Saturday, April 21, 2012

Jai Jeffryes on Marc Belfort and the Payoff of Failure

Jai Jeffryes is the editor of New York Pianist. Here Jai tells his own story of how he came to New York.

JJ: In 1990, I sought new employment as a musician. I had obtained a master's degree studying with Steven De Groote at Texas Christian University and I resided in Fort Worth, Texas. I was keen to cultivate work rather than continue with more schooling. I had a lot of experience as an accompanist and expected to be able to continue to support myself with that. I wanted to take my career further.

My former accompanying teacher from Arizona State, Doris McLeod, alerted me to an opening for corepetiteur with Zurich Opera. I leapt at the chance to audition. I had to go to New York to do that.

My travel agent booked my flight and found an inexpensive hotel room near Herald Square. I found someone to substitute for me at my gig playing piano in a restaurant at a hotel at Dallas Fort Worth airport. On the day of my departure, I left my car in long-term parking at the airport and took off for New York for a long weekend.

New York did not appeal to me at all. It was ugly and I felt sure I would be mugged if I stepped out of the hotel for 30 seconds to buy a slice of pizza at 10:00 PM. (Those fears appear hilarious to me now, but after all, my hotel did have bullet proof glass in front of the receptionist at check in.) I didn't expect to be in town very long. I was excited about going to Switzerland. I always wanted to master a foreign language.

On the day of the audition, I went to the Wellington Hotel. A queue of singers, also auditioning for Zurich Opera, wound through the hallway. I appeared to be the only pianist auditioning for the corepetiteur position. When it was my turn, I entered and met Marc Belfort, the director of the International Opera Center at Zurich Opera.

I told Mr. Belfort what I was there for. He opened a piano/vocal score on the piano and asked me to play from it. I did. I felt fine after that. My reading has been the basis for all of my employed work as a pianist.

Mr. Belfort said, "Okay, so you can read. Tell me, who is the composer?"

I said, "Mozart."

"Identify the opera, role, and vocal type."

I didn't know the opera or role. I said, "Well, I can tell you this aria is for a mezzo."

Then Mr. Belfort asked, "Would you please translate the German?"

I knew a few words in German, so I could tell him what the aria was about (kind of), but that was all.

Mr. Belfort indicated that he wouldn't be able to hire me for this job. He asked me, "Do you know what a corepetiteur is?"

I didn't. I said I figured it amounted to vocal accompanying. Mr. Belfort explained that the position had much more responsibility than that, training and preparing singers. For example, since the performers came from many countries and the Zurich audiences wanted to understand the words, this job would include coaching non-native speakers in their German diction.

My answers to his questions were getting shorter and shorter. By this time all I was saying was, "Oh."

He didn't throw me out yet. He went on, asking me about my experience. Now I described my performing degrees and all of my accompanying experience, the opera and choral accompanying, the voice studios, the string recitals, etc. He asked what I was doing now. I said, "I play ballet classes and accompany singing waiters in a spaghetti restaurant in Fort Worth."

He exclaimed, "What are you doing here in New York then?"

I said, "Auditioning for you."

He said, "That's the only reason you came here? How much did that cost you?"

I said, "Between the travel, the hotel, and the work I'm missing, about $700."

He sat back and then said to me, "So why don't you move to New York? Then it would only cost you $2.50 to get turned down for a job." (Subways were a buck twenty-five then.)

I said I imagined it must really be hard to get jobs here in New York. I wasn't having such an easy time today, was I? He thought a moment and said, "Listen, all I said was you can't have MY job, I didn't say you couldn't have A job. Obviously, you can play, and you can read. You just need to be somewhere where more is happening. Once here, you would find your level. Then, if you wanted to, you could learn the other things I was testing you on if that's where your career takes you. In a few years, you probably would be able to work for me if you wanted to, but by that time I doubt you would want to. You would already be too busy right here."

I thanked him for his time and left. I was stunned. That evening I bought a ticket from a scalper and heard Alfred Brendel perform my favorite concerto, the Brahms B-flat.

I went home. I quit all my jobs. I rented a U-Haul trailer and packed up my things. I moved to New York.

I had a job playing opera rehearsals on day two. I'm not making that up. I was never without work again. That was over twenty years ago. The pay wasn't always princely, but there was always something worthwhile to do. I got into musical theater, and was on the road for the better part of 10 years. I conducted shows in Berlin, Paris, and Tokyo. I got off the road and now I focus on my solo classical playing. I'm recording my first CD.

At that audition for Zurich Opera, failure transformed into opportunity through the kindness of Marc Belfort. Much later, I tried to look him up again. Sadly, he passed away in 1998, the nicest man who never gave me a job.

Jai Jeffryes on the web: Jeffryes.NET
Photo: Jan La Salle

1 comment:

Esteban said...

This is a marvelous story. I don't think a musician has to be based in New York but I do believe that doing a lot of real musical work is absolutely important, probably more important than schooling.