29). This opera truly has everything you could possibly ask for: a larger-than-life plot and blockbuster music to match. Get into the spirit with one of these delightful concoctions. You'll be singing along to The Anvil Chorus while tipsy in no time. 

The Troubadour 

Channel your inner Manrico with this blackberry and white rum concoction. Warning: This drink may cause civil strife and mistaken identities. It will not cause witches to be burned at the stake or babies switched at birth.

  • 6 fresh blackberries
  • fresh mint leaves
  • 1.5  ounces white rum
  • 1/2 cup cranberry juice

In a cup or shaker, mash 3 blackberries (just enough to get the juice) and mix with mint leaves. Add shot of rum and ice, then shake. Pour into wine goblet. Add cranberry juice and sugar (to taste). Put 3 blackberries on a bamboo pick, and lay bamboo pick across the top of the goblet. Garnish with mint sprigs. (Recipe from Smarty Had a Party)

The Gypsy's Curse 

This tangy, spicy drink has nothing on Azucena's life-long bitterness. It's the perfect way to quench your thirst for revenge without plotting to have your arch-nemesis kill his long-lost brother.

  • 1 orange wedge
  • 13 cranberries
  • Three 1-inch pieces crystallized ginger- 2 minced and 1 whole for garnish
  • 2 ounces Aperol
  • 1 ounce Lillet Blanc
  • Ice
  • 4 ounces hard cider
  • 4 dashes Cranberry-Anise Bitters or Peychaud's bitters

In a cocktail shaker, muddle the orange wedge with 10 of the cranberries and the minced ginger. Add the Aperol, Lillet Blanc, bitters and ice. Shake well. Double-strain the drink into an ice-filled Collins glass and top off with the hard cider. Garnish with the 3 remaining cranberries and the slice of ginger skewered on a toothpick. (Recipe from Food & Wine)

Count di Luna's Cider Punch 

This recipe can feed an entire army of soldiers while they are waiting for you to kidnap your beloved from a convent. The combination of hard cider, whiskey, and ginger beer will keep even the sleepiest minion awake on a dark, dark night.

  • 8 cups apple cider
  • 1 750 ml. bottle of dry hard cider
  • 3 12-ounce bottles of ginger beer 
  • 1 1/2 cups whiskey
  • Juice of one lemon 
  • Several dashes orange bitters
  • 1 orange sliced into rounds, for garnish
  • Cinnamon sticks, for garnish

Combine the ciders, ginger beer, whiskey, lemon juice, and bitters in a large punch bowl or pitcher. Stir to combine. Top with orange slices and cinnamon sticks. Ladle into ice-filled punch glasses. (Recipe from Saveur)

Leonora's Amberjack

In honor of Il Trovatore star Amber Wagner, the perfect drink for the lovelorn is this cocktail that mixes two fall flavors: apple and maple syrup. It's not quite as extreme as Leonora's method for getting out of a sticky situation, but drinking a few of these will quickly wash away all of your troubles. 

  • Ice
  • 1 ounce apple vodka
  • 1/2 ounce Macallan Amber (Scotch-based maple-flavored liqueur)
  • 1/2 ounce Calvados (apple brandy)
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1 1/2 ounces chilled apple lambic
  • 1 thin green apple slice

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the vodka, Macallan Amber, Calvados and lime juice; shake well. Strain into a chilled martini glass, stir in the lambic and garnish with the apple slice. (Recipe from Food & Wine)

Photo credits:

  • Lyric's 2014-15 season production of Il Trovatore (credit Michael Brosilow)

 

 

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