Coaching Is Integral to the HGO Studio Experience

This fall opera season is a particularly busy time for the HGO Studio artists, as all eleven members are involved in these productions. Eight of the nine singers appear in the cast of Rigoletto, including our three first-year singers, who’ve just started to settle in at HGO: Nicholas Newton (Monterone), Elena Villalón (Page) and William Guanbo Su (Usher). Joining them in the cast are returning singers Dorothy Gal (Countess Ceprano), Lindsay Kate Brown (Giovanna), Richard Trey Smagur (Borsa), Geoffrey Hahn (Marullo), and Daniel Noyola (Count Ceprano). Five singers are studying roles in Saul, including Leia Lensing (David study). Second-year pianist Kyle Naig serves on the music staff for Saul, and Alex Munger joins his fellow first-year artists through coaching Rigoletto.

Of course, with these important roles entrusted to our Studio artists, much preparation is required, and that’s where HGO’s full staff of pianist/coaches comes in. Much of the day-to-day activity of the HGO Studio is dominated by “coachings”—one-on-one sessions in which singers focus on every detail of the score with an expert coach at the piano. The past two months have been a flurry of musical coachings with these important members of HGO’s staff; most Studio singers spend a minimum of five to seven hours per week coaching, sometimes significantly more.

Learning an opera score is no small task. On a basic level, singers must learn and memorize pitches, rhythms, and text (and, in the case of Rigoletto, translate text). Advanced preparation includes the development of linguistic and musical style, which ultimately brings the work of art to life. Our two fall productions are different in so many ways, and many of the singers are working on both operas. Verdi and Handel require different approaches; if a singer performed Handel in the style of Verdi, it might seem inelegant and lack the expressive qualities intended by the composer. Similarly, singing Verdi in a style more suited to Handel might yield too light a touch, insufficient in the powerful vocal qualities and legato lines that thrill an audience attending Rigoletto. It is the task of our team of pianist/coaches to understand the scores inside and out and polish the singers’ work, imparting practical advice to help them to perform in an accurate, musical, and stylistically appropriate way while also inspiring them to find their own interpretation of the role.

In addition to our two Studio pianist/coaches, Kyle and Alex, we’re fortunate to have four full-time music staff members, all former HGO Studio artists, who serve as members of the Studio faculty: Peter Pasztor, Kirill Kuzmin, Geoffrey Loff, and Blair Salter.

Saul presents a particularly big task, as baroque music offers great freedom to embellish what is written on the page, but only within a specific structure and set of rules. Musical coachings can focus on details as small as the exact length of a particular note, the movement of the tongue that perfectly articulates a consonant to be heard in the theater (but not interrupt the vocal line), or correction of the most minor variation in pitch that robs the music of its sparkle and magic. Yet, all of this must become natural and invisible to the audience so that the singer can perform in an inspired and honest way, without “micromanaging” or manipulating their own voice and technique.

Although our Studio singers do not appear in Saul, they’ve learned and prepared the major roles, benefiting from time in the rehearsal room to observe the cast and thoroughly understand the piece. The growth they experience through this process holds great value for their career, and the information gathered will affect their preparation of other Handel roles in the future. The work they have done with coaches to prepare for Rigoletto will inform much of their future work in Italian repertoire, in addition to producing the extraordinary performances you’ll witness from them this season. Keep in mind the hours it takes each singer to get to this level—it will bring you a whole new level of appreciation for what you see and hear on the HGO stage and a better understanding of what happens each day in the HGO Studio.