Living with an Opera: A Conversation with Laura Poe

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.

Continue reading “Living with an Opera: A Conversation with Laura Poe”

Beethoven or Bot? – Evaluating an AI’s Completion of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony

Beethoven or Bot? – Evaluating an AI’s Completion of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony

Although most of the hubbub surrounding Beethoven’s 250th birthday has subsided, a few bits of the celebration have lingered into 2021 as concert halls worldwide open up once again. However, one recent Beethoven item has raised many eyebrows in the music world. Back in September, the news broke that a team of computer specialists and music scholars had “completed” Beethoven’s unfinished Tenth Symphony using AI technology and scant scraps that Beethoven left behind upon his death in 1827. Dubbed “Beethoven X: The AI Project,” it was also announced that a recording of the results—played by a live orchestra—would be released the following month. Like many, I was skeptical. This just seemed like another lame excuse for more Beethoven deification, one that would take the focus away from issues that are currently more pressing, like promoting diversity and equity in classical music.

Still, I was curious what the results would sound like. So, I recently met over Zoom with my friend Tanner Cassidy—a PhD candidate in music theory at UC Santa Barbara—to listen to it and share our impressions. (There may have been a smidge of alcohol involved as well… *wink*) Below are excerpts from our discussion, which have been edited for length and clarity. What did we think? Does a computer have the potential to live up to Beethoven or is this something best left in the trash bin? Let’s find out…


Kevin McBrien (KM): So about a year or two ago, this German telecommunications company [Telekom]—with AI specialists and music scholars—was like, “Hey, let’s take these incomplete sketches of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony and feed it into an AI program and see what happens.” And this is the resulting piece that came out of it. There was this musicologist—Barry Cooper—who reconstructed the first movement in the 80s and that’s been recorded and released as kind of a hypothetical Beethoven 10. And this one, apparently, is just the third and fourth movements.

The musicologist Barry Cooper realized the first movement of Beethoven’s Tenth in the 80s, which was subsequently recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Tanner Cassidy (TC): So there’s no second movement that exists?

KM: I guess not, or there’s not enough to go off of.

TC: I actually have some experience with AI-generated music. An undergrad friend of mine was writing bebop-based algorithmic composition, where he fed it Charlie Parker licks, and then he had me play what the computer spit out, which was just nonsense. AI has really struggled with rhythm, so I’m really curious to see what rhythm sounds like.

KM: Yeah, I heard a snippet of it on an NPR story, and it’s weird. So, I’m also curious to listen to the whole thing.

TC: Well, I’ll mute my audio, and then we can listen to this.


[We listen to the third movement.]

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The Arching Path: A Conversation with Christopher Cerrone

The Arching Path: A Conversation with Christopher Cerrone

Christopher Cerrone is part of a tectonic shift in the new music landscape. Recently named one of The Washington Post‘s “21 Composers and performers who sound like tomorrow,” the Brooklyn-based composer has collaborated with a veritable who’s-who of classical ensembles, ranging from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to Third Coast Percussion. He’s an integral member of the Sleeping Giant collective—a modern-day “Les Six” of sorts—alongside Timo Andres, Jacob Cooper, Ted Hearne, Robert Honstein, and Andrew Norman, all notable composers in their own right. Cerrone has also received numerous accolades in recent years, which includes nominations for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize (for his opera Invisible Cities) and a 2020 Grammy Award (for The Pieces That Fall to Earth). And this just scratches the surface…

Christopher Cerrone
(Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff)

Cerrone’s music is tricky to pin down—in the best possible ways. It’s accessible, but also incredibly rich and thought-provoking. (Not that these things have to be mutually exclusive!) It revels in ear-catching colors and displays an insatiable curiosity for unique sound combinations. (Several of his compositions feature electronic accompaniment, giving them a delicious, digital “sheen.”) It exudes a deep literary sensibility, as well as a fascination with place, memory, sound, and silence. Simply put, it’s amazing stuff.

The affinity for place and memory is particularly evident in Cerrone’s latest album, The Arching Path (available now from In a Circle Records). This release highlights four piano-centric chamber pieces, three of which are inspired by travel—The Arching Path and Double Happiness stem from the composer’s trips to Italy, while Hoyt-Schermerhorn was conceived after many late-night commutes on the New York subway. The centerpiece of the album is I will learn to love a person, an inward-focused song cycle that sets the Twitter-esque poetry of American author Tao Lin. It’s an incredible album overall and definitely one worth checking out. (You can order it on Bandcamp or wherever digital music is sold. It is also available for streaming.)

Chris and I chatting from our respective Zoom “boxes.” (Screenshot used with permission)

A few weeks ago, I had the great privilege to sit down with Chris—albeit virtually, over Zoom—and talk about his new album. Our 45-minute conversation was fascinating and wide-ranging, covering topics from creativity during the pandemic to janky family violins.

Below are excerpts from our discussion, which have been edited for length and clarity:


Kevin McBrien (KM): How have you fared this past year with COVID and lockdown? What has kept you going through this very weird and very strange time?

Christopher Cerrone (CC): It’s extremely strange! I think I have responded to it by just throwing myself into work. I think I’m in a privileged position in a number of ways. Since I’m a composer, we can work in a sense. Of course, not everything is realized on the timeline we’d originally envisioned, but overall, none of my projects—and again, this is a matter of just pure luck—have been fully canceled. Obviously, there’s an enormous psychological toll that it’s taken on everyone, and that’s, I think, universal. But a lot of projects wound up working out really well. I had a percussion quartet with piano [Don’t Look Down, written for Conor Hanick and Sandbox Percussion] that wound up getting a really amazing document over a live stream. I think it would be callous to say that I’ve “benefited” from the pandemic—no one has—but I feel just very, very lucky that everything has worked out the way it has.

Cerrone’s Don’t Look Down, which was composed and premiered during the COVD pandemic.
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