Living with an Opera: A Conversation with Laura Poe

Laura Poe is a musician of kaleidoscopic talent. Besides being an outstanding solo pianist, she is an accompanist, vocal coach (or répétiteur, as the French say), music editor, arranger, and educator who has worked around the world with some of classical music’s finest artists. Though equally comfortable in the concert hall, her primary home is the opera house. She is an ensemble member at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein (in Düsseldorf and Duisburg) and San Francisco Opera, where she helps prepare numerous productions each year. The repertoire she works with is stylistically vast and eclectic, ranging from beloved favorites by Wagner and Mozart to more recent works by John Adams and Oliver Knussen. Simply put, Laura is the rightful bearer (and wearer) of many musical “hats.”

Laura’s association with the music of John Adams is of particular note. For the past several years, she has worked closely with the composer on his two latest operas (Girls of the Golden West and Antony and Cleopatra), accompanying staging rehearsals, coaching singers, and performing with the orchestra in the pit. To top it all off, she also helped prepare the piano-vocal score, or piano reduction, for both operas, a monumental task in its own right.

As readers of this blog know, John Adams is one of my all-time favorite living composers. So, one can imagine my excitement when my dad and I recently had the opportunity to fly up to the Bay Area and attend one of the first performances of Antony and Cleopatra at San Francisco Opera. While a curious detour from Adams’s well-trod “turf” of stage works based on twentieth-century historical events—most famously with Nixon in China—this more-or-less straightforward adaptation of Shakespeare’s play was magnificent. It had everything one could want in a new opera: thrilling and gorgeous music, a stellar cast—namely Amina Edris (who heroically stepped in for Julia Bullock), Gerald Finley, and Paul Appleby—and a dazzling 1930s Hollywood-inspired production. Such a venture was a huge creative risk for Adams. Early reviews have reflected this, ranging from enthusiastic praise and acclaim to disappointed shrugs. Whatever the critics may think, my dad and I loved it, and thought the gamble paid off handsomely. (We also had the honor to chat with Adams for a bit at intermission, a huge “geek out” moment for us.)

Laura, my dad, and me after the San Francisco Opera’s performance of Antony and Cleopatra.

Before the performance, my dad and I met up with Laura for brunch near the opera house. Laura was a student in my dad’s middle school music program in Irvine, California, many years ago, and we all had a wonderful time talking about music and hearing some of Laura’s behind-the-scenes stories about the opera’s development. Several weeks later, Laura and I sat down over Zoom to chat more about her career, her association with Adams, and her experience working on Antony and Cleopatra. What follows are excerpts from our fascinating and wide-ranging discussion.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get involved with opera? What first led you to work in this world?

Every path I took with my education somehow led to where I am today. I knew I wanted to work with people but didn’t know yet in what capacity. I have a music education degree; I don’t have a solo piano degree and was never striving toward that.

After I finished my undergraduate program, I met a new piano teacher at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro named Dr. Andrew Harley. I started taking lessons with him and one day, he asked, if I would consider pursuing my Master’s at UNC Greensboro, and continue studying with him. That was never a part of my plan, but I thought that it couldn’t hurt to have a Master’s degree. He was a very dedicated teacher, and I will be forever grateful. He came to every recital I accompanied, and during that time, he encouraged me to audition for my first music festival, which was Music Academy of the West. He was a wonderful teacher who nurtured my love of collaborating with people and gave me not just the encouragement but the idea that I could do it. A few years later, I ended up in New York City where I pursued a Graduate Diploma degree in Collaborative Piano at The Juilliard School.

Upon graduation, I auditioned for several doctoral programs and the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera. At one point, I had the great fortune of having to decide whether I wanted to go to the Met or do a doctorate at the New England Conservatory… and I chose opera. From there, it was a sharp right turn to a life in the opera house—getting lessons in piano and conducting and prompting, playing for legendary singers and coaches, and soaking in as much information as possible. My wonderful mentor, Margo Garrett, encouraged her students to attend as many live performances as possible during our Juilliard years, and it is advice that I have carried with me to this day. A typical day would start around 9:00 in the morning and end around 5:00 or 6:00. I would rush to get a quick bite to eat in the cafeteria and then stay for an opera. I watched almost all the operas each season between four to eight times. I did that for two intense years and loved it.

When did you first meet John Adams?

In 2009, I was a vocal coach for the Department of Vocal Arts at Juilliard. One of my first assignments was to prepare the singers for a semi-staged performance of The Death of Klinghoffer, with John Adams conducting. It was a three-week process where we coached the singers before John arrived. At the first rehearsal, he surprised us by saying that he did not want to conduct the rehearsal but wanted to watch what we had been preparing. And we looked around, wondering, “Who’s going to conduct it?” The other pianist looked at me and said, “I’m not conducting!” So, when I first met John Adams, I conducted a run-through of Klinghoffer (without the choruses).

