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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)

An Insider's Guide to ANNA BOLENA

Donizetti's bel canto masterpiece, Anna Bolena, is on stage at Lyric from December 6 through January 16. Learn more about the passion, intrigue, and betrayal at the court of Henry VIII with this inside look at the history, aesthetic, and cast of his new-to-Chicago production.

Donizetti's bel canto masterpiece, Anna Bolena, is on stage at Lyric from December 6 through January 16. Go inside the intrigue and betrayal at the court of Henry VIII with this inside look at the history, aesthetic, and cast of his new-to-Chicago production.

Two rivals battle for the ultimate prize: Queen of England. Fiery and passionate, Anne Boleyn (Sondra Radvanovsky) seduced Henry VIII (John Relyea) and started a revolution, but now she's been replaced-in his heart and his bed-by the demure Jane Seymour (Jamie Barton). As her enemies scheme, Anne confronts memories of her first love, Percy (Bryan Hymel in his Lyric debut), and bravely faces her inevitable fall, while Jane finds herself overcome by guilt. See superstars Sondra Radvanovsky and Jamie Barton face off in this thrilling showcase of their vocal and dramatic prowess.

This production is conducted by Patrick Summers and directed by Kevin Newbury, who are both making their Lyric debuts. 

Click here to read the full plot synopsis, director's note, and more
in the complete Anna Bolena program book.

Video preview with director Kevin Newbury

Articles with insights from the cast and creative team 

Reimagining Anne Boleyn
What really goes on in the lives of the rich and famous? We're just dying to know. The royal family is certainly no exception. We track the comings and goings of Prince William and Kate Middleton with as much interest and care as we would our dear friends. But there's another royal family that everyone knows and craves the scoop on—King Henry VIII, with his bad behavior and his many wives. READ MORE

A Pair of Dynamic Debuts: Kevin Newbury and Patrick Summers bring Anna Bolena to life
Director Kevin Newbury and conductor Patrick Summers take you inside their preparations for Donizetti's work. Though both Newbury and Summers are officially debuting with this production, neither is a stranger to each other—or to Chicago. Learn more about their Lyric connections in this article from the Fall 2014 issue of Lyric Opera News.  READ MORE


From Bolena to Bel Canto: The eclectic tastes of Kevin Newbury
Debuting stage director Kevin Newbury is an in-demand director in both opera and theater, and his first feature film, Monsura is Waiting, has been garnering critical acclaim on the film festival circuit. He recently sat down for a brief Q&A about his many passions, including world premieres, directing bel canto gems like Anna Bolena, and Chicago architecture! READ MORE


Vocal Feast: Anna Bolena 
Bel canto! It means literally "beautiful singing," and we think of it whenever Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti come to mind. When you experience Anna Bolena, what exactly will you be hearing? Fabulously beautiful sounds, of course, but in this opera, a beautiful voice is just the beginning. READ MORE 

Backstage Look: Prepping costumes for Anna Bolena
Lyric's costume director Maureen Reilly discusses what she and her team do every summer to help make sure the beautiful period costumes for Bolena are ready for the December opening night. READ MORE


Anna Bolena Audio Preview

Music director Sir Andrew Davis shares the synopsis and excerpts from Donizetti's Anna Bolena. Recordings used by permission of EMI Classics.

Opera 101: When a cover singer gets “the call”

Second-year Ryan Opera Center member  Richard Ollarsaba is covering roles in Don Giovanni and Capriccio and has had the very unusual experience of being asked to perform in both operas in the span of one week. He takes us through the process of being a cover singer and what happens when the call comes.

Second-year Ryan Opera Center member Richard Ollarsaba is living the dream of a young opera singer. This talented bass-baritone is covering Mariusz Kwiecień in the title role of Don Giovanni and David Govertsen as the Majordomo in Capriccio.  (He is also in the cast as a servant). In a completely unprecedented turn of events, he was asked to go on in both roles within one week.

On Wednesday, October 8, he performed the Don for the matinee performance, subbing for the indisposed Kwiecień. The following Wednesday, Peter Rose (La Roche in Capriccio) could not perform, which put the domino effect into motion: Govertsen performed the role of La Roche; Ollarsaba performed as the Majordomo; and Lyric Opera Chorus member Kenneth Nichols took Ollarsaba's place as one of the servants in the ensemble.

