Monday, August 18, 2008

Eric Malson

Eric Malson works extensively with singers and instrumentalists, recently touring the west coast and Spain with soprano Kathleen Berger. He has served on the musical staff of various opera companies, including the Bühnen der Stadt Köln, Teatro Nacional São Carlos (Lisbon), Seattle Opera, the Dallas Opera, and the Cleveland Opera. He has served on the opera faculties of the Juilliard School of Music and the Mannes College of Music, as well as the accompanying and chamber music faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music.

New York Pianist caught up with Eric in midtown Manhattan for his wry take on the accompanying scene.

NYP: What's the difference between a vocal coach and a voice teacher?

EM: (Hearty laughing.) You start out with the most loaded possible question! I think you have to start with your definition of what a voice teacher is, and I and people that think like I do, think a voice teacher's role is much more limited than most voice teachers seem to think. Oh my god, this could get me in trouble with so many people, but that's never stopped me before.

NYP: I'm not necessarily going to print all this stuff.

EM: I'm here with the understanding that you can print anything I say, pretty much.

A voice teacher really has only three functions which are to get the breath going, get the voice even from top to bottom, which involves dealing with passagio of course. Mmm, that's only two. That's really about it. Just get the voice functioning. I think most voice teachers have no qualifications whatsoever to talk about the actual music, but they insist on doing it anyway. (Laughing.) The way I see it the coach deals with everything else: the music, rhythm, notes. A lot of singers came to music late without necessarily a background in music reading and analysis.

NYP: What's passagio? You talked about getting the voice even.

EM: Especially female voices have basically three natural breaks, well two big ones. The upper passagio is around E, F for sopranos in the top octave. In the lower octave the passagio is also around E, F. It's like shifting gears, and you have to figure out how to shift in the smoothest possible way.

NYP: Has the scene for vocal coaching changed?

EM: Yes. It's hard to know exactly what to attribute it to. I like to just attribute it to the kind of mindset that made Rudy Giuliani possible. That sort of bottom-line, sell out all of Manhattan to the highest bidder, the real estate developers, and in the process all the interesting little arts organizations have been priced right out of the city. There are fewer singers around. There used to be lots of little funny opera companies that can no longer exist. There was a noticeable drop off after 9/11, too.

NYP: Did you ever take voice lessons yourself?

EM: No. I paid attention when I was playing for them.

NYP: What advice would you give to somebody who wanted to start out as a vocal coach?

EM: First, be sure you really want to do it because the life is too hard if you don't really have to do this. There are much easier ways to make a living.

NYP: What's hard about it?

EM: Finding people to work with. Being good enough at what you do in order to have people want to continue to work with you. You've got to know a lot of music. You've got to know all of the operas. A singer just knows their role usually. If they're going to come to you to work their role ahead of time, you need to know pretty much the whole thing.

NYP: Do you love opera?

EM: Another loaded question! I think there are a lot of operas that I just would rather have my fingernails pulled out singly than have to sit through. There's a lot of really bad music incorporated into the operatic repertoire. Fortunately, people know not to bring things I really hate. Like Lucia. I can't stand Lucia, although I understand why it's as popular as it is.

NYP: You commented to me once that it's difficult to give advice to people starting out because the things that you value are valued less and less by the opera world at large. Like what?

EM: What I think of as good singing, mostly. So often during my coachings I'm conscious that what we're working on really makes no difference to most people, that this person will or will not be hired based on how they look as much as anything.

NYP: Did you already have an interest in coaching opera when you were an undergrad at Indiana University?

EM: That's kind of where it started. I had pretty much zero interest in opera before going to Indiana. As Eileen Farroll pointed out in her book Can't Help Singingthe Indiana University School of Music is, for all intents and purposes, a professional opera company. They do eight fully staged operas a year. That's twice as many as most regional opera companies.

And I started accompanying voice lessons there. That was purely mercenary at first. I liked to accompany so I realized, "Oh, I can make money going to people's lessons and accompanying in classes." I realized singers need you every week, so that was a good steady income stream. I played in various studios. Margaret Harshaw was a dramatic soprano that was teaching there at the time, and when I met her and played for a few lessons something in me immediately perked up and said, "Pay attention. This woman knows what she's talking about." That was really incredible. I'm so lucky to have met her and worked with her.