Laura and John Adams after a 2011 masterclass at Juilliard. (Used with permission)

The night before the performance, he asked if I could sit in the front row of the Peter J. Sharp Theater and assist him by cueing all the singers during the performance. (The solo singers were behind him as it was semi-staged; there was no pit.) I think it was the naivety of youth because now, as an adult who has been doing this for almost fifteen years, part of me wonders, “How did I do that?” But I just sat there with my music stand and gave every single cue. Afterward, John was very grateful. His memoir, Hallelujah Junction, had just come out, so he went to the Juilliard bookstore and bought me a copy as a thank-you gift.

That’s incredible! What happened with your career after that?

That same year, my teacher, Brian Zeger, heard from the Operndirektor [opera director] in Dresden, asking if there were any pianists interested in moving to Germany for work. He reached out to me, I submitted my application, and they accepted me. For a month, though, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to move to Germany or not. But I thought, “What if I wake up thirty years from now and find myself doing the same thing in New York City. What if I never took advantage of this opportunity?” I moved in August 2010 thinking that I would have a one-year adventure in Dresden. Somehow, twelve years later, I’m still in Germany—in a different opera house [the Deutsche Oper am Rhein]—but it turned out to be a really great decision. Being immersed in a different culture and working with conductors and singers in different languages has been such a rewarding challenge. And I am really grateful to my current opera house in Düsseldorf that I’ve still been able to keep a foothold in America. They’ve been really supportive of the fact that I’m an American who still has a career in the United States even though I’m based in Germany.

How did you cross paths with John Adams again?

During my first trip back to New York from Germany in 2011, I reconnected with John after being asked to play an aria from Klinghoffer at a Juilliard masterclass. Three years later, I played staging rehearsals for the Met Opera’s 2014 production of Klinghoffer. John had reorchestrated the opera for the production—it normally calls for three synthesizers; he had rearranged it for two—and, in preparing the work, I found some inconsistencies in the new full score and reached out to him with these questions. Our paths kept crossing.

Then in 2017, when I was working at San Francisco Opera on the world premiere of his opera Girls of the Golden West, John came up to me after a staging rehearsal. He had heard how I played the piano-vocal score—I often rewrite or add things based on the full score and what I think is most important—and asked if I would edit the piano-vocal score. He asked, “Do you know how to use Sibelius?” I said, “No, but I could try and learn.” So that’s what I did—I was sent files and learned how to use Sibelius by editing this opera.

How did you get involved with the creation of this new opera, Antony and Cleopatra?

When we brought Girls of the Golden West to Amsterdam in 2019, John told me he was working on a new opera and asked if I would be interested in creating the piano-vocal score. Not just having the files sent to me and editing it, but from scratch! I said, “Yes, of course, I would love to be involved with the project.” A few months later, he invited me to his house while I was in San Francisco working on Billy Budd. We sat in his office, he brought up Sibelius, and played me the first five minutes of the opera. It was a very special moment. That was September 2019. Of course, a few months later, the pandemic hit, and we just got to work.

What was the process of creating the piano-vocal score like?

It was a huge learning curve to create the score from scratch, but you learn by just doing it and seeing what works and what doesn’t. And if you make a mistake, it’s not permanent; it can be fixed. So, going in with that mentality and just working my way through it, I discovered that I had a process. With every scene, I learned what worked best and most efficiently for me, and it just kind of birthed out the score.

Laura and John Adams look over the score of Girls of the Golden West in 2019. (Used with permission)

Once I got my laptop and desktop monitor set up, I would have the full score open with the piano score right next to it and compare back and forth. I would have a Pages file open for notes and corrections or questions. I found ways to make it work, but most of the time, it was me Googling “How to do a septuplet in Sibelius” or reading online forums. There was once a time when John sent me a MIDI file that I could not open on Sibelius, and we were emailing back and forth in real-time. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe John Adams has to teach me how to open a Sibelius MIDI file!” [Laughs] He was so patient and very kind.

While creating the piano-vocal score, I figured out a process using my iPad and Apple Pencil. I would go through the full score and highlight lines that were similar and then erase things… Like, “Everyone’s playing da-da-dun da-da-dun da-da-dun. So, let’s get rid of some of those lines. Oh, but five woodwinds are playing this and the strings are pizzicato here, so maybe that’s not…” I wanted to look at four or five lines (not thirty-something) and from there, see what’s manageable on the piano. I was really proud of that process and using technology to do that. [KM edit: see the Instagram video below for a glimpse at Laura’s process.]

Also, if there’s a keyboard part that is significant, I always try to put it in the piano-vocal score, in case the pianist will be involved with the orchestra. That way, it’s one less thing to learn.

What was it like to perform from your piano reduction (i.e., the piano-vocal score) during staging rehearsals?

It’s a really challenging opera. Besides Tristan und Isolde, it might be the most difficult opera I have ever played. You need to have it in your brain and fingers every day, but at the same time, it is so important to have some space so it’s fresh when it needs to be. I appreciated the challenge of learning this brilliant opera and enjoyed playing the reduction… most of the time. [Laughs] I had the advantage of living with the score longer than my colleagues, but I still had to get it into my fingers, which is a completely different process.