First things first - what is a cover?

Basically the cover is an operatic understudy. Ollarsaba describes it as, "being ready in the event that the principal artist that you are covering is unable to perform." Now that he's done it, he also adds: "It's a lot of responsibility and you don't fully realize that until you're actually doing it. This is what you prepare for; this is exactly why they hired you. You have to be ready to go."

Practice makes perfect

At Lyric, covering a principal role is a thorough and intense process. "We are present from day one of rehearsals and we are obligated to be at every rehearsal up until the first performance, which is different from a lot of other companies I've been acquainted with," says Ollarsaba. At other companies, the covers are only brought in during the tech period to learn the blocking and other stage directions. 

The advantage to this process at Lyric is having complete access to the music and staging rehearsals: "You see the entire process, so when things change on a dime in rehearsals, you're actually there to see it instead of just hearing about it days later."

Once the rehearsal period moves to the stage, all of the covers participate in cover staging, which is an abbreviated scene-by-scene runthrough so the covers can go through the blocking to address the technical aspects: "This gives us the opportunity to flesh out the characters the way the principals did, just in case we do have to go on."

Ollarsaba had the added benefit of studying and performing the title role in the Ryan Opera Center's summer workshop production of Don Giovanni (pictured right). 

When the phone rings…

For Don Giovanni, Ollarsaba had to work quickly: "I found out for sure at 10am for a 2pm curtain that Mariusz was not going to perform that day. I was as calm and composed as I could be in that situation, but that didn't stop the adrenaline from pumping through my body."

He not only had to be prepared to sing the role, but also cope with the very dramatic staging:  "There are, of course, a lot of variables that you specifically have not rehearsed with the cast on the completed set. I was very well acquainted with the production from having sat in on rehearsals, and on a few occasions I was able to rehearse scenes when Mariusz wasn't available, but having to do an entire show, on short notice, was very surreal."

As the performance drew closer, "I tried very hard not to let my subconscious check in and say 'Do you know what's going on?' I tried very much to say to myself, 'No, it's all about the music and the production.'"

Don Giovanni, of course, has some very intimate and visceral moments with the characters of Donna Anna (Marina Rebeka) and Zerlina (Andriana Chuchman), but Ollarsaba credits the cast for putting him at ease: "They are all the utmost professionals and they all knew exactly what needed to be done. They could not have been more supportive and courteous. With everyone, I kept asking, 'What do you need?' and they could answer, 'No, no, no, what do you need?'"

After such a high-profile substiution the week before, Ollarsaba felt a bit more at ease as the Majordomo during Capriccio:  "We had a little more notice, and it helped that it was an evening performance so I had more time during the day. I love Capriccio, it's very conversational and less action-packed - there are not any specific technical things that you need to accomplish. It's very realistic, so it was a lot easier to go into that. The overall atmosphere was a lot more relaxed."

(Ollarsaba, far left, with his fellow servants in Capriccio)

Costume crunch time

In addition to having to prepare to sing on short notice, Ollarsaba still had to find something to wear as Don Giovanni. The costume department's priority for any production is perfecting the principals' wardrobe. They do not create duplicate costumes for the covers, so in the event of a substitution, everyone has to work quickly. 

"I probably wore about 10 or maybe 20% of Mariusz's actual costumes. He and I are such different body types, so they really couldn't use most of his pieces on me," he laughs. (Ollarsaba is one of the tallest singers at Lyric!) He was able to wear one coat and one robe - for the rest, the wardrobe staff culled pieces from the stock collection to create a series of costumes that mimicked very closely Ana Kuzmanic's period-specific designs. (Don Giovanni's robe, pictured right)

Ollarsaba was already in the cast as one of the servants in Countess Madeleine's household in Capriccio, so the staff was able to fairly easily adapt his existing costume to fit the Majordomo's role.

Staying focused in performance

Ollarsaba went on and the show proceeded without a hitch, though much of his performance in Don Giovanni is still a blur: "I don't know I how I did! I had some ears in the audience, and there was a good reception for sure. But as far as what I thought of myself, I just wanted to make sure that I did my job and lived up to the expectations of the cast and the production, so it could still go on smoothly for an audience."

