Pianist and recent Ryan Opera Center alumna Maureen Zoltek had the honor of being the Ryan Opera Center's new pianist for the past two years. In addition to receiving high-level instruction and experience in coaching singers—including study of repertoire and languages—she performed regularly with her Ensemble colleagues and served on the Lyric music staff for La Clemenza di Tito in the 2013/14 season and Tosca in the 2014/15 season.
Some of her performance highlights included solo turns at the annual Rising Stars in Concert, several appearances as part of the WFMT Recital Broadcast Series, and accompanying Ryan Opera Center tenor Jonathan Johnson as part of Renée Fleming's conversation with Mark Strand at the Poetry Foundation.
Right now, you can find her in St. Louis for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis's spring/summer festival, and then she moves on to San Francisco Opera. Read on to learn more about Maureen's life as a pianist, what it's like to perform for Supreme Court Justices, and her adorable dog Henry! (To learn more about the role of a rehearsal pianist, read this interview with pianist Matthew Piatt.)
Name: Maureen Zoltek
Year in ROC: Alumna, graduated with the 2014-15 ensemble
Hometown: Bloomingdale, Illinois
Dream Job: Music staff for Lyric Opera of Chicago, of course!
When did you start playing piano, and when did you know you wanted to be a professional pianist?
I started playing when I was 5. We had a lovely grand piano in our home, and I simply asked my parents if I could take lessons! I don't think there was any specific moment when I knew I wanted to be a pianist professionally. I had always loved performing, and I think it just seemed like the logical conclusion after years of study. After I successfully auditioned for DePaul to continue working with my teacher, Mary Sauer, it was just a transition from studying privately to studying for actual grades.
Did you ever consider a career other than playing piano? And if you had to imagine an alternative career now, what would it be?
I considered a number of different career options over the years, from marine biology and paleontology when I was a kid to a British literature or history professor when I was a teen. But at the end of the day, I knew that a life in music would keep me happy, intrigued, and challenged for the rest of my life. I think that became clearer the longer I studied at college, and the deeper I understood and explored music history, theory, and performance. Although my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in solo piano, I started listening to and loving opera from a fairly young age—which is perhaps a bit surprising, considering no one in my immediate family ever listened to it!—and I was always very actively involved as a collaborative pianist throughout the years (vocal, instrumental, and orchestral). I realized around my mid-twenties that this collaborative world was where I was most happy, and at this point I couldn't imagine an alternative career...concertizing with singers and being in the opera world are far too much fun!
What was the most memorable performance you've given at this point in your career?
There have been many memorable performances for me over the years, but perhaps the most recent one would be performing for the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. this past November with Eric Owens and Alyson Cambridge. Not only was it a fantastic musical collaboration with two people I had not had the pleasure of working with before, but also a thrill to know who was in the audience! I was able meet with and speak to a number of the Justices afterwards, received a tour of the courthouse, and dined in the private dining room with Justice Ginsburg herself. It was truly a day to remember.
After the Ryan Opera Center, how do you want to continue your career?
After the Ryan Center I'll have the pleasure of joining Opera Theatre of Saint Louis for their spring/summer music festival, and then will return to San Francisco Opera for their fall season. I also hope to continue working here at my hometown company, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and collaborating and concertizing with the fantastic singers I've met and worked with in the Ryan Opera Center.
Tell us about your dog Henry!
When I moved back to Chicago from NYC for the Ryan Opera Center job, I had been without a dog for about 3 years. I had been a proud standard poodle owner for 15 years prior to getting my doctorate, and had every intention of getting another one once things had settled down in Chicago...instead I ended up with Henry right away. Best "oops" ever. After contacting a breeder about a springtime 2014 litter, she mentioned that one of her breeder friends right then had a "canceled order" puppy still waiting for a home, the last of the litter. I wasn't really ready yet but thought I would at least go and see what this little guy was all about...and promptly came home with him. There was no resisting the red puff. Henry is the silliest, bounciest, cuddliest, most intelligent and incredible dog, and brings a smile to everyone's face (especially mine). Even non-dog people find they can't resist his permanently happy attitude, and I'm fairly certain that everyone in the West Loop neighborhood now recognizes him. People come up to me all the time asking what kind of a dog he is and complimenting him on his adorable looks; I am without a doubt the proudest dog “mom” and not ashamed to admit it!
- Maureen Zoltek portrait credit Devon Cass
- Lyric Opera of Chicago event photos courtesy Robert Kusel, Todd Rosenberg, and Dan Rest
- Photo of Maureen and Henry courtesy Maureen Zoltek