NYP: Do you get to play any art song?

EM: I just recorded Brahms's only real cycle, Die Schöne Magelone, with Paul Mow. Ludwig Tieck wrote what was essentially a fairy tale and the end of each chapter included a poem. These are settings of the poems at the ends of the chapters. A couple falls in love, and they get separated by horrendous calamities, and of course true love wins out. It's sort of like Candide, but straight-faced.

NYP: Have you done any opera work in Europe?

EM: I worked in a couple of different German opera houses on month long gigs, specific shows I was hired to do. Then when I lived in Lisbon I worked for the Teatro Nacional de Sao Carlos.

NYP: In what capacity do you work on a show? Do you accompany rehearsals, or are you coaching singers and preparing them? What's your role?

EM: On both of those occasions I was a repetiteur, which is basically an accompanist. I had no coaching duties. I would just accompany stage rehearsals, a few sessions with singer, conductor, and me; and I was also an orchestra pit player. My first show was Ariadne auf Naxos which has three keyboard parts in the orchestra.

NYP: Who hires you, a music director or do you have to work through a contractor?

EM: In Germany a lot of it is done by the same agents that opera singers use. I once played for an agent who sent me out to Heidelberg to audition for the music staff of the Heidelberg Opera. I was only a couple of years out of school and they hired me on the spot because I was the only pianist they saw that could play a score and follow a conductor at the same time.

NYP: Is there a comparable inroad, namely agents, to staff opera company work here?

EM: No. For that sort of thing it's totally word of mouth. Where you've worked can lead to other jobs.

NYP: When you're not working or listening for work, what do you listen to for pleasure?

EM: Mary Chapin Carpenter and various other bizarre things like Spanish pop music and Lithuanian tango.

NYP: Do you do any instrumental accompanying?

EM: At one time I managed to split my time between singers and instrumentalists which is, ideally, what makes me happiest. I was fortunate at I.U. to have played in the studios of Josef Gingold and Janos Starker, and in grad school I was the class accompanist for Bernard Greenhouse, the cellist of the Beaux Arts Trio. I had a gig at the Ravinia Festival, north of Chicago. I did that for five years. I've also played with members of the Hagen and Vogler Quartets.

Then I was hired to work with a chamber orchestra in Portugal, playing recitals with the orchestra members; basically drawing a salary to play chamber music, something that sounds too good to be true. And in a way it was.

One interesting job I had was serving as the official piano concerto accompanist for the AMSA competition in Cincinnati. Actually, I would love doing that kind of work again.

NYP: After living in Portugal, you must be fluent in Portuguese. Must one be fluent in languages to be a vocal coach?

EM: You don't have to be fluent, but to be the most effective coach you've got to have a thorough knowledge of Italian, French, and German.

NYP: Any other general advice for aspiring musicians?

EM: Get to know as much music as you can possibly stomach. And if you can, always maintain good relations with other pianists, your colleagues--referrals from them are always the best source of work!

NYP: Did your musical education prepare you for the professional life you were to lead?

EM: I don't think any particular set of classes can prepare you for a career as a musician. It's sort of all in your mental process. You take what's most useful to you and hopefully that will end up helping you. In my case it really did, but I don't think it was necessarily because of the education. It was just that the things I acquired, I figured out how to use. There are plenty of people that got almost exactly the same kind of education I did and they stopped doing music in a few years.

NYP: When you were studying piano at Indiana University with Menahem Pressler of the Beaux Arts Trio, how did he feel then about you doing all that accompanying?

EM: He didn't like it. I was supposed to practice my solo repertoire for him and nothing else. "Mr. Chamber Music" telling me not to accompany people and not to play chamber music! That was a little ironic.

Even without asking, I somehow knew that he wouldn't approve so I never told him I was doing this stuff. He saw my name on a program once and said, "What's this I see, you're playing the Poulenc Sextet?" I thought to myself, "You couldn't possibly honestly think I'm going to graduate from I.U. with a solo piano career. I know you don't think that." He couldn't possibly have thought that. So, I needed to figure out how to do something that would make me a living in music somehow. And I did.

Email Eric: hollenius[REPLACE_WITH_AT_SIGN]toast.net
Photography: Jan La Salle

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