Jeremy Nicholas

Secret Helpers

4:36, 6th March 2017

Jeremy Nicholas throws light on the hidden art of the répétiteur, first-rate pianists and all-round communicators who perform a vital but often unacknowledged role in the opera house.

Can you name a famous répétiteur? Not the ones who have gone on to become celebrated conductors – the likes of Bruno Walter, Josef Krips, Georg Solti and Antonio Pappano. Think of a famous répétiteur currently working in one of the world’s major opera houses. You can’t? That’s because there are none. This is a profession that hides away from the view of the public, practitioners known only to the backstage world of opera. Which is ironic, because if you consider the serious talent required to be a ‘rep’ (as they are known in the business), you might think that some of them would be stars in their own right.


So what exactly does an opera répétiteur do? They play for rehearsals in an opera house; they have to play an entire opera score in a piano reduction; and they are sort of accompanists – but not exactly. The world of the répétiteur, and the kinds of people it attracts, can seem like a well-kept secret, so to discover more, I visited the National Opera Studio (NOS) in a converted chapel tucked away off Wandsworth High Street in South London.


The NOS, to quote their website, is ‘engaged by Arts Council England and the UK’s leading Opera Companies to provide professional training of the highest quality for singers and répétiteurs who have the potential to become the leading artists of their generation’. It does this with remarkable success: NOS alumni are on the permanent music staff of all six of the leading UK opera companies as well as working internationally.


The acclaimed soprano Kathryn Harries has been the NOS director since the end of 2008. What does she look for when auditioning candidates for the Studio’s répétiteur course? ‘You need people with a splendid technique, who love opera and all that it entails, people with imagination, who are excited by the drama, who like working with singers – and not everybody does: some of them can be very difficult! Répétiteurs have to be sure of their musical ethic and be able to work with a great variety of different personalities. They also need to be psychologists. All my operatic life, there has been a pianist at hand. They work with you in preparing, right the way through the rehearsal period. They are essential to what you do and so much a part of the scene that you don’t really think about it – they’re just there.’


Where do you find anonymous talents with such highly specialised skills willing to leave their egos at the stage door? I met three of them – all, as it happened, male twenty-somethings – who are on the NOS’s year-long répétiteur course: Iwan Teifion Davies (from Wales), Killian Farrell (from Dublin) and Edmund Whitehead (Anglo-Russian). To get this far they have passed the NOS twostage audition, an achievement in itself. For the first round they are asked to prepare two scenes from contrasting operas, involving at least two characters. They have to play while singing in the vocal lines. Then there is some sight-reading. In the second round you have to play while coaching a singer, and this is followed by an interview. There are four répétiteur places available at the NOS each year, and competition for them is fierce.


What, I wondered, motivated these young musicians to become répétiteurs? Iwan Davies sang and played the piano and organ as a child, conducted local amateurs and formed his own choir before going to university. ‘I thought I wanted to be a singer but after university, I got myself a job playing the piano at a drama school, enjoyed it and for the next few years worked a lot in musicals. After that I decided I wouldn’t be a singer but wanted to work in opera which was my first love. I got a place at Guildhall on the répétiteurs course.’


Killian started playing the piano and then at 15 discovered opera. ‘Hearing Salomé was what did it for me – I thought, “Wouldn’t it be a great thing to conduct that!” I read up on it and found that in Germany especially there was a tradition of the pianist starting off in the opera house, working your way up the ladder until you become a conductor. While I was at Trinity College, Dublin, I got a job as répétiteur for RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster. So then I decided to audition for NOS, to focus on the piano and work with some really wonderful practitioners of opera.’

PIC 2 Edmund Whitehead (c) NOS

Ed Whitehead, meanwhile, began his career as a child actor. ‘I’ve always loved theatre and languages. I decided I wanted to be a conductor – I’d played in a lot of orchestras as a double-bassist and then got an organ scholarship to Oxford. I loved mucking about on the piano but never took it very seriously. Then someone told me that to get into conducting opera you could be a rep if you’re good at sight-reading. So I went to a month-long summer course in Norfolk where we lived in a house with a bunch of singers – it’s called the York Trust Course – and I got a new pile of music to sight-read every morning.’ After that it was a répétiteur scholarship at Oxford, then the course at Guildhall, staying for a second year on a conducting fellowship before auditioning for the NOS course.


