One of the top operatic coaches in New York City, conductor/coach/pianist Rachelle Jonck speaks to us about her musical origins, the role of the conductor in opera, and how she believes opera is more 'real' than real life!
What drew you to a career as an opera coach/conductor?
I started playing the piano at age three in my native South Africa. My mom was a piano teacher and taught me to read music. I cannot remember a time when I did not want to play the piano and could not read music. I cannot remember that I ever decided that I wanted to be a musician by profession. I was just always a musician.
When I went to the University of Stellenbosch I had a realization about myself at just about exactly the same time I discovered something amazing outside of myself: I realized that I was never going to be as good as Martha Argerich. And I discovered singers. I never looked back. I was in love the first day I played a song and someone sang. I never knew how lonely it was to be a pianist until that day. I never knew how amazing it was to shape a phrase with someone else. I was SO hooked.
I was enrolled in my post graduate studies when Cape Town Opera called the university looking for a young pianist with an aptitude for working with singers. My name came up. I auditioned even though I knew very little about opera. I thought: "Hey, can't be that different from Dichterliebe, right? Someone sings, I accompany!" I was offered the job. I left school for the classic "on the job training" experience. My years at Cape Town Opera introduced me to the possibilities of conducting. I became the Chorus Master and Assistant Conductor at the State Theater in Pretoria. My partnership there with conductor Gérard Korsten had an immense influence on me. I taught him all I knew about singers and he taught me conducting.
I love the business of putting on an opera. It is the hardest and most fulfilling work. And I am still in love with singers!
Tell us about conducting and playing Werther--we would love for you describe what makes you so interested in this piece.
I love an opera that takes time to explore fully the emotional state of its characters in monologues. It must be the Italian bel canto lover in me who loves when a character tells me what he/she is feeling or thinking in gorgeous poetic and musical detail! What the director Sonja Frisell calls "think time". Or what I often tell my students is what happens in our heads when we sit on the couch eating ice cream out of the tub because our minds are full and we need to think things through. It is not action, it is reflection. It puts into words and music that which only exists in our heads in real life - in silence. And thus it is more real than real life. It is OPERA!
Werther delivers this in spades. We don't only know Werther and Charlotte because of what they say to each other and to others. We know them intimately because they allow us into their most inner thoughts, dreams, fears in multiple monologues (arias). It is my most favorite part of opera. It also is the part that is most like Dichterliebe, I guess!
Can you identify what is unique about playing and also conducting from the piano? What appeals to you about this? [This is especially interesting to us since we've never done it this way at BCO!]
As a conductor I am always a little jealous that I am not making music myself! You know, there is a physical and visceral pleasure one experiences when making music. It is a drug you cannot say no to.
The job of the conductor is a fairly new addition to the world of opera. For a long time opera was led by the harpsichord player and the concert master together - the harpsichord player taking care of the singers and the concert master of the orchestra. The "leaders" were all taking active part in the music making.
As the romantic orchestra grew in size and orchestration became more complex the role of conductor became established - someone whose sole job it was to coordinate the growing forces and complexity of orchestration and coordination between stage and pit. As time progressed the conductor also became the "inspirer" - the one who was to decide "how it goes". This latest development is problematic in my opinion - especially in opera. I prefer a singer who brings to the table a clear idea of "how it goes".
Of course Werther was written with a conductor in mind, but in our format we have neither complex orchestration to coordinate nor the problem of coordinating between the stage and the pit. Nor is there complicated ensemble singing on stage. It seemed a perfect opportunity to me for making music with the cast!
In rehearsal we will explore how to bring together the preparation of each singer into a cohesive whole. In performance we will all inspire each other to deliver not only the product of our rehearsals, but hopefully to find something new yet. A new color. A new rubato. Something that will make us say to each other afterwards over a glass of wine: "That phrase never struck me in exactly that way before!" And I will propose a toast to my continued love affair with singers.
Do you have any thoughts about the concert opera format, how it is helpful/challenging/anything else?
As Head Coach and Assistant Conductor of Bel Canto at Caramoor I have had two decades of experience with opera in concert. The first thing that strikes me is that the majority of people always comment: "It was so dramatic! I did not miss the sets at all!" They are always surprised by it - it does not surprise me in the least! The drama has always resided with the singer and the singing, not with the scenery and lighting.
Of course I love the artistry involved in fully staged productions. I just worked on a production of Hänsel and Gretel with an entire set, props and costumes made out of paper! The sheer brilliance of the concept and execution thereof took my breath away. But opera it does not make. It can merely support the telling of the story. The story is told by the singer. The emotion is carried in the music.
In the end you can take all the frills away and be in a room with a singer singing a poem and be transported to places you can only imagine and not see. And that is where opera lives at the end of the day - in the mind and in the heart.
If you don’t have your tickets yet for WERTHER (11/10 at 7:30pm and 11/12 at 3pm), we do still have some available. Click HERE to find out more about Rachelle and the rest of the cast, and click HERE to buy tickets which start at just $27.50.