How was it to move from creating the piano-vocal score to playing piano in staging rehearsals to ultimately playing celesta in the pit? What was that shift like?

The conductor [Eun Sun Kim] really wanted someone to play in the pit who knew the opera. She felt that it was really important because it is a very complicated celesta part. On the first day of rehearsals when she introduced people, she said, “There’s John Adams, there’s the assistant conductor, and that’s Laura Poe on the celesta. She created the piano-vocal score and knows the opera better than anyone else, so that’s why I put her on the celesta and right in the middle of the orchestra.” No pressure! [Laughs] Sometimes I wish I didn’t know so much, but it does make it easier. But there are also times I am overwhelmed by everything that is going on in the pit that I forget that I need to play!

Laura tries her hand at the cimbalom (as John Adams steps in for a photobomb) during a rehearsal break for Antony and Cleopatra. (Used with permission)

For most operas, it is not a problem to switch from playing the piano to playing the celesta—but I found some challenging moments in this opera. For example, there’s a part of one aria that has lines and lines of arpeggios. Part of me knows I can break it up into two hands on the celesta, but I had been playing it with one hand on the piano. There was a week where I was simultaneously playing staging rehearsals on the piano and orchestra readings on the celesta. It was really important for me to keep those arpeggios in one hand. Even to this day, I’m tempted to break it up but have to tell myself, “Nope, I’ve trained this physicality for months. I can’t change it.”

So, creating the piano-vocal score, playing rehearsals, working with the singers, assisting the conductor, working with the composer, and now playing in the pit… It’s a wonderful way to really live with an opera.

I bet! Have you noticed things in the piano-vocal score that you want to change in between productions?

Yes! During orchestra readings, I heard things that I wanted to change. And thank God for technology! I would take a screenshot of the excerpt, send it to our music staff group chat, and then forward it to our music planning person [Ilana Rainero-de Haan] who kept track of all the errata and communicate the changes to the rest of the opera house. And I would then put the same correction in my own piano-vocal errata for when I go back and make corrections later down the road. You learn to organize; you learn what works. But I’ve learned that communication is so important between all the different cogs of this thing that we call “opera,” which involves so many people.

I’ve also learned from working with the singers what has helped them (and not helped them) in the score. For instance, one said, “I don’t hear that horn part really well, but I do hear the strings.” And then I thought, “OK, I’m glad I added that ossia.” It’s an ongoing process. I’m not sure if it’ll ever end and if there are any answers because there’s no book on how to write a piano-vocal score. [Laughs]

When I started day one of rehearsals, I was really hard on myself whenever I found a mistake. And then I had to remind myself, “You’re wearing your pianist ‘hat’ right now. If you were playing this for another composer, you would keep track of the mistakes and give it to them at a later time.” I relied on my fantastic colleagues to help me catch these mistakes too, so then I could just focus on playing. I guess the bottom line is that in managing all three hats, sometimes you realize you can’t wear them all at once. But at the same time, this experience has only been enhanced because I’ve done all those things; somehow, they’re oddly intertwined.

Has this experience caused you to look at the opera—or opera in general—differently?

In an opera production, you’re exposed to everyone’s different processes or methods of trying to internalize the music. When an opera is brand new, it is really interesting to see and hear ideas from my colleagues as to how they approached learning the opera. For example, the assistant conductor [William Long] would say, “This is a very Tristan vocal line.” For me, it was always John Adams, but I love discovering people’s different musical backgrounds through their interpretations. And there are still moments when I hear things in the pit that I haven’t heard before. It’s so cool to have these little discoveries; sometimes it takes a couple of times to really hear it or a different day when you’re more open to it.

What do you have coming up next?

In fall 2023, I will be traveling with Antony and Cleopatra to its next destination, the Liceu Opera in Barcelona. Until then, I will be working on Girls of the Golden West with the LA Phil in January [2023] and then Klinghoffer at the Concertgebouw in June, both of which John will conduct. At my opera house in Düsseldorf, I have Tosca, Die tote Stadt, Die Zauberflöte [The Magic Flute], Don Giovanni, Adriana Lecouvreur… a whole bunch of operas! [Laughs] Oh, I will also be returning to San Francisco Opera in April and May for Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Great! I’m really hoping to catch Girls of the Golden West when it’s in LA. Any final thoughts?

On opening night of Antony and Cleopatra, I told John how grateful I was to be a part of this very special project, and he was surprised that I would even say that. He said, “Of course, you’re a part of this!” But he could have asked anybody—it’s John Adams! I thought it was a really unique position to be able to create the piano-vocal score and also play the rehearsals and to also perform in the orchestra pit. I don’t think that happens very often. I feel very grateful and honored that he trusted me with that. Maybe that’s why I feel this great responsibility for this work, but I also take pride in it because I believe in this opera. And it’s an honor to work with John not just as a colleague, but because of his contributions to opera, to American opera, and to American music. I’m just really, really lucky.

Laura and John Adams in Amsterdam, 2020. (Used with permission)
You can learn more about Laura on her website, read her blog, or follow her on social media (on Instagram @laurapoepiano or on Twitter @poegirl).

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