There are a few myths to dispel. One: reps are not all geniuses who have to be able to transcribe full scores to the keyboard at sight. None of the three has ever met anyone who has had to do that professionally (though they know a few people who can do it if required). Two: reps are not accompanists in the ‘Lieder recital’ meaning. ‘Very few répétiteurs become or would wish to be accompanists,’ says Ed. ‘In the opera house you are working with a wide range of international-standard voices. If Wozzeck is one of the operas being staged, then you not only have to get through the whole score correctly but know all the vocal lines so well that you can sing any one of them when needed at the drop of a hat and coach the singers. That demands a certain degree of flexibility in technique.’


Iwan concurs: ‘Some répétiteurs are wonderful accompanists and some accompanists are wonderful répétiteurs, but they are two different mindsets. I would treat operas quite differently from the way I play songs. Playing a piece non-stop for three or four hours can be very tiring – and you need to find a way of protecting yourself against that – but fundamentally an accompanist is worrying about the sound of the piano, where répétiteurs are worrying about the sound of the orchestra and playing it in such a way that it helps the singer rather than for audience consumption.’


Killian is also quick to stress that the art of the répétiteur is distinctive: ‘If you’re doing the Act II finale of Figaro and you’re listening to as many of the 11 vocal lines as you can, you’re thinking about the language, aspects of vocal technique, balance between the voices and how you might be able to help the singers – for example, how consonants could be placed to make a person clearer, or identifying the reasons why someone is rushing. You’re trying to follow a conductor, be aware of the staging behind you and play it all. It is very different from being a song accompanist, where you can focus on yourself and one other.’


It is often the case that répétiteurs harbour ambitions to become conductors. ‘There is not,’ says Killian, ‘a huge difference in some ways between what a conductor and répétiteur does, especially in the way we coach singers and try to get the best out of them.’ ‘And,’ Ed continues, ‘you have to be able to conduct to be a good répétiteur, and you have to be able to rep to be a good opera conductor.’


The other side of the training is linguistic. ‘We have very good language coaches here,’ says Iwan. ‘A lot of work is done with phonetics, taking apart the sounds that you make in a language and eventually piecing it all together and learning about diction, the poetry and the artistic side. I always start my preparation with the language because I can’t motivate myself if I don’t know what it’s about.’ Killian agrees. ‘Analysis of what it takes to sing well in a certain language is more important than knowing how to speak it. We’re not going to be able to go to famous singers and give them interpretative notes, but what we can do – because singers always need ears outside of themselves – is tell them such-and-such is not coming across clearly, you’re too loud here, you’re not loud enough there, this word needs to come across differently in this theatre. Répétiteurs need to have that very pragmatic approach.’


When Iwan, Killian and Ed leave the NSO and start out at an opera house, they will be rehearsal pianists. Their opinion may not be asked for, but Kathryn Harries assures me, ‘If a répétiteur has got something to offer, most experienced singers, even those who have sung a role many times, will take it gracefully, and consider it. A seasoned répétiteur will be able to pass on the conductor’s wishes or advise on how to approach a particular passage in a specific production. It’s very much a collaboration. As a great friend of mine says, there’s no letter “I” in the word “team”.’


It’s possible that we’ll never hear again of Iwan, Killian or Ed as they work successfully but incognito, as far as the public is concerned, in their chosen profession. It is just as likely that we will encounter any one of them in a few years’ time taking a well-deserved bow in the orchestra pit of one of the world’s opera houses.

A group of gifted singers and répétiteurs from the National Opera Studio will perform a Rhinegold LIVE recital at London’s Conway Hall on Monday 27 March 2017. Register online for free tickets and a complimentary drink.

PIC 3 Iwan Davies (c) NOS 2016

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