The one time that he was able to actually think about what he was doing was at the very end of the show, during the technically dazzling descent into hell devised by director Robert Falls and set designer Walt Spangler.

"I will say that the descent was the easiest part of the whole show. One, because it's literally the last two minutes. Two, because the table does all the work and I just have to sing my lines and hang on. It was actually the one time during the show where I was able to check in and think 'This is a lot of fun!' My responsibility in the show was coming to an end, so I could just be like a little kid. I'm sliding down a table, and there's a giant hole with lights and smoke coming out of it. I couldn't help smiling."  

Richard Ollarsaba will be on stage at Lyric as a servant in the remaining performances of Capriccio  on October 22, 25, and 28. You can also see him in Anna Bolena (Rochefort), Tosca (Angelotti) and The Passenger (SS officer) later this season. He is covering Henry VIII in Bolena and Biterolf in Tannhäuser

Photo credits:

  • Top: Richard Ollarsaba (credit Devon Cass); Monsieur Taupe and the Majordomo in Capriccio and the title role of Don Giovanni (credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago)
  • Ollarsaba as Don Giovanni in the Ryan Opera Center's summer workshop (credit Jaclyn Simpson / Lyric Opera of Chicago)
  • Ollarsaba and his fellow servants in Capriccio (credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago)



Capturing CAPRICCIO's magic on screen

Strauss's Capriccio  (on stage Oct. 6-28) is an intimate and sophisticated opera that takes place at a party at a gorgeous estate. Four presentations will feature live high-definition video broadcast to four screens placed in the balconies. How does the opera go from stage to screen? Matt Hoffman from HMS Media explains the basics of live production.

Richard Strauss's final opera Capriccio  (on stage Oct. 6-28) is an intimate and sophisticated opera that takes place at a party at a gorgeous estate. The stylish production  set in the 1920s and features intricate art deco details and an all-star including Renée Fleming, Anne Sofie von Otter, Bo Skovhus, William Burden, Audun Iversen, and Peter Rose.

For those who do not want to miss a moment, four presentations will feature live high-definition video broadcast to four screens placed in the balconies on Oct. 9, 15, 22, and 28. How does the opera go from stage to screen? Matt Hoffman from HMS Media will be directing all four live broadcasts and took us through some of the basics of live production, which is an art unto itself. 

How many cameras will there be?

We will have 5 cameras: two in the back of the house, one left and one right, and a robotic camera in the orchestra pit.

How do you prepare for the live performance?

The HMS team attended and recorded the Capriccio dress rehearsal. As the television director, I have been studying that recording and making script notes about blocking, timing, and other technical cues that will affect our coverage. 

What does your script look like for the broadcast?

The script contains notes about who is singing and how the performers are blocked in each scene. We will not pre-determine every shot, and our TV production team will be making live decisions based on the actors' performances in the moment. Our coverage will be different each night. We are performing just like the singers on stage.

How do you communicate during the live performance?

My assistant director will be continuously updating us on what's happening next based on the script and our notes. I direct the cameras and call the sequence of shots to be featured on screen. My technical director operates the switcher per my instructions sending the video to the screens. It's a tightly choreographed collaboration among the four camera operators in the house and our technical team in the booth. Unplanned events can happen. We at HMS specialize in covering live theater, music, and dance and are prepared for anything!

What is the biggest challenge you face?

Our biggest challenge on Capriccio will be covering the large scenes featuring many performers, capturing the nuances of what every person is doing on stage.

What about these broadcasts might surprise audiences?

I think that most audience members might not realize just how many people are working behind the scenes to make the television coverage happen. If they were standing in the control booth, I think they might be amazed by the constant high level of communication and activity.

What is the most fun part of the broadcast?

When our television production team is humming along in perfect sync with the performers, it's a beautiful and exhilarating time for all involved.

Learn more about the custom-made video screens for this production in the October edition of Lyric Notes, our monthly enewsletter.

Photo credits:

  • A look at the video screens during the Capriccio dress rehearsal. (Photo by Andrew Cioffi / Lyric Opera of Chicago)


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