It is often said that there are more people behind the scenes at an opera than in front of the footlights—in fact, there are lots more. All of them are vital links, but one key position is so important that opera productions simply don’t move forward without a top-notch professional on the job.
It’s essential work, yet entirely invisible to the audience; and though many a soprano or baritone appreciates this person’s dedication and talent, never does he or she come onstage after the opera to take a well-deserved bow.
Who is this person?
The rehearsal pianist.
The rehearsal pianist plays for all opera rehearsals except those that are done with the orchestra. This means that the pianist is the orchestra as the production is being put together, right up to (and including) the piano dress rehearsal. Rehearsal pianists play what is called a “piano reduction”, a condensed version of the orchestral score designed to be played by one person on a piano. Some operas are relatively easy to “reduce”—though what in opera is truly easy?—but others are legendary for the virtuoso technical difficulties that their score presents.
Such is the case with Erich Korngold’s magnificently lush late-Romantic score for The Dallas Opera’s production of Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City), down to one last performance at the Winspear on Sunday afternoon. (It’s not to be missed, by the way, if you can snag a last-minute ticket.)
For Die Tote Stadt’s transcendentally beautiful and knuckle-busting score, that piano person is Christopher Devlin.
Devlin is on the top rung when it comes to rehearsal pianists, and travels from one opera company to another virtually year-round, superbly fulfilling this vital role. In a recent phone interview, he said that this Korngold work is the most difficult opera score he has ever come up against.
“Of course, I knew ‘the’ aria,” he said, “so I knew the opera would be beautiful, and late-Romantic music always has lots of notes, but I had no idea what was entailed in playing it until I took a look at the score.”
The aria Devlin mentions is “Marietta’s Lied” (“Marietta’s Song”), which comes in the first act. It is really a duet with the tenor but in its excerpted form can be a soprano aria. It shows up all the time at auditions.
“Korngold wrote for an immense orchestra, and they all play a lot of the time,” Devlin explained. “This means that there are many more notes, and a lot more going on, that a pianist with ten fingers can possibly play.”
Korngold didn’t create the piano score himself. That job went to Ferdinand Rebay, a pianist and composer who today is only remembered for the orchestral reductions he crafted for other composers’ works. He studied with the greatest artists of his generation and taught at the Vienna Academy of Music until he ran afoul of the Nazis, which of course destroyed his career. His Naxos biography ends with this depressing sentence: “He died in Vienna, on 6 December 1953, penniless and unknown.”
“Rebay did a fantastic job,” said Devlin. “Doing a reduction is very difficult. You have to decide what of this thick orchestral score will work on the piano and what will give the singers the feeling of what the orchestra will be playing for the performance.”
Devlin says that Rebay’s piano skills are evident when you look at the score. At first glance, the pages contain a blizzard of notes and accidentals, sometimes written out of three or more lines.
“Only someone with big technique could write it out this well,” Devlin said. But why would Rebay include so many notes if the pianist can’t play them all? “He knew full well that it was impossible, but he shows you the effect that the passage will create and leaves it to you to make it work for yourself.”
Devlin makes these decisions as he learns the music. He is constantly referring back to the source material—the full orchestra score—as he makes decisions about what to play and what to leave out. Frequently, the conductor will have some ideas as well and offer passages that should come out and others that can be dropped.
“For example, in one passage, I knew that I couldn’t play what was written in the right hand if I was going to play the chromatic runs. So I drop out a note here and there and can use that finger to play the scales.”
And that’s how it goes. Measure after measure, Devlin picks through one of the most complex scores in all of opera making a decision about each note—is it in or out?—and then assigns it to a finger.
“Our job is unusual because of the audience that hears us,” said Devlin. “It is not the audience that will hear the opera on opening night. We play for, and are surrounded by, the singers, the maestro, the director and all of the others: stage hands, costumers, lighting designers, and so on. They are all experts and doing a job that is completely dependent on your ability to make them “hear” the orchestra, when all that is present … is me.”
A sample page from the piano reduction is here.