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:
- 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)